Sing Karaoke + Eat Chinese Food in the Building Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination was Plotted
April 13, 2023 @ 2:00pm
History can happen anywhere — even at your neighborhood karaoke joint, sushi spot or just a building you pass on your way to the Metro.
In the early dawn hours of April 15, 1865, authorities searched an inconspicuous house in downtown Washington, D.C. on a tip from a local witness, they were in hot pursuit of John Surratt Jr. for his participation in the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, shot by John Wilkes Booth just hours earlier. Surratt was on his way to evading arrest across the border in Canada, but the house and its legacy live on today at 604 H St. NW.
Today, the building is home to Wok and Roll, a karaoke bar and restaurant serving Japanese and Chinese cuisines. Nestled between an alley and a pho restaurant in the heart of D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood, it’s easy to walk by without noticing the plaque by the door that indicates the building’s unique history.
In 1864, Mary Surratt turned the eight-bedroom building into a boarding house to earn money after her husband’s death. Between September 1864 and April 1865, Booth and fellow conspirators met several times there to plan the assassination.
Indeed, the National Register of Historic Places records indicate that Booth met with Mary Surratt at the boarding house at 9 p.m. that night. Approximately one hour later, he fired a bullet into President Lincoln’s head. The rest, of course, is history.
“The building is not only significant to the story of the Lincoln assassination, [but also] to what Civil War Washington was really like,” says Jake Flack, deputy director of education at Ford’s Theatre. The war stoked a significant population surge in Washington, D.C., spurring a need for hotels and boarding houses like the one Mary Surratt owned. As historian and author John DeFerrari notes, the building is typical of the structures that used to fill many downtown D.C. neighborhoods — and there are not many left that predate the Civil War.
As a Confederate sympathizer, moving into D.C. to run a boarding house didn’t just make financial sense for Mary Surratt. It was also an opportunity to “get her family out from under the microscope of the Union Army [in Southern Maryland, and] into Washington where they could blend in,” says historian and biographer Kate Clifford Larson.
Though not the only place that the assassination conspirators met prior to the murder, the unassuming boarding house run by a white, middle-class widow became an ideal place for Booth, Surratt Jr., Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt to convene regularly.
“Even looking at the streets today, you can almost imagine this going on and how it was possible without people knowing ahead of time,” Larson adds.
In early April 1865, the mood on the streets between the boarding house and Ford’s Theatre five blocks away would have been noticeably bright as the Civil War neared its end.
“For four years, there was a constant underlying fear that the city would be attacked,” Flack says. “By April 10, when the city realized that a surrender had happened, there was a huge city-wide celebration.”
President Lincoln arrived at Ford’s Theatre on April 14 amid that sense of relief, though that shared joy would be dramatically cut short hours later when his assassination shocked the country.
For her part in the crime, which President Andrew Johnson described as having “kept the nest that hatched the egg,” Mary Surratt became the first woman executed by the U.S. federal government. Afterwards, the building at 604 H St. NW was sold at auction to help pay off the Surratt family’s debts. Over the years, it underwent stints as an illicit bottle supply company during Prohibition and as a political campaign office. Wok and Roll opened there in 2001.
As DeFerrari says, “That such a casual place was where the great plot to assassinate Lincoln was refined shows that deep history is lurking where you least expect it.”
Wok and Roll: 604 H St. NW, DC; wokandrolldc.com // @wokandrolldclife
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