The Jewish Doctor at Lincoln’s Deathbed

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | April 14, 2017

April 14, 2017
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“There can be no new Lincoln stories,” Lincoln confidante and biographer Noah Brooks pronounced in the New York Times in 1898, “the stories are all told.” Little be it for us, or any, to refute such authority – but here is proof, rare though it may be, that there is still something new to be learned about Lincoln. It refers to the fateful night of April 14th, 1865. This remarkable letter, by a witness and participant, tells that story of Lincoln’s assassination as it unfolded, and contributes a fact unknown until now. The first doctor called to Lincoln’s deathbed, was a Russian Jew, Charles Henry Liebermann.

No one was sure about the shot. There were 1,700 people in the theater that night; most thought it was part of the play. Those on stage believed it came from the audience, or backstage. Backstage, everyone thought the prop man dropped this or that. It wasn’t until the assassin staggered across the stage, waving a bloody knife, shouting incoherently, and Mrs. Lincoln, in the State Box above, screamed hysterically, that the scene was revealed.  Lincoln’s head drooped, oddly, on his chest. Major Rathbone, the Lincolns’ guest, gushed blood as his fiancée, Miss Clara Harris, called desperately for a doctor. Who, exactly, rushed to Lincoln’s side, and why, is the subject of a letter recently acquired by the Shapell Manuscript Foundation.

“When Miss Harris exclaimed, ‘For God’s sake, go for a surgeon!’,” medical student (and Treasury Clerk) Samuel Koontz accounted just ten days after witnessing Lincoln’s assassination by the actor John Wilkes Booth, “I immediately run up street, got Dr. Liebermann up who was soon present…”

Dr. Charles Henry Liebermann, Jewish first-responder at Lincoln assassination
Dr. Charles Henry Liebermann. Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

That Samuel Koontz ran to fetch the Russian-born Jewish ophthalmologist and orthopedic surgeon 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 theater.  Running full out, the 23 year-old Koontz could have gotten there, literally, in a minute.

Having “run up 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 now, 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 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 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 Liebermann – 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, 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 – 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.

The Last Hours
Dr. Liebermann, standing, 6th from the left. "The Last Hours" by Alonzo Chappel. Chicago History Museum.

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 all was over, clipped hair, that morning, from Lincoln’s head, near the wound. This is important to know, and important, too, that we did not know.

Anti-Semitism may well have minimized Liebermann’s role in American memory. His profession disliked “foreigners,” which often meant “Jew.”  And while his talent, hard work, and generosity would seem, ultimately, to have won out, he was still depicted in the most famous image of Lincoln’s deathbed, Alonzo Chappel’s 1867 painting, “The Last Hours of Lincoln,” as half- hidden in the crowd – and not looking anything like himself. But be that as it may: Liebermann is recorded for posterity as one of the nine physicians who had really been there and attended. Perhaps, too, the murkiness of Chappel’s painting, and the slightly altered prints made of it, owe something to the fact that those who visited the dying president subsequently “posed” for the painting by having their photographs taken at Mathew Brady’s studio. Liebermann’s legendary brusqueness, had he not wished to take the time to pose for a photo to be used as a model for a painting, and later a print, may be imagined.

Liebermann died in 1886, greatly mourned.


[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

SAMUEL JACOB KOONTZ. 1841-1870. Lincoln Assassination eyewitnesses who fetched Dr. Charles Henry Liebermann to Lincoln’s deathbed, where the eminent Jewish ophthalmologist and surgeon attended, throughout the vigil.

CHARLES HENRY LIEBERMANN. 1812-1886. Jewish Latvian-born Washington D.C. ophthalmologist, surgeon, and founder of Georgetown’s Medical School. He attended, first on the scene, Lincoln’s deathbed vigil.

Of Related Interest:

CHARLES AUGUSTUS LEALE. 1842 – 1932. Union Army physician who, as a newly-minted Assistant Surgeon of Volunteers, was the first person at Ford’s Theatre to come to the aid of the mortally wounded Lincoln.

First Responder: The Eyewitness Account of Lincoln’s Assassination By the Doctor Who Treated Him at the Scene. [Lincoln Assassination] Autograph Letter Signed, by Charles A. Leale, 8 pages in all, octavo, Armory Square, U.S. Army General Hospital, Washington, D.C., 28 May 1865. To Dr. Dwight Dudley.