President Abraham Lincoln shortly before his assassination.

President Abraham Lincoln

On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot while he viewed “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. While numerous accounts of that fateful day exist, a May 28, 1865 letter from Dr. Charles Leale is especially moving as Dr. Leale was the first doctor to treat the stricken president. Combined with a diary entry from Horatio Nelson Taft, both the medical response and the human reaction to Lincoln’s assassination are visible.

In his letter, Dr. Leale sets the scene by recounting the traditional occurrence of Lincoln’s assassination. He reports that he “[s]aw Booth enter the box[.] [H]eard the report of the pistol[,] then saw him jump from the box with his draw[n] dagger and rush across the stage.”

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Perhaps conditioned by the recently ended Civil War, Dr. Leale sprang into action. Responding to Mary Todd Lincoln’s calls for help, Dr. Leale ran to the fallen president and assessed the situation. He found Lincoln “in a profound Coma, pulse could not be felt, eyes closed, stertorous breathing.”

Beginning his examination of Lincoln, Dr. Leale initially thought that the president might only be stabbed due to the pooling of blood near Lincoln’s left shoulder. However, the seriousness of Lincoln’s injuries soon became apparent as Dr. Leale examined Lincoln’s head. Placing his finger “completely through the cranium,” Dr. Leale realized that Lincoln’s wound was fatal and so he informed “the bystanders that it was a mortal wound.”

After Dr. Leale’s initial assessment, Lincoln was quickly moved to a house close by Ford’s Theater. Any thought of moving Lincoln back to the White House was quickly discarded as Leale was “afraid he would die while going there.” While at the new house, Dr. Leale stood by Lincoln at the head of his bed while a steady stream of other doctors did what they could to treat the dying president.

A rendering of Lincoln's box at Ford's Theater

A rendering of Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theater

Dr. Leale’s account of Lincoln’s assassination stands in stark contrast to that of Horatio Nelson Taft. Taft, a United States Patent Office examiner, wrote on April 30, 1865 of the raw emotion of Lincoln’s death. From Mary Todd Lincoln’s reaction to descriptions of Thaddeus Lincoln’s “agony of grief,” Taft delves into the human reaction to the president’s death. Perhaps most telling is a quote Taft attributes to Dr. Phineas Gurley: “[I] felt as thought I had been engaged all night in a terrible Battle and had just strength enough to drag myself off the field.”

Both accounts help provide a complete picture of Lincoln’s assassination. Dr. Leale’s calm account of the assistance he provided the stricken president helps illustrate Lincoln’s injuries and the treatment he received. Considering Taft’s recollection of Lincoln’s assassination provides more context to the terrible events of April 14, 1865 as the human reaction is highlighted.