Lincoln Assassination at Ford’s Theatre: First Responder Reports

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | June 6, 2012

June 6, 2012
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An historian, giving advice on the writing of history, remarked simply, don’t: the chances of being mistaken, on any given point, are too great. In this weeks’ coverage of the exciting discovery at the National Archives of the original report of the first doctor to reach President Lincoln after he was shot, an error, it seems, is making the rounds… 23 year old Dr. Charles Leale, some accounts claim, “never spoke or wrote about his experiences again until 1909 in a speech commemorating the centennial of the president’s birth.”  A nice story, but untrue – for just a month after the assassination, Leale handwrote this letter to a friend, detailing every step of that terrible night… 

On the most important night of his life, Charles Augustus Leale – age 23, six weeks out of Medical School, and an Army Assistant Surgeon of Volunteers for all of seven days – went to Ford’s Theatre to see President Lincoln. He had heard that Lincoln would be attending the April 14th performance of Our American Cousin and wanted, he said, to behold the face of the “Savior of his Country.” He was delighted, then, when Lincoln passed by him on his way into the Presidential Box.  “His face was perfectly stoical; his deep-set eyes gave him a pathetically sad appearance,” he recalled years later. “The audience seemed to be enthusiastically cheerful, yet he looked peculiarly sorrowful, as he slowly walked with bowed head and drooping shoulders toward the box. I was looking at him as he took his last walk.” Leale’s crucial role in the terrible events which followed is exhibited here, in pages taken from his eyewitness account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. They detail how on hearing a shot, followed by calls for a doctor to come forward,  he vaulted over the seats as he made a direct line through the excited crowd to the President’s Box, the first physician to arrive.

…saw the President sitting in the arm chair with his head thrown back. On one side was Mrs. L. and on the other Miss Harris. The former was holding his head and crying bitterly for a surgeon while the others . . . were standing crying for stimulants, water, etc., not one going for anything . . . I sent one for brandy and another for water, then told Mrs. L. that I was a surgeon, when she asked me to do what I could. He was then in a profound coma, pulse could not be felt, eyes closed, stertorous breathing…

Dr. Charles Leale, Union Army Assistant Surgeon of Volunteers and first responder in Lincoln assassination
Charles Leale. Library of Congress.

Young Leale immediately took charge, but could tell at once that the  President was as good as dead. “His wound is mortal,” Leale pronounced. “It is impossible for him to recover.”

Scholars, no doubt, will want to compare the National Archives official report, in the hand of copyist, with this more intimate autograph account, detailing – minute by minute, second by second, blow by blow – what Leale saw, did, and thought.  It differs from the official version, for instance, in explaining what Leale was doing at the theater in the first place; how he saw Booth enter the box; that as Mrs. Lincoln held the stricken President and cried for help, no one around her did a thing; and that Leale wanted to take the President back to the White House but was afraid he would die in route – and besides, the presidential carriage couldn’t be found in the street. Nor does this account, like the National Archives’, end with the President’s death, but rather, with Leale observing the conspirators in court. “A very inferior looking set of men,” he noted. “They all look as if they did not have any hope.”

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.

Autograph Letter Signed,  8 pages, octavo, Square, U.S. Army General Hospital, Washington, D.C., 28 May 1865, to Dr. Dwight Dudley of Maine. Seemingly the earliest autograph account, by Leale, of Lincoln’s assassination.

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