- 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
Through the night Welles sat quietly beside Lincoln’s bed; later he described the scene in his extraordinary diary. “The giant sufferer lay extended diagonally across the bed,” Welles began. ”… His slow, full respiration lifted the clothes with each breath that he took. His features were calm and striking. I had never seen them appear to better advantage than for the first hour, perhaps, that I was there. After that, his right eye began to swell and that part of his face became discolored.”
On the night of the assassination, Andrew Johnson was staying at the Kirkwood House, at Twelfth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and in the middle of the night Stanton sent for him because he thought the Vice President should make an appearance at the dying President’s bedside. Johnson had been there only a very few minutes when word came from the front room that Mrs. Lincoln wanted to pay another visit to her husband. It was quickly agreed that Johnson must be got rid of first, as Mrs. Lincoln despised him so. The Vice President went back to his hotel with a guard and spent the rest of the night excitedly walking up and down his room saying, “They shall suffer for this! They shall suffer for this!” Mrs. Lincoln never stopped believing Johnson was somehow mixed up in the assassination plot. A year later she wrote in one of her violent letters: "… that miserable inebriate Johnson. He never wrote me a line of condolence and behaved in the most brutal way. … As sure as you and I live, Johnson had some hand in all this.”
Lincoln’s gay, witty assistant private secretary, John Hay, was another of Mary Lincoln’s pet dislikes. Once she had questioned the cost of the grain that Lincoln’s secretaries’ horses were eating in the White House stables, and when she economized by getting rid of an employee, she wanted Hay to turn over to her for her personal use the money the employee would have been paid. “The Hell-cat,” Hay said of her, “is getting more Hell-cattical day by day.” But when the terrible news reached him this April evening, he hurried to the Petersen house and several times during the night attempted to comfort the distraught First Lady.
Benjamin B. French, the Commissioner of Public Buildings, first incurred Mrs. Lincoln’s wrath on the same subject over which she had fought with Hay—money. French refused to manipulate the White House expense account and cover up for her when she overran her decorating allowance by thousands of dollars. At the Petersen house French controlled his true feelings, sought out Mrs. Lincoln in her front room, and took her hand. But privately, in his diary, he set down in verse what he really thought of her. She
As the visitors came and went, the doctors kept up their frantic fight to do something, anything—probing the wound to keep it bleeding, trying to warm the President’s cold body, trying to remember to put clean towels over the blood-soaked pillows whenever Mrs. Lincoln appeared, to save her the horror that transfixed everyone else. At 11:30 P.M. a great protrusion of the President’s right eye was noted, and for the next twenty minutes there was twitching on the left side of his face. At five minutes before one o’clock, Lincoln began making a struggling motion with his arms. His chest muscles stiffened, his breath held, and then finally exhaled as the spasm passed. Twice during the night the Lincolns’ pastor, Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, prayed, and everyone in the room got down on his knees. At a quarter to two and again at three o’clock, Mrs. Lincoln made visits to the bedside. She wept piteously, throwing herself upon her husband’s body, begging the doctors to kill her and let her join him. Putting her face close to Lincoln’s, she pleaded, “Love, live but one moment to speak to our children—Oh, Oh that my little Taddy might see his father before he died.” A spell of loud, rattling breathing by the President frightened her, and with a piercing shriek she fell fainting to the floor. Stanton ordered: “Take that woman out and do not let her in again!” As she was led down the hall, Mrs. Lincoln cried, “Oh, my God, and have I given my husband to die!” It was the last time she would see him alive.
Finally dawn came. It was Saturday morning, the fifteenth of April. As the end drew near Dr. Africanus King—a young Englishman with a flare for telling words—made notes. At 6:25, Lincoln’s breaths were “jerking.” At 6:40, “the expirations prolonged and groaning,—a deep, softly sonorous cooing sound at the end of each expiration.” At 6:25, “respiration uneasy and grunting, lower jaw relaxed.” Then, “a minute without a breath, face growing dark.” At seven, “still breathing at long pauses.” Now Dr. Gurley left Mrs. Lincoln in the front parlor and entered the death room.