- 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 twenty-two minutes past seven o’clock Dr. Taft’s hand, pressed upon Abraham Lincoln’s chest, felt that great heart throb one last time and then go still. The Surgeon General, Dr. Joseph Barnes, touching the carotid artery, felt the last thrust of blood, as did Dr. Leale, who held the right wrist pulse. All night long Leale had held Lincoln’s hand “so that in his darkness he would know he had a friend.” Now the darkness was absolute.
The fullest account of that terribly sad, historic moment was made by James Tanner, a legless corporal who lived next door and who had been summoned to take down testimony through the night for Stanton. ”… His stertorous breathing subsided a couple of minutes after 7 o’clock. From then till the end only the gentle rise and fall of his bosom gave indication that life remained. The Surgeon General was near the head of the bed, sometimes sitting on the edge, his finger on the pulse of the dying man. Occasionally he put his ear down to catch the lessening beats of his heart. … Dr. Gurley stood a little to the left of the bed. Mr. Stanton sat in a chair near the foot on the left … I stood quite near the head of the bed and from that position had full view of Mr. Stanton, across the president’s body. At my right Robert Lincoln sobbed on the shoulder of Charles Sumner. Stanton’s gaze was fixed intently on the countenance of his dying chief. The first indication that the dreaded end had come was at twenty-two minutes past seven, when the surgeon general gently crossed the pulseless hands of Lincoln across the motionless breast and rose to his feet. Rev. Dr. Gurley stepped forward and lifting his hands began ‘Our Father and our God’ … As ‘Thy will be done, Amen’ in subdued and tremulous tones floated through the little chamber, Mr. Stanton raised his head, the tears streaming down his face. A more agonized expression I never saw on a human countenance as he sobbed out the words: ‘He belongs to the angels now.’ ”
As Mrs. Lincoln left the Petersen house to be driven back to the Executive Mansion, she stood a moment beside her carriage and cried. “That dreadful house! That dreadful house!” A few minutes later the body of her husband was carried out and placed in a hearse, the coffin wrapped in a star-spangled flag. Then, with measured tread and arms reversed, the little procession moved away—a lieutenant and ten privates. Slowly up Tenth Street to G the horses pulled the dead President back to the While House. Meanwhile, far from regarding it as an honor 10 have Abraham Lincoln die in his boardinghouse, landlord William Petersen was in a black temper. Even before Mr. Lincoln's body had been removed. Petersen had advanced to the bed, seized one of the bloodstained pillows from beneath the head of the recently expired President, and hurled it angrily through the window into the yard. He soon made loud explanation. His house was a mess: all that blood and mud underfoot, unwashed basins and bottles piled up, and dozens of old leaking mustard plasters littering the hall. What was worse, he had read in the paper that the President had died in a tenement. He would let that paper know, and soon, that his was one of the most respectable dwelling houses in Washington.
For a few days after the murder, people talked a lot about what they had seen, and blew up scraps of information and guesswork, for the thrill of dabbling in a real-life mystery. There had been nearly two thousand people in the theatre, more than ninety over in the death room, and twenty-five who had borne the body. From all these conflicting accounts the story of that terrible night was emerging crazily.
Eight of the bearers insisted that theirs had been the honor of carrying the head. One, a New York grocer on a sight-seeing trip in Washington, announced that he had run up and supported an elbow, had moved along with his other hand on Lincoln’s pulse, and recalled giving the weeping crowd the news that the injury would be fatal. Another bearer remembered that the president had sagged in the middle until two men were assigned to reach beneath him and push upward—he had been a pusher. As a third told it, the victim had made the trip extended perfectly flat on a shutter wrenched from a theatre window. One of the most positive recollections had Lincoln transported sitting upright in the rocking chair in which he had failed to rock out of range of John Wilkes Booth’s huge bullet.
The picture of Booth’s escape from Ford’s Theatre was given earnestly, and with bewildering variations.
Booth had put one hand on the box rail, vaulted over it, and sailed through the air the twelve feet to the stage. As he jumped, his right spur had turned the framed engraving of Washington completely over and had snagged the blue Treasury Guards flag festooned around the front of the box: a shred of the the blue material fluttered behind his heel all the way. Booth had risen, flourished his dagger, shouted, "Sic semper tyrannis!" and strode out of sight.