- 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
Once in the hallway she flounced away from hands outstretched to help her and cried wildly, “Where is my dear husband? Where is he?” She walked past two locked rooms on the left, to the bed where she saw him lying with his boots still on. The doctors asked her to leave while they made an examination, and she allowed herself to be led back toward the entrance.
Young, red-haired Major Rathbone was unexpectedly taking up most of the hallway space, extended full length on the floor and unconscious from loss of blood. The messy wound in his left arm had bled in livelier spurts after the punishment of being wrenched this way and that during the street crossing with Mrs. Lincoln. While Clara Harris made arrangements for a carriage to be brought through the crowd to drive her betrothed back to the Harris home, strenuous efforts were made to find somewhere for the First Lady to sit down.
There was no time to search for keys to the locked rooms, so their doors were broken open with heavy kicks and an onslaught of ramming shoulders. The front room that looked across at the theatre was chosen as Mary Lincoln’s refuge during the long night. It was an exceptionally prim parlor, furnished with black horsehair-covered chairs and sofa, a slippery, unyielding sofa on which the wife—when morning came, the widow—lay and gave herself up to spasms of sobbing that reverted unprcdictably to deafening screams.
In about twenty minutes now the Lincolns’ family doctor and the Surgeon General of the United States—as well as members of the Cabinet, who were being sought out all over the city of Washington—would arrive. Soon after, there would come tiptoeing into the President’s nine-by-seventeen-foot room more doctors, making sixteen in all, and a changing parade not only of chiefs of department but senators, congressmen, army officers, personal friends, the four other boarders in the Petersen house and their landlord, Mr Lincoln’s son Robert and his mother’s circle of comlorters, actors from the interrupted Our American Cousin, and just plain people who had slipped in somehow to watch Abraham Lincoln die. More than ninety individuals would pass in and out of the death room during the night, filling it to the choking point, pressing against the bed, weeping, kneeling to pray. Uncounted others, nameless, would slip into the confusion of the hallway like restless sleepwalkers, every so often escaping the delirium to let those keeping vigil out on Tenth Street know it would not he long now.
This was all in the future, as, in comparative peace in the cramped space provided—with only Mrs. Lincoln’s lamentations in the front room and the snoring, jerky breathing of the patient to unnerve them—the four medical men began their futile ritual.
They undressed the President, beginning hy pulling off his high party-going boots, size fourteen. Mr. Lincoln’s shirt had been slashed into strips of white cotton and its collar hacked away completely. There was a cuff button bearing the graven letter L. Its link had been broken as the button was wrenched with urgency from its lost mate.
When Mr. Lincoln lay naked on the bed, the physicians jointly examined every inch of him. There was one old scar on his left thumb, two small scars in his scalp, well hidden among the black locks. He was unharmed except for that brutal thrust through his head.
There would be disagreements among the four doctors as to the right treatment to pursue, and their versions of what happened on the death night would vary startlingly. There was total agreement always on the astonishment they all felt at that first sight of Mr. Lincoln’s extraordinary physique.
They were familiar with the dark, brown face, weatherworn and crisscrossed with lines, and they knew that Old Abe’s neck, too, was leathery and wrinkled: the “old” in his nickname was apt. The stunning surprise was that the fifty-six-year-old President’s body was that of a much younger man and was unbelievably perfect. The beautiful proportions, the magnificent muscular development, and the clear, firm flesh were all the more astounding because the visible man had given no clue. Charlie Taft pointed out that there was not one ounce of fat on the entire frame. Charles Leale was something of a student of classical sculpture, and he remarked immediately that the President could have been the model for Michelangelo’s Moses: he had the same massive grandeur.