- 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
"… Dr. Woodward and I proceeded to open the head and remove the brain down to the track of the ball. The latter had entered a little to the left of the median line at the back of the head, had passed almost directly forwards through the center of the brain and lodged. Not finding it readily, we proceeded to remove the entire brain, when, as I was lifting the latter from the cavity of the skull, suddenly the bullet dropped out through my fingers and fell, breaking the solemn silence of the room with its clatter, into an empty basin that was standing beneath. There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger—dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world’s history as we may perhaps never realize.”
Now, the autopsy done, undertaker Dr. Charles D. Brown of Brown and Alexander took over. (Three years before, Brown had prepared the body of little Willie Lincoln, doing such a handsome job that Lincoln twice had the coffin opened to look upon his son’s face.) Andrew Johnson, who had just been sworn in as the new President of the United States by Chief Justice Chase at the Kirkwood House, entered the room and watched briefly. Brown and his assistant drained Lincoln’s blood through the jugular vein. Then they made a cut on the inside of the thigh and through it force-pumped a chemical preparation which soon hardened the body like marble. The face was sinned except for a short tuft left at the chin. The eyes were closed, the eyebrows arched, the mouth reset in the slight smile that had been on the President’s face when he died.
As the undertakers worked, Dr. Curtis suggested to Surgeon General Barnes, who was also in the room, that Lincoln’s brain be weighed. Again Dr. Curtis describes the scene: "… silently, in one corner of the room, I prepared the brain for weighing. As I looked at the mass of soft gray and white substance that I was carefully washing, it was impossible to realize that it was that mere clay upon whose workings, but the day before, rested the hopes of the nation. I felt more profoundly impressed than ever with the mystery of that unknown something which may be named ‘vital spark’ as well as anything else, whose absence or presence makes all the immeasurable difference between an inert mass of matter owing obedience to no laws but those governing the physical and chemical forces of the universe, and on the other hand, a living brain by whose silent, subtle machinery a world may be ruled. The weighing of the brain … gave approximate results only, since there had been some loss of brain substance, in consequence of the wound, during the hours of life after the shooting. But the figures, as they were, seemed to show that the brain weight was not above the ordinary for a man of Lincoln’s size.”
Now Lincoln’s body was covered with a white cloth, and a fine cambric handkerchief was spread over his face. Upon the pillow and over the breast were scattered white flowers and green leaves. Guards were posted at the door, and the doctors began to pack up and leave.
Later in the day Stanton supervised the clothing of the body—from the black suit Lincoln had worn at his second inauguration to a low collar and small bow tie and white kid gloves. Stanton decided that the dark putty color under Lincoln’s eyes and down his cheeks would be left there for posterity. It was, he said, “part of the history of the event.”
While Our American Cousin was being performed at Ford’s, a gala production of Aladdin! or His Wonderful Lamp was under way a few blocks away at Grover’s Theatre. Just before a moment in the Aladdin extravaganza where a man was supposed to tumble to the stage from a balloon, the manager stepped to the footlights to announce that President Lincoln had been shot. For a moment there was silence, then a voice called out that it was a trick of pickpockets to set the audience in a panic. But suddenly a boy sprang from his seat and went shrieking—“like a wounded deer,” the papers later said—to the theatre’s door and out.
Twelve-year-old Tad Lincoln had been taken to Grover’s Theatre that evening by White House doorkeeper Alphonso Donn, a great favorite with the Lincoln family. Now he was driven home, where his other doorman friend, Tom Pendel, tried to calm his fears and comfort him. About midnight Pendel got the boy up to his father’s room, undressed him, and lay down on the trundle bed beside him till he dropped off to sleep.
When she returned to the White House the next morning, Mrs. Lincoln refused to enter either her own bedroom, in the southwest corner of the second floor, or Mr. Lincoln’s, next to it. She finally chose a room with no memories which she had fitted up for the President so that he could do some writing there during the summer. The shades were lowered, and Mary Lincoln got into bed and began an endless tossing and sobbing. Tad had run weeping to meet her as she got out of the carriage and buried his face in the folds of her dress, and he now stood terrified at the foot of his mother’s bed, watching her as she lay very near convulsions.