April 24, 1865

A Lincoln Assassination Eyewitness Runs for Charles Henry Liebermann, the Jewish Doctor Who Attended Lincoln's Deathbed

Autograph Letter Signed
8 pages
SMC 2388
Who screamed what, in the terrible commotion that followed the shot, is uncertain. Mrs. Lincoln, some say, cried out first - or maybe it was the restaurateur in the Dress Circle, or a 16 year-old boy. Of the seventeen hundred people in Ford's Theatre that night, came seemingly as many reports. A loud clack; a puff of smoke; a scuffle. The crowd was silent; it erupted in pandemonium. A man staggered across the stage, waving a bloody knife, shouting something; Mrs. Lincoln screamed hysterically; the President's head drooped, oddly, on his chest. Lincolns' guest, Major Rathbone, gushed blood, as his fiancée, Clara Harris, called desperately for - a doctor. Who, exactly, rushed to Lincoln's side, and why, is the key of this riveting eyewitness account...

"When Miss Harris exclaimed, 'For God's sake, go for a surgeon!'," Treasury Clerk Samuel Koontz writes here to a friend just ten days after witnessing Lincoln's assassination by the actor John Wilkes Booth, "I immediately run up the street, got Dr. Liebermann up who was soon present..."

That Samuel Koontz ran to fetch the Russian-born Jewish ophthalmologist and orthopedic surgeon - who, amazingly, specialized in crossed eyes and clubfoot - is indicative not only of Liebermann's longtime prominence in the Washington medical community, but Koontz's knowledge of the neighborhood. He knew that the surgeon lived a scant 2 blocks from the theatre - a three minute stroll away. Running full out, the 23 year-old Koontz could have gotten there, literally, in a minute. (How Koontz knew, exactly, where to go, would seem to stem from his study of medicine in Washington. Liebermann, in addition to his practice, taught Surgery at Georgetown - and Koontz would, in fact, become a surgeon.)

Having "run up the street" to get Liebermann, Koontz then placed him at the Lincoln's side. "Together with other distinguished doctors", he reports, Liebermann assisted in treating the unresponsive Lincoln - whom, alas, "the highest medical skill could not save." This is not news. Liebermann was known to be present at the deathbed vigil. What was not known, until this letter, is when he arrived. Koontz's account, which is corroborated by the earliest of "First Responder" Charles A. Leale's letters on the subject (May 28, 1865, also in the Shapell Manuscript Collection) put Liebermann on the scene just after the quartet of doctors in the audience at Ford's Theatre - Leale, Taft, King and somehow, Gatch - managed to move Lincoln's unconscious body from the Presidential box to a room in the Petersen House across the street. The process, fraught with difficultly, took about twenty minutes to accomplish. Leale says that Lincoln was "completely insensible from the time that he was shot until he breathed his last. They tried to give him a small quantity of brandy but he could not swallow it." "They", however, had names: Provost-Marshal James O'Brierne and Liebermann. When O'Brierne, officially present at Petersen House throughout the ordeal, arrived there, he not only found Liebermann attending the President, but was ordered by him, excitedly and vehemently, to fetch brandy. The potion procured, Liebermann attempted to pour it down Lincoln's throat as O'Brierne held his head. That, then, was the scene Leale described.

Surgeon General Barnes, his assistant Crane, and Lincoln’s own doctor, Dr. Stone, duly arrived about 20 minutes after the comatose Lincoln was placed in bed (no easy task, that: at 6'4, he was too tall for it.) Their arrival - after Leibermann - reflected, after all, the longer distances they had to travel from their homes.

Once there, Stone took charge of the case assisted, to hear tell, by every doctor in Washington - of which there were some 200. In truth, only about 57 people visited the dying President and, inasmuch as the room was 9 1/2 feet wide and 17 feet long, and had in it chairs and a bureau and a bed (on which Lincoln did not fit) - no more than a dozen people were in the room at any one time. Such medical men as felt compelled to come by, were allowed to take Lincoln's pulse, but forbidden to go near the wound. Liebermann, however, stayed in the room the entire night. As Washington's leading ophthalmologist, his presence was imperative: Lincoln's eyes protruded from their sockets and were suffused with blood.

Perhaps, then, it was in mute acknowledgement of his primacy at the scene - the first eminent doctor to arrive - that at end of the grueling vigil, it was given to him to clip, from the area around the wound, a lock of Lincoln's hair. This he presented to Surgeon-General Barnes (who, soon afterward, would give a lock of hair, at her request, to Mrs. Lincoln.)

In the world of Lincoln studies, every detail is precious. The news that Liebermann was the first "important" doctor to attend - discounting the gaggle of doctors (seven in all) from Ford's theatre - is significant. He was the first to treat him. He stayed in that tiny room all night, and when was over, clipped the hair, that morning, from Lincoln's head, near the wound. This is important to know, and important, too, that we did not, until now, know all...

Anti-Semitism may well have minimized Liebermann's role. His profession disliked "foreigners", which under the circumstances, meant "Jew." And while his talent, hard work, and generosity would seem, ultimately, to have placed him at the forefront of Washington's medical establishment, his crucial - indeed, primary - presence at Lincoln's death-bed, has been, somehow, relegated to the shadows.
 ~ 
 Finally, a quick word about Liebermann, and Koontz. Charles Henry Liebermann was born in Riga, a Russian Jew, in 1812. His father was a banker, his education very careful; still, at University, involved in revolutionary activities, he was duly jailed, promised Siberia, sprung at the last minute by his family, and shipped to Berlin. A brilliant student, he took a medical degree. On route home to Riga in 1840, he stopped in Hamburg, spied an American ship and, just like that, decided to travel; he landed in Boston, visited New York, went to see the Capitol - and stayed. In Washington, he built a reputation curing crossed-eyes and club feet. He also taught Surgery, served in and as President of the local Medical Society and, seeking to expand opportunities, founded Georgetown's Medical School. For decades, he was Washington's leading ophthalmologist. Liebermann died in 1886, greatly mourned.

Samuel Jacob Koontz, born in Pennsylvania in 1841, may have been some sort of prodigy. He went to Union College in New York, got appointed a clerk at Treasury - and studied theology, law and medicine, becoming in fact, somehow, an accomplished surgeon. He also was a Professor at Gettysburg College - and a polyglot. It would seem as if anything he decided to do, he mastered. Unfortunately, around the age of 27, he started to drink. Within two years he had become an inveterate, unrepentant, and hopeless drunk, frequently jailed - and so died, not quite 30, of alcoholism, in prison.
Quite a pair. [Lincoln Assassination: eyewitness Samuel J. Koontz] Autograph Letter Signed in hand of Samuel Jacob Koontz, 8 pages, quarto, Treasury Department,  April 24, 1865. To blacksmith William Weaver of Dillsburg, Pennsylvania
Read transcript Bookmark