The Anniversary of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | April 14, 2015

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"Assassination of President Lincoln, Ford's Theatre, Washington, April 14, 1865" Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZ62-4608.

“April 14th.” Odd, about the date.  How it bookends three-quarters of a million deaths. The first to fall, and the last. On April 14, 1861, Private Hough stood too close to a canon. On April 14, 1865, President Lincoln went to Ford’s Theatre.

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, for a split second, silent; then, 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. It was 10:15 p.m., and the first president of the United States had just been assassinated.

I.

On this, the happiest day of his life, and his last, Abraham Lincoln met with his cabinet, savored victory, planned peace, pardoned lives, shared a recurrent dream from the night before – and thought, for a moment, about a box of lost dresses.

At first, a few months ago, the woman – Matilda Ritchie Stone, the wife of the Lincolns family physician – had just wanted an order to pass a package to her sisters in Richmond. Now however,  she, and her sister, wanted a pass to go down themselves. Writing Lincoln with “the greatest reluctance,” Dr. Stone explained that delivery of the box had stalled at Fort Monroe.  “My wife & her sister… are almost frantic, to go on,” he said “& see to the wants &c, of their dearly loved family.”

Lincoln, who had not been married to Mrs. Lincoln for 22 years for nothing, immediately acquiesced.  He of all men could sympathize with another busy man whose wife was in a tizzy over missing dresses and frantic to attend to her family: he wrote then, this pass for “Mrs. Dr. Stone”, on April 14th

Allow the bearer, Mrs. Dr. Stone, Mrs. Gittings, and a gentleman, escort, to pass to Richmond, Va., visit their friends there, and return.

If, as is thought, Lincoln wrote or signed no more than a dozen things that day, then this simple pass may well prove the most interesting. Not because it was important, but because it was not. It is, though, revelatory – and portentous.

In it, outright, is exemplified the core truth of Lincoln’s nature. He was, in his own eyes, unexceptional.  Intrinsically egalitarian, his standard was the golden rule. He may be President; he may be, at long last, victorious; he may be pressed all day with urgent business of the highest order. But when someone asked him to think, for a moment, about a small thing, important chiefly to themselves, and do what he could, within his power, to make it come right: he did.

Now, a century and a half later, when everything about Lincoln that April 14th has come to be viewed through the prism of his martyrdom, details are magnified. Portents of providence are readily seen – in, even, this 26-word pass:

…In a few hours Lincoln, who had taken care of Mrs. Stone, would himself be taken care of by her husband.  Dr. Stone would be called to Ford’s Theatre immediately after the shooting, attending the President at his death-bed until the very end.

…A “Mrs. Gittings” (Mrs. Stone’s sister) is also named in the pass.  Charlotte Ritchie Gittings was the wife of Baltimore banker and railroad president John Gittings who, during the Baltimore Plot of 1861, rescued Mrs. Lincoln and her sons from a hostile mob, and brought them to safety into his home. Lincoln said he owed her, and her family, a debt.

No portent, however, was as clear as the one Lincoln himself experienced. On the 14th, he told his Cabinet a curious dream he had the night before – a dream, he said, which he had preceding nearly every great and important event of the war.  “I seemed to be in some indescribable vessel,” he said, “moving with great rapidity toward an indefinite shore.”  It presaged, he was sure, that they should have “great news” very soon.  And they did:  within hours, Lincoln was dead, assassinated.

"The Last Hours" by Alonzo Chappel. Chicago History Museum.

II.

Dr. Robert King Stone, having been summoned immediately to the tiny boardinghouse bedroom where Lincoln lay, found there, a brain-dead gunshot victim.

The pages shown here, from Stone’s seven-page narrative of Lincoln’s deathbed and autopsy, detail the doctor’s dramatic rush to the stricken President’s side, and, some eight hours later, Lincoln’s final minutes, decline, and death. This last page, notably, is stained with human blood; it is, very likely, Lincoln’s.

On the evening of Friday, April 14, I was summoned in haste to the late President of the United States, to whom I had the honor to be family physician…  I then found, that the president had been carried to the residence of Mr. Peterson… so great was his stature that his body had to be placed obliquely across it… I found him surrounded by sympathizing fellow citizens whose very hands seems wrung with love – but who, in spite of the exasperating ugliness of the act – still controlled the longing of their aroused passions and maintained a discreet silence around his humble couch… I proceeded to the exploration of the wound.… Examination showed that he had rec’d a gun shot wound on the posterior aspect of the head…

… As remarked before, the President’s condition, was very much dependent upon the state of flow from his wound.  As long as the discharge of blood was free and steady – though in a small stream, his respiration and sleep were composed, but in a few moments, after the orifice of the wound was plugged, it impeded the difficulty of respiration… If I made slight pressure on the scalp and occipital below the orifice of the wound, there would spring from the aperture a coagulum of blood, or a fragment of disengorged brain tissue per saltum. The flow would then be steady… and almost instantly… his pulse… would then gradually improve…

[followed by record of pulse, in five minute increments]

. …6.30   State failing and labored breathing at this time the least touch of his body surface, would cause and electric jerk through body;

7. Pulse and respiration failing much

7.22. Death closed the scene.  He slept.”

ABRAHAM LINCOLN. 1809 – 1865. The 16th President of the United States.

MARGARET RITCHIE STONE. The wife of Robert King Stone, Lincoln family physician the during the White House years and attendant at the President’s death-bed and autopsy.

ROBERT KING STONE.  1822 – 1872.  The Lincoln family physician during the White House years. He also attended at the President’s death-bed and autopsy. His wife had sisters  in Richmond.