On 10 June 1893 newspapers broke a story tragic enough to push aside sensational news coverage of the infamous Lizzie Borden case—the day before, a section of Ford’s Theater had collapsed in Washington, D.C., killing more than 20 and injuring three times that number.
Ford’s Theater, best known as the location of Lincoln’s assassination, was bought by the government a year after the murder and converted into the Army Medical Museum and offices for the records portion of the War Department. When the museum moved to a new location some 20 years later, the Office of Records and Pensions expanded to fill the whole building. In 1887, Colonel Fred C. Ainsworth became head of the offices, and though apparently disliked for being demanding and strict, he began updating the building, adding new heating and plumbing systems.
Then, in 1893, Ainsworth ordered the installation of an electric light plant in the basement. The plant required a portion of the basement to be dug up, which made it necessary for the basement’s brick support piers to be braced as the dirt around them was excavated. On 9 June, one of the piers gave way, probably due to inadequate bracing. Because of the architecture of the building, when this pier collapsed, it took a forty-foot section from all three stories down with it, sending dozens of clerks tumbling to their injury or death. Also lost in the collapse were irreplaceable Civil War pension records.
Soon after, a coroner’s inquest was held to determine the culpability of Ainsworth, the contractor, the superintendent of the building, and the mechanical engineer. The most sensational of these inquests was Ainsworth’s, and newspapers carried stories of the frequent uproar and disorder that attended the inquest. Ainsworth was found guilty of criminal negligence, but although the district attorney pursued a case against him, it didn’t last long. The results of the coroner’s inquest were found to be unreliable and there wasn’t any evidence that Ainsworth knew the building was unsafe.