- 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
The President was indeed almost dead—he was paralyzed, there was no pulse in his wrists, and he drew breaths only at long intervals. Leale laid him on the door and with a penknife cut his collar and coat away around the shoulders and neck. He ran his fingers through the hair until he came upon a clot of blood behind the left ear. He removed the clot and inserted the little finger of his left hand into the smooth opening as far as it would go. With the hole open for blood to ooze from, the breathing became better.
At this moment a second doctor. Charles Sabin Taft, also twenty-three years old, arrived. Through the confusion that reigned in the theatre—the cries of “Kill him!” “Lynch him!” “Water!” “A surgeon!”—Taft had bounded out of his seat in the orchestra, leapt onto the stage, and half scrambled, half was lifted up over the railing into the box, where he joined Leale. Desperate, realizing he had perhaps only seconds now. Leale straddled the long, lean body, his knees on the floor on each side of the hips. He bent forward, opened the mouth, and firmly pressed down and forward the back of the tongue, which was blocking air from getting down the windpipe. He directed Dr. Taft to raise and lower the arms while he himself pushed upward with his hands against the diaphragm, putting all the strength of his fingers into massaging the chest above the silent heart. There was a sucking in of air, three gulps, then stillness again. Now Dr. Leale leaned down with his mouth sealed lip to lip against the President’s. Again and again he drew in his own breath to the bursting point and forced it with all his might down into the paralyzed lungs. After mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, he tried mouth-to-nostrils and, working on like a straining athlete, aching and stubborn, once more mouth-to-mouth. All at once he realized that Mr. Lincoln was inhaling by himself. The heart was stirring, just barely, but there was a faint, irregular flutter.
Leale stood up. “His wound is mortal,” he said. “It is impossible for him to recover.” Then he added: “We must get him to the nearest bed.” Now, before the move was attempted, a diluted spoonful of brandy was poured between the President’s lips, and it was swallowed. This would be done three times more during the evening; thus it happened that the last sustenance that passed into Lincoln’s stomach was alcohol, which he had avoided all his life, saying it made him feel flabby and undone. He was beyond any feelings now, nor could he see or hear in the slightest degree as Laura Keene, the play’s leading lady, arrived in the box with a pitcher of water and begged emotionally to be allowed to hold the President’s head in her lap and bathe his temples. Mrs. Lincoln, who was usually so jealous that she disliked seeing another woman engage her husband in conversation, was now so absorbed in her loud sobs that she made no objection. The actress sat on the floor, bending intimately over Lincoln’s upturned face as, oblivious to the red stains spreading on the skirt of her elaborate satin dress, she tenderly and uselessly sprinkled and patted.
Two other doctors had been in the audience and had joined Leale and Taft in the box. They were Dr. Africanus F. A. King, twenty-four, so named because of his father’s admiration for the Dark Continent, and Dr. Charles A. Gatch, who had served through the war with the armies of General Rosecrans. Now Dr. Leale directed Dr. King to lift the President’s left shoulder, others raised the rest of the body, and Leale himself supported the head. Thus Abraham Lincoln began his final journey in life. Slowly, struggling, the group edged out of the never-to-be-forgotten box, past the dress circle, down the stairs, into the lobby of the theatre, and out onto Tenth Street. Now a passage through the stunned and staring crowd was being cleared by soldiers.
Young Henry Safford, who headed the property returns division in the War Department, had been out celebrating the war’s end for five wild nights in a row, and tonight he was tired enough to stay home and doze in his stuffed chair over a good book. The nap turned out to be a short one. At about ten thirty a sudden noisiness across the street exploded into the angry yells of a riot. Jolted awake, Safford saw people streaming from the theatre doors, and it seemed to him they were acting peculiarly, hitting and even kicking each other. “Are they all mad?” he wondered. He threw open his window. He shouted, “What’s the matter?” and got the immediate answer: “The President has been shot!”
Safford hurled himself clown the narrow stairway, lighted a candle, and went to the front doorway. Halfway across the street a knot of men moved directly toward him. He heard a voice asking, “Where shall we take him?” and then heard what he realized was his own voice crying, “Bring him in here!”