Lincoln Assassination Eyewitness Recalls Running to Fetch Dr. Liebermann Who Attended Lincoln's Deathbed

April 24, 1865

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Lincoln Assassination Eyewitness Recalls Running to Fetch Dr. Liebermann Who Attended Lincoln's Deathbed
Autograph Letter Signed
8 pages | SMC 2388

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      Background

      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
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      Treasury Department,

      Office of Internal Revenue,

      Washington,  April 24th, 1865.

      My Dear Friend,

      It may not be uninteresting to you, to get a letter from Washington just at this time.

      I presume you have heard all manner of stories in relation to the murder of our beloved President, so I write for the purpose of letting you know the truth about this terrible tragedy. I was present at the Theater and saw it all, in fact I was only about 15 ft. from the President when he was shot, although he was in a private box in the Theater.

      Since you have not been in the habbit [sic] of attending theatres very much lately it may not be out of place for me to try and give you an idea what 

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      a private box is, this I can do the best by giving you an example - take the "Franklin Church" for instance, (although it is not near so large as this theatre) now imagine in the gallery, at the gable end where the pulpet [sic] is, and to the left of the minister, a partition made about 10 ft from the wall leaving the front open so that, those inside can see the minister; this partition has a little door in it, so as to let the people in. Now this is just the position of the box in the theater where Lincoln was shot. Lincoln when he came in, had a pleasant smile for all, they cheered him, and the band struck up "Hail Columbia." Little did I think that when I would next behold him, he would be cold in the arms of death. Lincoln, & his wife[,] Miss Harris, & Major Rathbone, were all

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      who were in the box. Booth, went through the door of the box, told the man who was Lincolns [sic] servant at the door, that Lincoln had sent for him. A number of persons saw him go in, but no one supposed he was going in to kill the President. In less than a minute after he went in, I heard the report of the pistol & saw him jump out of the front of the box, down upon the stage, which was at least 12 ft., brandishing a large dagger knife, and running across the stage exclaiming, "sic semper tyrannis", this is the latin [sic] motto of the state of Virginia, and means, "thus always with tyrants." just as he leapt from the box, all was quiet, no one knew at first what was the matter, then at the second thought, the whole audience sprung upon their feet & shouted "Kill him!

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      kill him! kill him! Miss Harris exclaimed "the President's shot." one man I believe run after Booth but he had no pistol - he saw him jump on a horse which he had ready, behind the theater. Major Rathbone had a tussle with him in the box, but he stabbed Rathbone in the arm with his big knife and got loose. I immediately rushed into the box, when Miss Harris exclaimed, "for Gods [sic] sake go for a surgeon." I immediately run up street, got Dr. Lieberman [sic] up who was soon present, together with other distinguished surgeons, but alas! the assassin had done his crime too well and all the highest medical skill could not save the life of the patriot, the statesman, the Christian, the martyr, - Abraham Lincoln. The murder took place about half past 10 oclock in the evening

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      at precisely the same hour some man entered Sewards [sic] house, said he was sent there by Sewards [sic] Doctor, and got into the room, where Seward was in his bed, (his arm which was broken a few weeks ago, still kept him confined to his bed,) he cut Seward all over the face & neck, intending to cut his throat, but one of Sewards [sic] servants rushed at him, and in his tussle with the servant, he failed in his object, - he stabbed the servant very badly, then at the door met Fred. Seward, a son of the Secretary of State, and with a sling shot broke his skull, so they have since taken a piece out, and at the same time almost killed Major Seward, another son, and a private soldier, who was a nurse of Mr. Sewards [sic]. He fought his way through them all, and then jumped on a horse and galloped off, but thank 

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      God they have caught him, and now have got him on a gunboat. They could not keep him in prison an hour, the people are too much excited they would break it open and hang him without judge or jury.

      Booth I am sorry to say, has not yet been caught. He is still at large just as likely as not sculking [sic] about Pennsylvania, perhaps in York County. If you see anything of him I wish you would have him put into the York or Gettysburg jail, then I will see to it that in less than 5 days you shall Two hundred thousand dollars. You can't make more than that at your trade. But without joaking [sic], Booth is just as likely to be in York County as anywhere else. and if you see a suspicious character about 5 ft 8 inches in hight [sic], black hair & eyes

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      good looking &c have him arrested, it won't hurt anyhow, they have I presume arrested over two hundred persons for Booth and as soon as they find out they are wrong they let them go. The government has had 500 Pictures taken of Booth and are sending them over the country, so that persons can tell him by his picture if they should see him. I have been so far only able to get one picture which I have sent to William Fickle, or I would send you one. In about 20 minutes after Lincoln was shot, they carried him across the street into a private house where he died the next morning at precisely 22 minutes past 7 oclock. He never spoke a word after he was shot; but laid perfectly unconscious until he died.

      On Tuesday the corpse could be seen by all at the White House and on Wednesday 

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      the largest funeral the world has ever known took place here. It took over 2 hours for the procession to pass. You have of course seen a description of the funeral in the papers, so it will be needless for me to give it now.

      I write to give you the truth, I know how likely you are to be imposed upon in the country by all kinds of stories. Don't believe them, every word I have told you is true & what I have omitted is not worth knowing. Yes I will tell you a little more, Booth shot the President with a single barrel pistol, the ball entered the head about 2 inches behind the left ear, and it lodged about three inches deep into the head towards the forehead. The pistol was found in the box. I must close I would like to write a little more but I have not time now. You see it was written in a hurry.

      Good bye,

      S. J. KOONTZ