- 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
He watched the bearers struggle to negotiate the stoop’s abrupt right angle by giving the President a quick hoist to a higher level. The man in the lead climbed backward, reaching out with both hands to grasp his particular share of the attenuated, endlessly mounting figure—the head, it proved to be, by the candle’s flicker. Obviously in authority, this first hunched climber gave the command, “Take me to your best room!” Henry Safford led the way to a small sleeping apartment straight back at the end of the firstfloor hall and stood holding his candle up near the ceiling. It would be much harder in the dark, the trying not to let the President’s arms dangle, the trying not to land him with a bump, the fumbling and feeling with so many fingers to get the overcoat spread quilted-satin-side down over the bare chest. Somehow, Henry Safford’s tiny glow held, and he used it to light the single gas jet which was to provide not only the greenish illumination that intensified every horror of the night, but for good measure a furious hissing, maddening in its persistence.
The best room was a sort of shedlike extension with a roof that sloped from a high right-hand wall to a low window on the left. It was shabby, but Safford knew that the carpet was swept and that there were clean sheets on the low walnut cottage bed. William T. Clark, the young boarder whose modest room this was, took meticulous care of his few possessions.
The four doctors in the room dismissed the other twentyone bearers, and again led by Safford, the men left with their lungs full of air almost druggingly sweet from lilacs blooming in the yard outside the window.
Once again Dr. Leale, the young surgeon who had carried Mr. Lincoln’s head, spoke urgently to Safford, telling him to get wash boilers of water boiling on the cookstove in the kitchen and to search for bottles, any kind of bottles he could find that could be filled with hot water and put next to the President’s legs.
The doctors now stood helpless beside the rumpled figure on the bed, gaining time to think by murmuring that they must let the President rest after the exertion of being carried across the street. They knew he had lost both blood and brain matter on the way; how much could never be measured, for the red dribble had been churned into the mud of Tenth Street by the half-hundred boots of his bearers. Their patient lay ominously still and out of kilter, exactly as he had been set down, knees bent and the soles of his high boots pressing hard against the footboard. Nothing was going to do any good, but it was unthinkable to do nothing, even while waiting for the messengers sent earlier from the theatre by horseback and on foot to nearby hospitals for mustard plasters, hot-water bottles, army blankets, and brandy.
Suddenly Dr. Leale had an unreasonable desire. Hc was a high-strung young man, and by virtue of having been the first to enter the theatre box after John Wilkes Booth’s shot, he could give the orders now. Hc had just had the sickening experience of wiping from palms and fingers with a towel the blood and seeping brain matter that had stained his hands as they supported Lincoln’s head, with its bullet wound down behind the left car, in the interminable crossing of Tenth Street. Now, though he knew his patient was totally unconscious, like a fussy nurse he wanted to make everything nice, to get the President into a comfortable position lying exactly in the middle of the mattress, under sheets with no wrinkles. “Break off the end of that bed.” he ordered, and the other doctors wrestled with the sturdily built spool-turned rungs. The walnut held like cast iron. The only alternative was to arrange the six-foot-four-inch body diagonally, with the feet sticking out over near the wall. The head was moved over next to the door and settled on two overhanging pillows which would soak up blood for several hours at least before they could take no more. Then the red puddle would begin to form on the worn Brussels carpet below, but right now the room was still immaculate.
The next step was obvious. Perhaps there was a stab wound somewhere on Mr. Lincoln’s body, in addition to the hole made by the bullet. Everyone in the theatre had seen the shining dagger that Booth had flourished back there on the stage. It was imperative that the doctors make an examination, immediately. Rut the four men seemed suggestible to the paralysis of their charge. They moved with such sluggish deliberation that they were still agreeing that they must act quickly when there was a burst of excitement at the front of the house.
Mrs. Lincoln was making the journey across Tenth Street, almost unrecognizable as the First Lady who had curtsied so happily two hours before at her husband’s side when the audience rose, cheering and waving handkerchiefs, to the thrilling sound of “Hail to the Chief.” All her delicate southern-belle femininity gone, she dug the heels of her evening slippers into the manure-spattered soil in exaggerated paces, whirled and pulled along her escort, Major Kathbone, as though he were weightless.