By 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.
On the night of April 14, 1865, a lone assassin shot the President of the United States at point-blank range during an evening performance at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. That evening, John Wilkes Booth made his way into the theater and to the box where President Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary Lincoln, and two guests, Major Henry Rathbone and Miss Clara Harris were enjoying a performance of Our American Cousin. Pulling out a single-shot, derringer pistol, Booth aimed the gun, pulled the trigger and fired a bullet at the President’s head. Many of us know the details of what occurred at Ford’s Theater that night, but what transpired after the fatal shot was fired and during the many hours before the President succumbed to his wounds?
Among the many accounts of that evening is one by physician Charles Leale, an assistant surgeon with the U.S. Army and the first physician to reach Lincoln after he was shot. Seated in the dress circle of the theater, not far from the Presidential box, Leale heard the gunshot and saw assassin John Wilkes Booth leap to the stage snagging his spur on the draped flag. As shouts rang out that the President had been murdered, Leale rushed from his seat to the President’s box. “When I entered the box,” Leale recounts, “Mr. Lincoln was seated in a high-backed arm-chair with his head leaning towards his right side supported by Mrs. Lincoln who was weeping bitterly.” Leale took charge of the President’s medical care and immediately began to assess his injuries. He was soon joined by physicians Charles Sabin Taft and Albert F. A. King. After consulting together about the President’s condition, the three physicians decided it was best to have Lincoln moved from the theater to the nearest house.
Under the direction of Dr. Leale, the President was carried out of the theater and taken across the street to the home and boarding house of William A. Petersen. Carefully navigating the front steps, they entered the house and laid Lincoln down on a bed in a back room on the first floor. Leale called for the windows to be opened for fresh air and the room cleared of all but physicians, family and friends. Lincoln’s clothes were immediately removed and blankets used to cover his body and warm his lower extremities that had gone cold.
As the news of the fatal shooting of Lincoln spread throughout Washington, members of Lincoln’s cabinet and other government officials made their way to the Petersen house. Gideon Welles, then Secretary of the Navy, arrived at the house along with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. In his diary entry for April 14th, Welles describes the scene upon his arrival, “The giant sufferer lay extended diagonally across the bed, which was not long enough for him. He had been stripped of his clothes. His slow, full respiration lifted the clothes with each breath that he took. His features were calm and striking.” After about an hour’s time, “his right eye began to swell and that part of his face became discolored.”
“The President made no noise, nor attempted to speak, nor stirred a limb after he was shot nor was he conscious for one moment from that time until he died.”—Horatio Nelson Taft
Dr. Robert King Stone, Lincoln’s family physician, also arrived that evening at the request of Mrs. Lincoln. After examining the President, Stone quickly determined that “the case was a hopeless one.” He informed the small group of family and friends holding vigil at Lincoln’s bedside, “that the President would die; that there was no positive limit to the duration of his life; that his vital tenacity was very strong, and he would resist as long as any man could, but that death certainly would soon close the scene.”
While her husband lay dying in the backroom, a grieving Mary Lincoln remained in the front parlor room surrounded by a few friends. She visited her husband several times during the night while their oldest son, Captain Robert Lincoln, kept a vigil by his father’s bedside. During the evening, a distraught Mrs. Lincoln sent a messenger out to find Elizabeth Keckley, her seamstress and confidante. Anderson R. Abbott, an African Canadian physician who served as the surgeon-in-charge at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, offered to escort his close friend Mrs. Keckley to the Petersen House. Abbott described those brief but intense moments at the house, where he observed the dying President in one room “while his companion [Mary Lincoln] was lying in an adjoining room prostrate with anguish.” Abbott would later visit the White House to view the President’s body, expressing the “great sorrow that weighed heavily upon his heart, for…the loss to the negro race in their nascent life of freedom, of the great guiding hand that now lay paralyzed in death.”
During the long night and into the early morning hours, Lincoln’s friends and cabinet members came to pay their respects. Most did not linger, but some remained steadfast including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and several surgeons who had been attending to the dying President throughout the evening. They kept a steady vigil at the President’s bedside. At 7:22 A.M the next morning, Lincoln breathed his last breath. The somber silence that had filled the room was broken only by the words of Secretary Stanton: “Now he belongs to the ages.”
After Lincoln died, his body was placed in a temporary coffin covered with the American flag and returned by hearse to the White House where an autopsy was conducted and funeral preparations were begun. Many of the people outside, who had kept vigil throughout the night, found their way inside the Petersen house to catch a glimpse of the place where their beloved President had died. On that fateful night in April 1865, a simple family owned boarding house, became the resting place for a dying President and a symbol of the pain, sacrifice and sorrow of the American Civil War.
Tomorrow on Circulating Now: The Lincoln Autopsy. Learn more about the autopsy of President Abraham Lincoln.