A Day that Changed American History
By Roxanne Beatty and Jill L. Newmark
This week, Circulating Now marks a pivotal event in American history with a short series of posts. 150 years ago on April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in a crowded theater in Washington DC. On April 15th he died and an autopsy was performed. Several doctors supported Lincoln in his last hours but no medical intervention could prevent his death and bystanders could only watch and wait.
Abraham Lincoln woke up early the morning of Good Friday, April 14, 1865 and began his day having breakfast with his wife and sons. It was just a short five days since Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox and the mood in Washington was jubilant. Soon Lincoln would be meeting with his cabinet and going through the daily responsibilities of being President. A short distance away at the National Hotel, John Wilkes Booth was beginning to stir from his sleep. He would soon wake, get dressed and eventually make his way to Ford’s Theater, not unusual for this well-known stage actor. And so started a day that would change American history.
President Lincoln spent much of that Friday meeting with his cabinet and spending time with old friends from Illinois. Earlier a message had been sent to Ford’s Theater letting them know that the President and his wife would be attending that evening’s performance of Our American Cousin starring Miss Laura Keene.
John Wilkes Booth had gone to Ford’s Theater that day to pick-up his mail, a courtesy extended by the theater to traveling actors. While there, he overheard the news that the President would be attending the theater that evening. Booth knew this would be an ideal time and place to put his plot to kill the President in motion. Not only was Booth quite familiar with the layout of the theater, he was knowledgeable about the play’s scenes, the duration of the play, and how many actors would be on the stage at any given moment.
The news spread quickly that Lincoln would be at the theater that evening and many people made plans to attend. Charles A. Leale, a 23-year old assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army had hoped to obtain a seat in the orchestra that evening, but instead was seated in the dress circle, only “40 feet from the President’s box.” Another surgeon, Charles Sabin Taft had also decided to spend the evening at the theater and found a seat in the orchestra where he would have a good view of the President.
By the time President Lincoln and First Lady Mary Lincoln arrived at Ford’s Theater with their guests Major Henry Reed Rathbone and his fiancée Miss Clara Harris, the play had already begun. As Lincoln entered his box, the audience rose to their feet, the performance stopped and the band began to play “Hail to the Chief.” After acknowledging this warm reception, Lincoln took his seat and the play resumed.
John Wilkes Booth had spent the evening ironing out the details of the assassination plot with his fellow conspirators. He had a drink at a local saloon before making his way to Ford’s Theater. Booth entered the theater and climbed the stairs to the President’s box. The guard who had been posted at the door was missing and Booth had very little trouble gaining entry. He had carefully chosen this moment during Act III, Scene 2 of the play, as he knew it would elicit much laughter from the audience and muffle the gunshot. As soon as the actor on stage delivered his line, Booth stepped forward, raised his pistol and shot the President in the back of the head at point-blank range. But it did not take the audience long to realize that some harm had come to the President.
Upon hearing the gunshot, Major Rathbone immediately turned to Booth and attempted to stop him, but Booth drew his knife and slashed at Rathbone causing a serious, deep wound to his arm. Booth leapt to the stage and was easily recognized by the stunned audience. With his knife in hand, he shouted out, “Sic Semper Tyrannis” and fled the theater through the back stage door, escaping on horseback.
A distraught Mary Lincoln held the President, while Major Rathbone, bleeding profusely, went to remove the obstruction Booth had placed in front of the door to block entry to the President’s box. The first doctor to reach Lincoln was assistant Army surgeon Charles A. Leale. As he approached the box, he identified himself as an army surgeon and was admitted as soon the door was opened. He found Mrs. Lincoln holding the president upright in his chair. Mrs. Lincoln exclaimed “O Doctor, do what you can for him, do what you can.” The president was comatose and his breathing intermittent. Leale asked for assistance in laying the President down and noticed a blood clot near his left shoulder. Assuming he had been stabbed like Major Rathbone, Leale made a quick examination of Lincoln’s body, but found no stab wounds. He proceeded to examine Lincoln’s head and soon discovered and cleared a blood clot on the left side behind the ear. Leale passed the little finger of his left hand through the opening made by the bullet, and found it had entered the brain. As soon as he removed his finger, Lincoln’s breathing became more regular. In Leale’s 1909 recollection of the events that evening, he describes how at one point Lincoln “did not then revive…and I assumed my preferred position to revive by artificial respiration.” After accessing the President’s wound, Leale pronounced, “His wound is mortal; it is impossible for him to recover.”
Several other doctors came into the box to assist the President including Dr. Albert Freeman Africanus King and Dr. Charles Sabin Taft. Taft had been seated in the orchestra of the theater and upon hearing a call for doctors, moved to the stage and was lifted up to the box. He found Lincoln on the floor surrounded by several men including Dr. Leale. Taft, Leale, and King conferred together about the President’s condition and decided it was best to move him from the theater to the closest home rather than move him to the White House, a journey they felt he could not survive.
Carefully lifting Lincoln, they carried him down the stairs and out the front door of the theater. According to Dr. Leale, he assigned Dr. Taft to carry the President’s right shoulder, Dr. King to carry his left shoulder while he held Lincoln’s head. A sufficient number of other individuals were enlisted to assist in supporting the President’s body. Lincoln was taken across the street to a boarding house owned by William Petersen where his condition slowly deteriorated throughout the night and into the next morning. President Lincoln’s personal physician, Dr. Robert King Stone, had arrived at the Peterson house soon after the President was moved and took over his care. Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes and Dr. Charles Henry Crane also arrived and according to Dr. Leale, Barnes “held his finger to the carotid artery” while “Col Crane held his head, Dr. Stone who was sitting on the bed, held his left pulse, and his right pulse was held by myself.” Drs. Leale, Taft, King, Stone, Barnes and Crane continued their watch over the President throughout the night.
Those who kept vigil at Lincoln’s bedside knew the end was near. In Dr. Taft’s “Notes of the circumstances attending the assassination of Abraham Lincoln,” he recalls that with his “hand upon the President’s heart” and his “eye upon the watch of Surgeon General Barnes,” the President took his last breath “at 21 minutes and 55 seconds after 7, the heart ceasing to beat at 22′, 10″ past 7.” The President was dead.
Tomorrow on Circulating Now: Lincoln’s Last Hours. Learn more about the scene at the Peterson house and those who gathered to be near Lincoln as he died.
Roxanne Beatty is a Technical Information Specialist for the Web Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.
Jill L. Newmark is an Exhibition Specialist for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.