The Lincoln Autopsy
By Jill L. Newmark and Roxanne Beatty
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 April 15, 1865 at 7:22 am, President Abraham Lincoln died from a single gunshot wound to the head. After the President’s death at the Petersen house, his body was placed in a temporary coffin covered with an American flag and transported by hearse to the White House. Lincoln’s body was laid out in a second floor bedroom where two years before, his son Willie had died. It was in this very same room that the autopsy of the President would occur. Among those present were Army surgeons Joseph Janvier Woodward and Edward Curtis who would conduct the autopsy and Surgeon General Joseph Barnes and Dr. Robert King Stone who would preside over the procedure.
In a letter to his mother, Dr. Edward Curtis described the scene: “the room…contained but little furniture: a large, heavily curtained bed, a sofa or two, bureau, wardrobe, and chairs…Seated around the room were several general officers and some civilians, silent or conversing in whispers, and to one side, stretched upon a rough framework of boards and covered only with sheets and towels, lay—cold and immovable—what but a few hours before was the soul of a great nation.”
At 12 o’clock noon, Drs. Woodward and Curtis began the autopsy. In Woodward’s report documented in the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, he observed that:
“There was a gunshot wound of the head, around which the scalp was greatly thickened by hemorrhage into its tissues. The ball entered through the occipital bone about one inch left of the median line and just above the left lateral sinus. It then penetrated the dura mater, passed through the left posterior lobe of the cerebrum, entered the left lateral ventricle, and lodged in the white matter of the cerebrum just above the posterior portion of the left corpus striatum, where it was found.”
After locating the small bullet, Dr. Curtis described how as the brain was lifted out of the skull cavity:
“…the bullet dropped out through my fingers and fell, breaking the solemn silence in the room with its clatter, into an empty basin that was standing beneath. There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger—dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world’s history as we may perhaps never realize.”
Dr. Stone, Lincoln’s family physician, was entrusted with the bullet and bone fragments, and instructed to deliver them to Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. They were placed in an envelope, marked with Dr. Stone’s private seal and the delivery made.
Sometime during the autopsy, several locks of hair were removed from the President and given to his wife, Mary Lincoln as well as Surgeon General Barnes and several other surgeons who were present. When the autopsy was completed, Lincoln’s body was embalmed and prepared for burial. He was dressed in a black suit that he had worn to his second inauguration only a month earlier. On April 18, 1865, the President lay in state in the East Room of the White House, his coffin placed on a catafalque and the mirrors in the room covered with black mourning crepe. When the White House gates were opened that morning, thousands of people who had waited in long lines outside, made their way into the White House to pay their last respects to their beloved President.
Jill L. Newmark is an Exhibition Specialist for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.
Roxanne Beatty is a Technical Information Specialist for the Web Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.