- 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
Some said that the blue flag had not been draped around the box, but had been on a stall that stood straight up against the box's central pillar, and that Booth managed to flip his spurred heel up there and make the tear, then grasped the flagpole, slid down its length, and dropped to the stage. In another version. Booth rode the rail first as though it were a saddle, and his gait as he crossed the stage was a slow limp. He also coasted down the front of the box as though he were sledding, ran at top speed to the exit opposite, and didn’t say a word. He landed on his hands first, he was hurt dreadfully, he went by moaning with pain. He soared fifteen feet from a crouched position, sauntered slowly to the footlights as though he were part of the troupe, flashed his knife blade in the gaslight, hissed "Sic semper tyrannis!" with deathly pale fate and eyes glittering, almost emitting fire, turned and with defiantly unhurried gait stalked off the stage.
There were two especially far-out variations. In one, Booth hopped across the stage like a toad and the blue cloth hopped along just out of time behind him. In the other, he was so completely paralyzed from the fall that his helpers had to throw a rope to him and he was pulled off into the wings.
A young girl eyewitness contributed the fact that Booth had asked her just the day before whether tyrannis was spelled with two t’s or two n’s. She agreed with the versions of Booth’s swift escape, but added an extra morsel—the maddened crowd had heaved her up on the stage, and in a half faint she realized the actor who played Lord Dundreary was fanning her with his wig.
The stories of the President’s last moments in the death room over at the Petersen house were just as baffling and fuzzy. To some in the room Lincoln’s breathing was a frightening thing—a deep snoring, a wild gurgling. To others, it had a musical quality—Stanton likened it to an Aeolian harp.
There were watchers by the bedside who heard not a sound of any kind: the President left the world after long, agonizing minutes of utter silence. The only way of knowing it was all over was to watch the donors with their fingers over the heart, the big artery in the neck, and the two wrist pulses. When they darted looks at each other of question and then agreement, Dr. Barnes made the announcement.
Some said that Stanton rose from his knees, smoothed Lincoln’s eyelids, and pulled down the window shades. Maunsell B. Field. Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, said convincingly that right at that time he noticed that Mr. Lincoln’s eyes were not quite closed, so he smoothed and closed them.
Now comes a real and fascinating conflict. Dr. Leale recounted, “Then I gently smoothed the President’s contracted facial muscles, took two coins from my pocket, placed them over his eyelids, and drew a white cloth over the martyr’s face.”
Thomas McCurdy Vincent of the War Department claimed it was he who smoothed Lincoln’s eyelids and placed the coins. He wrote, “Soon after eight the devoted War Minister had ordered all to be arranged for the removal of the body to the Executive Mansion and left me as his representative until the transfer should take place. It was about this time that pressing and smoothing the eyes of the dead President, I placed coins on them to close them for a last long slumber.”
These two statements made Colonel George V. Rutherford angrily indignant, because it was he and he alone who had placed the coins on Lincoln’s eyes. He resolved to produce as evidence something a little more convincing than the mere words of honorable men. He would get up an exhibit of the very coins themselves that he had placed, silver half dollars dated 1851 and 1861, and he would use scaling wax and impressive ribbon and get the signed certification of a man no one could question. The man was General Daniel H. Rucker of the Quartermaster’s Department, whose soldiers escorted Lincoln’s body home from the Peterscn house; General Rucker officially received it into the White House, and ordered it placed for the autopsy.
As the claims and counterclaims flew, as the stories of that terrible night were told and retold, the President’s body lay in the Guest Room at the northeast corner of the second floor of the White House, resting upon two boards laid across trestles. There, at eleven o’clock on Saturday morning, the autopsy was begun.
First, the top of the President’s skull was sawed straight around on a line above his cars so that the top could be lifted off. Two pathologists from the Army Medical Museum did the actual work—Assistaut Surgeon J. Janvier Woodward and Assistant Surgeon Edward Curtis. Young Curtis movingly described the scene.