Ford was born in Baltimore, and was the son of Elias and Anna (née Greanor) Ford. His ancestors were early Maryland settlers and some of them took part in the American Revolution. For a few years he attended public school in Baltimore and then became a clerk in his uncle’s tobacco factory in Richmond, Virginia. Not caring for this work, he became a bookseller. He then wrote a farce dealing with contemporary life in Richmond, entitled Richmond As It Is, which was produced by a minstrel company called the Nightingale Serenaders. This farce was fairly successful, and George Kunkel, the owner and manager of the Serenaders, offered him a position with the organization. He accepted, and for several seasons traveled as business manager of this company throughout the United States and Canada.
In 1854, he assumed control of the Holiday Street Theatre, Baltimore, which he managed for twenty-five years. Later, he built the Grand Opera House in that city in 1871.
Ford also was responsible for creating three theaters in Washington, D.C. He opened his first theatere on Tenth Street in 1861. After it was destroyed by fire the following year, he rebuilt the structure on the same site and called it Ford's Theatre. He was the manager of this highly successful house at the time of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Ford was a good friend of Lincoln's assassin John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor, and drew further suspicion upon himself by being in Richmond, Virginia (until April 2 1865 the capital of the just defeated Confederate States of America and a center of anti-Lincoln conspiracies) at the time of the assassination on April 14. An order was issued for his arrest and on April 18, Ford was arrested at his Baltimore home, which he had reached in the interim. His brothers James and Harry Clay Ford were thrown into prison along with him. John Ford complained of the effect his incarceration would have on his business and family, and offered to help with the investigation, but Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton made no reply to his two letters. After thirty-nine days, the brothers were finally fully exonerated and set free since there was no evidence of their complicity in the crime. The theater was seized by the government and Ford was paid $100,000 for it by Congress. Due to the treatment accorded to him following the assassination, Ford remained bitter toward the United States Government for decades.
During his career, Ford also managed theaters in Alexandria, VA, Philadelphia, Charleston, SC, and Richmond. It was at the Richmond Theatre, in 1857, that Edwin Booth, then under Ford’s management, first met Mary Devlin, whom he later married. Joseph Jefferson was then the stage manager and a member of the company of this theater, as was Dion Boucicault. Ford also managed a great number of traveling as well as resident companies, which included the greatest stars, and actors of his generation. He had a reputation for being honest and honorable in his numerous business dealings. For instance, during the H.M.S. Pinafore craze of the late 1870s, he was the only American manager who paid Gilbert and Sullivan a royalty on the opera. This action prompted the authors and their manager, Richard D'Oyly Carte, to allow Ford to produce their next opera in America and to entrust their American business affairs to him; and he leased the Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York City, for the production of The Pirates of Penzance in 1879-1880 and other works thereafter.
For a period of forty years he was an active and prominent figure in civic life. He was connected with many banking and financial concerns, and his business advice was sought and relied on. He was president of the Union Railroad Company, member of the Board of Directors of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, vice president of the West Baltimore Improvement Association, and trustee of numerous philanthropic institutions. In 1858, while serving as President of the City Council, he was made acting mayor of the city of Baltimore, and he filled this position with marked ability. His winning and gracious personality won him a host of friends.
In early 1894, Ford's health declined, but still his death at his Baltimore home of a heart attack during a bout of influenza came suddenly. He left a widow, Edith Branch Andrew Ford, who was the mother of eleven children. Ten of these were still living when he died: Charles, then manager of Ford's Opera House; George S., a treasurer; John, Jr., an advertising agent; Harry M.; Mattie E., an actor; Mrs. James C. Richardson; and the unmarried daughters Lizzie P, May, Lucy, and Sallie. Two days after his death, a funeral was held at his house and officiated by two clergymen from the Central Presbyterian Church of Baltimore, and he was buried in Loudon Park Cemetery.