- Historic Sites
Had there been a Warren Commission exactly a century ago, when Abraham Lincoln was shot, its report might have read like the somber, moving, and impressively researched book from which the following narrative is taken
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
At about ten thirty on the black night of April 14, 1865, a man signalled with a lighted candle from the stoop of Petersen’s boardinghouse in Washington, D.C., and shouted four ordinary words, “Bring him in here!” Opposite, across the street, something far out of the ordinary began to move. Monstrous and many-legged like a centipede, it had just squeezed itself out through the doorway of Ford’s Theatre and now began to crawl in agonizingly slow motion toward the candle’s flame, its many feet moving in weirdly unrelated, out-of-time steps, all struggling for stances in the wheel-rutted and hoof-chopped dirt.
Viewed close up, its true nature became apparent and even more horrifying, for it represented twenty-five soldiers and doctors and bystanders carrying the body of Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States and the first ever to be struck down by an assassin, to the nearest bed. An officer’s sword had opened a path in the crowd that stood transfixed with shock, eyes straining beyond the short flare of three gas jets to glimpse the familiar face. They saw it, wax pale. The President was naked to the waist, but flung lopsidedly over his chest was his overcoat, its collar sticky with new blood.
Twice in Afr. Lincoln’s journey across Tenth Street there was a halt while the surgeon in charge plucked blood clots from down near the roots of hair at the back of the head, opening the mouth of the wound for free bleeding. Whenever the hole became plugged and the red trickle stopped, so did the breathing, almost.
At last, clumsily inching their way by multiple finicky steps up the Peterson stoop, humping their burden and narrowing file to flow through the tight entrance, the bearers vanished from the crowd’s view.
Even as fifty mud-caked boots moved over the oilcloth floor-covering toward the end of the hall where the candle led—entering and filling the modest living quarters of the young soldier who kept them in such apple-pie order—twenty-five stories were born. Twenty-five men would describe and redescribe throughout their days this high point in all their existences—they had helped bear the Union’s martyr from the place of assassination to his deathbed. Out of a life’s ending came the beginnings of a host of conflicting stories, unimportant but persistent, of remembrances both strange and muddled, and of events impressive and much stranger…
The knowledge that he might very easily be assassinated was something Lincoln had lived with for four years before the night he was finally murdered. By the beginning of his second term the threats to his life had increased, and so had the warnings from his friends to be more prudent, not to go about alone.
In 1861 his Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, had declared confidently, “Assassination is not an American habit or practice,” but with Lee’s final defeat he changed his mind, pointed out to Attorney General James Speed that certain individuals among the Southern people would be in a mood of absolute madness and that the President might indeed be killed. He advised Speed to go to City Point, where Lincoln was visiting Grant’s army, and warn him to be careful.
When the Attorney General arrived, the President had already walked several miles through the still-burning city of Richmond; its white residents were invisible inside their houses and only a crowd of Negroes followed Lincoln, trying to kneel in his path and bless him for their emancipation. He made an inviting target, but no one even called out a bad name.
Lincoln was saying in one breath, of his excursion, “I was not scared about myself one bit,” and in another, that it had occurred to him as he walked that a gun could have been aimed from any window along the route. But then, he had said the same of his daily situation back in Washington. “If anyone wanted to kill me, he could shoot me from a window on Seventh Street any day when I am riding out to the Soldiers’ Home. I do not believe it is my fate to die in this way.”
Speed tried to talk to the President about Seward’s fear for him, but reported, “He stopped me at once, saying he had rather be dead than live in continual dread. Any precautions against assassination would be to him perpetual reminders of danger.”
It was not just the Attorney General, it was every caller. No one ever let him forget the subject, and though the President sometimes met it with light banter, at other times his eyes showed his deep depression and betrayed the fact that the continual talk about his possible sudden death had become a torture.
The Secret Service detective La Fayette C. Baker said that whenever he began to bring Lincoln up to date on the latest plots and threats, the President’s manner became playful. “Well, Baker,” he would say, “what do they want to kill me for? If they kill me, they will run the risk of getting a worse man.”
It was the same with his best friend and self-appointed bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, who had gone off to Richmond on a mission three days before the tragedy at Ford’s Theatre. He tried to make Lincoln promise not to expose himself in crowds and especially not to go to the theatre while Lamon was away.