- 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
At about ten thirty on the black night of April 14, 1865, a man signalled with a lighted candle from the stoop of Petersen’s boardinghouse in Washington, D.C., and shouted four ordinary words, “Bring him in here!” Opposite, across the street, something far out of the ordinary began to move. Monstrous and many-legged like a centipede, it had just squeezed itself out through the doorway of Ford’s Theatre and now began to crawl in agonizingly slow motion toward the candle’s flame, its many feet moving in weirdly unrelated, out-of-time steps, all struggling for stances in the wheel-rutted and hoof-chopped dirt.
Viewed close up, its true nature became apparent and even more horrifying, for it represented twenty-five soldiers and doctors and bystanders carrying the body of Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States and the first ever to be struck down by an assassin, to the nearest bed. An officer’s sword had opened a path in the crowd that stood transfixed with shock, eyes straining beyond the short flare of three gas jets to glimpse the familiar face. They saw it, wax pale. The President was naked to the waist, but flung lopsidedly over his chest was his overcoat, its collar sticky with new blood.
Twice in Afr. Lincoln’s journey across Tenth Street there was a halt while the surgeon in charge plucked blood clots from down near the roots of hair at the back of the head, opening the mouth of the wound for free bleeding. Whenever the hole became plugged and the red trickle stopped, so did the breathing, almost.
At last, clumsily inching their way by multiple finicky steps up the Peterson stoop, humping their burden and narrowing file to flow through the tight entrance, the bearers vanished from the crowd’s view.
Even as fifty mud-caked boots moved over the oilcloth floor-covering toward the end of the hall where the candle led—entering and filling the modest living quarters of the young soldier who kept them in such apple-pie order—twenty-five stories were born. Twenty-five men would describe and redescribe throughout their days this high point in all their existences—they had helped bear the Union’s martyr from the place of assassination to his deathbed. Out of a life’s ending came the beginnings of a host of conflicting stories, unimportant but persistent, of remembrances both strange and muddled, and of events impressive and much stranger…
The knowledge that he might very easily be assassinated was something Lincoln had lived with for four years before the night he was finally murdered. By the beginning of his second term the threats to his life had increased, and so had the warnings from his friends to be more prudent, not to go about alone.
In 1861 his Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, had declared confidently, “Assassination is not an American habit or practice,” but with Lee’s final defeat he changed his mind, pointed out to Attorney General James Speed that certain individuals among the Southern people would be in a mood of absolute madness and that the President might indeed be killed. He advised Speed to go to City Point, where Lincoln was visiting Grant’s army, and warn him to be careful.
When the Attorney General arrived, the President had already walked several miles through the still-burning city of Richmond; its white residents were invisible inside their houses and only a crowd of Negroes followed Lincoln, trying to kneel in his path and bless him for their emancipation. He made an inviting target, but no one even called out a bad name.
Lincoln was saying in one breath, of his excursion, “I was not scared about myself one bit,” and in another, that it had occurred to him as he walked that a gun could have been aimed from any window along the route. But then, he had said the same of his daily situation back in Washington. “If anyone wanted to kill me, he could shoot me from a window on Seventh Street any day when I am riding out to the Soldiers’ Home. I do not believe it is my fate to die in this way.”
Speed tried to talk to the President about Seward’s fear for him, but reported, “He stopped me at once, saying he had rather be dead than live in continual dread. Any precautions against assassination would be to him perpetual reminders of danger.”
It was not just the Attorney General, it was every caller. No one ever let him forget the subject, and though the President sometimes met it with light banter, at other times his eyes showed his deep depression and betrayed the fact that the continual talk about his possible sudden death had become a torture.
The Secret Service detective La Fayette C. Baker said that whenever he began to bring Lincoln up to date on the latest plots and threats, the President’s manner became playful. “Well, Baker,” he would say, “what do they want to kill me for? If they kill me, they will run the risk of getting a worse man.”
It was the same with his best friend and self-appointed bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, who had gone off to Richmond on a mission three days before the tragedy at Ford’s Theatre. He tried to make Lincoln promise not to expose himself in crowds and especially not to go to the theatre while Lamon was away.
The President just laughed and remarked to Secretary of the Interior Usher, “This boy is a monomaniac on the subject of my safety.” Lamon was crazy, he said. He wanted Lincoln to sit in his lap all day.
He kept giving people his answers on the touchy subject. “I have received a great many threatening letters but I have no fear of them.” “If they kill me, I shall never die another death.” “I determined when I first came here I should not be dying all the while.” “If anyone is willing to give his life for mine, there is nothing that can prevent it.”
He didn’t believe the knife was yet made or the bullet run that would end his life. “I shall live till my work is done and no earthly power can prevent it. And then, it doesn’t matter, so that I am ready, and that I ever mean to be.”
A black mood could fall upon him without warning and bring remarks like, “I shall never live out the four years of my term. When the rebellion is crushed, my work is done.” In a cubbyhole of his office desk, in fact, Lincoln had two letters which he had tied together and labelled “Assassination.” One purported to be written to a man who had drawn the lot to kill “the monster” and was meant to bolster the killer’s courage. The assassin was to get into the monster’s office, “congratulate him, listen to his stories. …” “Abe must die and now. You can choose your weapons—the cup, the knife, the bullet.”
The President had already barely escaped a bullet. During the summer of 1864, just as he entered the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, riding alone and at night, a hidden marksman had fired at him, but the ball had whizzed through his high hat. He asked that no mention of it be made. “It was probably an accident and might worry my family.”
There was talk around Washington that the cup had been tried too—that castor oil ordered from a pharmacy had arrived deadly with poison, but had had too queer a taste to be swallowed.
In the same category of whispered rumor was the trunk of old clothes taken from yellow-fever victims in Cuba that had been delivered to the White House in the hope that the Lincolns would come down with the disease and that it would be fatal.
A man kept coming to see the President to say he positively knew that a small, square package was being mailed to Mr. Lincoln which would explode when it was unwrapped. Lincoln told him each time, “No package yet, and I promise never to open any small square packages.”
Though the mailed bomb proved a myth, the President regularly received photographs and drawings of himself spattered suggestively with red ink. Usually there was a rope around the neck, stretching up to the branch of a tree. These he minded chiefly because they upset Mrs. Lincoln. She worried constantly over his safety, and he agreed, if it would comfort her, to carry a particularly sturdy cane. But even if he wore a shirt of mail, it would do no good: there were a thousand ways, he remarked, to get at a man if you wanted to assassinate him. He would have to shut himself up in an iron box if he wanted to be really safe.
Explosives had always been prominent in the Lincoln plot scares. Right now, at the war’s end, it was known that an infernal machine was ready to be fastened on crossbars under the presidential carriage—the same one in which Lincoln rode to Ford’s Theatre on the night of the assassination. The train carrying him from Springfield to his first inauguration was to have been blown up as it travelled over a bridge. If by any chance Lincoln was still alive, hand grenades were to have been tossed into his carriage at Baltimore. The President-elect made the last lap of his journey secretly, ahead of schedule, and arrived safely.
On March 4, 1861, came the first swearing-in of an American President under heavy military protection. There were sharpshooters stationed in every window of the two Capitol wings, with their guns trained on the small temporary platform on the steps of the east front. There had been a report that a bomb was set to go olf under this platform, but a search revealed nothing, and Lincoln rose and made his appeal that the country choose peace instead of war.
All the side streets were full of troops, and old General Winfield Scott, who had worked out the plan to guard the President-elect, was only a block away as Lincoln took the oath and kissed the Bible. Scott had expressed himself as determined that Abraham Lincoln should live to be inaugurated, and he considered this the most momentous hour of his long career.
Cavalry officers who escorted the carriage taking Lincoln and Buchanan to the Capitol and afterward to the White House were ordered to spur their animals with pretended clumsiness so that there would be constant unpredictable movement and any bullet fired at the head of the new Chief Magistrate would be apt merely to drill a hole in a horse’s stomach.
No horse was injured on that first inauguration day, but finally, after four interminable years of threats that would have left most mortals raw-nerved, there had been a hole drilled in the head of the man who was, as he had promised to be, ready.
Lee had surrendered at Appomattox on Palm Sunday, April 9. In the five days of the week of peace, the President relaxed and watched the shooting fireworks, laughing when mischievous Tad took time out to wave a Rebel flag behind his father’s back. At meals in the White House Mr. Lincoln was the cordial host to the guests whom his wife delighted to summon with her meticulously written invitations.
A circumspect ordained minister, the Reverend George Buzelle from Bangor, Maine, summed up everyone’s feelings when he wrote his family a letter postmarked City Point, Virginia, April 9, 1865:
Great News!! Lee’s army of Northern Virginia is surrendered—Lee has surrendered—so goes the news. Guns–drums—yells—cheers—shaking hands, general confusion and wildness—hip! hip! hurrah! Bully! Yi! Ge whoop! Keee-ih! Then—just then— our dog Jack came into the tent and I told him to holler but he wouldn’t and I grabbed him by the throat and choked him until he gave a half strangled Yakerwakrrr and I threw him off and knocked the table and upset the lamp and smashed the chimney and set the table in a blaze—whowray!! Yi keeoo Yeep! Keweew!!
Good! Well good night and thank God.
The President’s reaction was more sedate, but his joy was no less real. “I’ve never been so happy in my life,” Abraham Lincoln said in that first week of peace. Long careworn under the burden of the war, suddenly he was erect and buoyant—the President looked grand, absolutely grand, people said. Those who knew him best said that he was not merely happy, he was transfigured with joy over the ending of the war. There were those who looked at Lincoln and looked again and swore they could see a radiance shining from him that was almost physical.
That week after the surrender, Lincoln asked every band he met parading the avenues to play “Dixie” for him: it was, he said, a wonderful song rightfully captured. Now Lincoln could let himself start thinking again of Springfield, of his little brown house out West—there was a good chance he would be going home in four years.
Mrs. Lincoln said his very happiness frightened her, that the only other time he had said, “I have never been so happy in my life,” they had lost their three-year-old Eddie the next day. Besides, Mary Lincoln had examined the verses in the Bible which had been used at her husband’s second swearing-in on March 4 and studied the words at the exact spot where he had kissed the page on taking the oath. It was in Isaiah 5, and the prophet was speaking of the enemies of Israel: “None shall be weary nor stumble among them … Whose arrows are sharp, and all their bows bent, their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind …”
To Mary Lincoln the words were clearly a warning of danger—she must be vigilant and on guard to protect the President: how cruel it was, with all the care she had taken of him, to have this worry now, in peacetime.
The President was anxious for her to get over her nervousness. He felt that close involvement in war was probably too great a strain for any woman. “We must both,” he told Mary, “be more cheerful in the future … we have both been very miserable.”
She would try. She would begin by dwelling on the blessed word peace. That Bible warning might have been helpful five weeks ago, but who would want to commit an act of violence now?
At eleven thirty that Good Friday morning of April 14, 1865, less than eight hours before curtain time, a White House messenger arrived at Ford’s Theatre with the welcome news that the President accepted the management’s invitation to attend that evening’s performance of Our American Cousin. The news was received by James Ford, the business manager. His twenty-one year-old brother Harry, realizing that a presidential visit during the week of national victory was an occasion, personally set about furnishing and decorating the ample space provided by throwing boxes seven and eight together. He used flags, a framed engraving of George Washington, and a set of furniture—a sofa, two stuffed chairs on casters, and a rocking chair that he thought the President would find comfortable. He added six straight-legged chairs for extra guests. The rocking chair (lower right) was placed where its long rockers exactly fitted, in the left-hand corner.
The President and Mrs. Lincoln had a hard time assembling guests for their theatre party. That very morning their oldest son, twenty-one-year-old Captain Robert Todd Lincoln, had arrived home from the war, and even at breakfast he was so sleepy he could barely keep his eyes open. After dinner, his father sought him out in his room and said the few words that Robert would never forget all his life.
“Son,” he said, “we want for you to come to the theatre with us tonight.”
Robert explained that he was too sleepy, that he was longing to lie down in a real bed between sheets.
“All right, son,” said the President, “run along to bed.”
Besides Robert, the Lincolns had invited at least twelve people to go with them, including General and Mrs. U. S. Grant, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and his wife, Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax, Illinois Governor Richard Oglesby, and Senator Richard Yates (who had been Illinois’ wartime governor). Almost everyone had begged off, for one reason or another, and at the end there were just two acceptances. The Lincolns picked up their guests—Major Henry Reed Rathbone and his stepsister and fiancée, Clara Harris, daughter of a New York senator—at the Harris home and drove them in their carriage to the theatre. Major Rathbone was twenty-eight years old and had only recently been appointed by the President as assistant adjutant general of Volunteers. Obviously he had not had it impressed upon him that he was to watch out for the President’s safety, for he sat on the sofa in the far front of the box, slightly behind Clara but nowhere near Mr. Lincoln.
The presidential party was so late that evening that the curtain had to go up without the Lincolns and their guests. In about half an hour they were seen in the dress circle approaching their box; the play stopped, the audience rose and applauded, and the orchestra struck up “Hail to the Chief.” The First Lady was all smiles, but Mr. Lincoln seemed weary and his face was serious. The audience had settled down for an evening of laughter at a silly play, and now the President’s melancholy mood would be a poor match for the high spirits of the crowd.
It was true that Lincoln had experienced one of his swift changes from confident hope to depression. Late that afternoon he had walked to the War Department with his guard William Crook, as he had done so many times before, and had said something that he had never said before.
“Crook, do you know,” he said, “I believe there are men who want to take my life.” Then he lowered his voice, as though talking to himself. “And I have no doubt they will do it.”
“Why do you think so, Mr. President?” asked Crook.
“Other men have been assassinated,” Lincoln answered. “I know no one could do it and escape alive. But if it is to be done, it is impossible to prevent it.”
And the guard remembered afterward that a little later, when the President left for the theatre in his carriage, Lincoln had said, for the first time, “Good-by, Crook,” instead of the usual “Good night.”
As the performance of Our American Cousin resumed, Mrs. Lincoln laughed openly and heartily at every joke; but her husband frequently leaned forward and rested his chin in one hand, seemingly thinking of something not present. The First Lady was oblivious to the fact that the President’s thoughts were straying from the performance. She was to be questioned closely as to what Mr. Lincoln’s exact last words had been, and she would ultimately take refuge in remembering two completely opposite versions, which she told alternately.
First, she recalled that her hand had been on Mr. Lincoln’s knee and that she had been leaning across the arm of his chair, over very close to him, so close that she had asked rather apologetically, with a look at the engaged couple in the front of the box, “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?” The President’s last words were, “She won’t think anything about it.”
But then later Mrs. Lincoln was sure the President had turned to her just before Booth’s shot and remarked earnestly, “How I should like to visit Jerusalem some time!” This was an odd sequence of thought, as the play had been following a less than spiritual course, convulsing the audience as a wildly caricatured American backwoodsman arrived to visit his English cousins. The Lincolns had heard Binny the butler ask the backwoodsman, Asa Trenchard, if he would like to have a “baath,” heard Asa tell Binny to “absquatulate—vamose!…—that he was a “tarnal fat critter, swelling out his bosom like an old turkey cock in laying time.” The actual last speech before the assassination was by the American cousin in answer to the scheming English mother who had just found out he was not a rich catch for her daughter and called out angrily that Asa did not know the manners of good society. Harry Hawk, playing Asa, was alone on the stage, and for the final time Mr. Lincoln heard the sound of a human voice. “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal—you sockdologizing old man-trap.”
If Abraham Lincoln had been given time to turn around in his rocking chair, he would have recognized his assassin instantly. Twenty-six-year-old John Wilkes Booth was one of the country’s promising actors, though no one expected him to come near the genius of his father, Junius Brutus Booth, or his incomparable brother, Edwin. Lincoln had seen him perform, seen that handsome, pale face, the thick raven hair, the deep-set eyes, black as ink and filled with a strange, wild fire. Only a few months before, the President had been at Ford’s Theatre in his usual box watching Booth play the part of a villain; whenever the Maryland actor had had anything ugly and threatening to say, he had stepped up near the presidential box, shaken his finger toward Lincoln, and said the lines directly to him. “He looks as if he meant that for you,” the President’s companion said, and Lincoln replied, “Well, he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?
For six months Booth had been working on plans to kidnap Lincoln with the hand of conspirators he had gathered together—among them a Maryland coach painter and blockade-runner, an unstable twenty-three-year-old drugstore derk, and a former Confederate soldier. At first they had planned to spirit Lincoln away to Richmond and demand that all Southern prisoners he freed and the war ended. One scheme was to throw Lincoln from a theatre box to the stage below, rush him out the back door, and drive him away, tied up, before the audience knew what had happened. On March 4, during Lincoln’s second inauguration, Booth and his men had been in the crowd quite close to the President, and had had a perfect opportunity to strike. Later in March the conspirators had surrounded and stopped the President’s carriage, only to find another man inside. By April, Booth had decided that kidnapping would not do, that Lincoln must die. “Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of His punishment,” Booth wrote in his diary.
At eleven thirty on the morning of April 14 the actor arrived at Ford’s Theatre to pick up his mail, and learned of the President’s planned attendance that evening. He seemed casual as he sat down on the theatre steps to read his letter, but everyone who saw him from that moment on noticed that he was deathly pale—thought he looked sick. He left soon to begin a day of frenzied preparation.
No one has ever pinpointed the hour at which Booth stole back into the theatre, made a hole in the wall lor a bar to jam the door in the corridor leading to the President’s box, and bored a peephole in the door to the box itself, grinding through the wood with a large iron-handled gimlet, then using a penknife to enlarge the hole to the size of a finger. Through it he had a deadeye view of the back of the rocking chair.
Dressed in high silk hat and dark suit, he went straight from the theatre to Pumphrey's Livery Stable. There he hired a swift little bay mare with a white star on her forehead and black tail and mane, saying he would call for her about four. At the appointed time Booth returned, now wearing a soft dark hat and high riding boots. Pumphrey warned him not to tie the mare if he left her; he must get someone to hold her, for she was high-spirited and would break her halter. Booth mentioned that he was going to Grover’s Theatre to write a letter, that he intended stopping for a drink somewhere, and indicated that he might take a pleasure ride.
Instead of going to Grover’s, Booth went to the National Hotel, where he was staying, to do his writing and walked into the office there, looking for privacy it seemed. He appeared dazed and asked the clerk in charge, Mr. Merrick, what year it was. Merrick said surely he was joking, and Booth said no, he wasn’t. On Pennsylvania Avenue at about four thirty Booth met John Matthews, a fellow actor who was playing the part of an attorney in Our American Cousin, handed Matthews the letter he had just written, and asked him to give it to the editor of the National Intelligencer the following clay. Ten minutes later he spotted a carriage with General and Mrs. Grant in it proceeding to the station on their way to New Jersey. Booth galloped after the carriage and made them uncomfortable by peering into it.
Sometime that afternoon—the clerk did not remember exactly when—Booth appeared at the desk of the Kirkwood House with a card, addressed to no one, on which was written, “Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth.” The clerk thought he heard Booth say the name Johnson, and he put the card into the box of Vice President Andrew Johnson’s private secretary.
At six thirty that evening Booth had supper at the National Hotel. At about eight he met his accomplices at the Herndon House and went over the plans for them to kill Secretary of State Seward and Vice President Johnson that eveninar.
It was about nine thirty when Booth rode into the alley behind Ford’s Theatre. With “Peanuts,” a messenger boy, holding his mare’s bridle and the horse already stamping in protest, he entered the back door and asked if he could cross the stage. He was told no, the dairy scene was playing, which took the full depth. In a few moments he went down under the stage and through a special stage door to another alley that led to the front of the theatre. The ticket seller, John Buckingham, saw him leaving and entering the theatre lobby five times. Booth seemed very nervous. He took hold of two of Buckingham’s fingers and asked him the time. Buckingham told him there was a clock in the lobby. It was after ten. When Buckingham went into the saloon next door for a drink, Booth was there drinking brandy. At about ten fifteen Booth went into the back of the house and stood looking at the audience. Then he walked up the stairs leading to the dress circle, humming a tune. He was still wearing his dark slouch hat and riding clothes—high boots and spurs. Hc approached John Parker, the special policeman who was supposed to be sitting outside the door of the President’s box but who had gone down into one of the dress circle seats to watch the play. Booth tapped a card out from his card case, showed it to Parker, and a moment later entered the outer door of the little hall leading to the presidential box and closed it behind him. He barred the door so that no one could follow. In the narrow darkness between the doors he drew his pistol. Then he opened the second door and stepped into the box directly behind President Lincoln.
It was an instant in history the world would never forget. Lincoln was leaning forward, looking over the rail down into the audience, when the tiny derringer pistol was fired just behind his head. The enormous handmade lead bullet struck the President behind the left ear, flattened out as it drove through his skull, tunnelled into the brain, and came to rest behind the right eye.
For a split second no one spoke, no one moved. Mrs. Lincoln and Clara Harris sat frozen in their seats. A dense smoke enveloped the President and curled upward; suddenly the assassin appeared within the smoke, as though materialized by some demon magician.
President Lincoln threw up his right arm at the impact of the shot and Mrs. Lincoln instinctively caught him around the neck, struggling to keep him upright. Now Rathbone lunged out of his seat and grabbed at Booth’s arm. Booth had dropped the pistol and was brandishing a dagger which he tried to plunge into Rathbone’s chest. The Major knocked the knife upward with his arm, and received a two-inch-deep slash just above the elbow.
Now, as Booth vaulted over the railing of the box, Rathbone clutched at him again and felt clothes tear as Booth wrenched himself free and leapt the twelve feet down to the stage. As he dropped, his spur caught in the Treasury flag draped on the railing of the box, and the off-balance landing shattered a small bone above his left ankle. “Stop that man!” Rabone cried. Clara Harris screamed, “Stop that man, won’t somebody stop that man!” Then Mrs. Lincoln was leaning over the box and shrieking, “Help! Help!” followed by a series of words that made no sense at all—gibberish, insane sounds that filled the stunned theatre. Standing on the stage all alone, Harry Hawk saw Booth coming for him, brandishing a large knife and calling out “Sic semper tyrannis!” —“Thus shall it ever be for tyrants!” Hawk turned and fled terrified into the wings and up a flight of stairs. Booth charged backstage and toward the back door. There was orchestra leader William Withers, and Booth slashed out at him and cut his clothes. A moment later Booth was outside, knocking over “Peanuts,” who was still patiently holding the reins of his horse, kicking the boy to the ground, clumsily throwing himself onto the horse, which for a moment circled crazily in the alleyway, and then setting off at n gallop into the night.
“Hang him!” The shouts began from the audience. “Hang him!” Up in the box Clara Harris was screaming down for someone to bring water, and now there was pounding on the outer door, which Booth had barred shut. Rathbone, dripping blood from his arm, rushed to open it, to admit the world to the tragedy.
Dr. Charles Augustus Leale, twenty-three, by coincidence an avid student of gunshot wounds, was seated in the dress circle only forty feet away from the President’s box. For a moment after the shot he sat transfixed as a man jumped from the box onto the stage, the knife in his hand shining like a diamond in the gaslight. Then, gathering his wits, Leale hurtled over the seats and got to the door of the box just as the bar was being removed inside by Rathbone, who showed Leale his bleeding arm and begged for help. The Doctor quickly saw that the real help was needed by the President. He was Ixjing supported now in his chair by Mrs. Lincoln, who cried, “Uh, Doctor, do what you can for my dear husband! Is he dead? Can he recover?”
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!”
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.
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.
A steward arrived from the hospitals with the bottles, which had been filled with hot water downstairs, and the mustard plasters. Henry Safford trudged up from the basement kitchen with his collection of bottles. The hot-water bottles were laid along the sides of the President’s legs, which had grown cold to a point above the knees. Outsized mustard plasters, like clammy pies, were placed over the entire upper surface of the body from ankles to neck. When in a few minutes Dr. Leale raised the corner of a sinapism —he disliked the layman’s term, plaster—and saw no slightest pink tinge in the parchment skin, he ordered that a stronger paste of mustard and flour be mixed downstairs, and that the army blankets brought from the hospitals be heated. Soon Mr. Lincoln lay between walls of bottles and under steaming layers of wool, and clinging to him as though a death mold were being made of his form was that hot yellow dough, enfolded in an assortment of cloths. There was no reaching the cold within him, though; just as he had always said during the war years, there was no way of reaching the tired spot that was inside.
That night the capital of the United States was completely stricken. Through it all the government was driven and directed by one man—Lincoln’s dynamic, unpredictable, and emotionally unstable Secretary of War, Edwin McMasters Stanton.
Stanton had just begun to undress for bed when downstairs a frantic voice shouted the incredible—Secretary of State Seward had been murdered. “Humbug!” Stanton grunted. Hadn’t he just left Seward a few minutes ago? But soon the night outside was filled with the terrible news, and Stanton was dressing and rushing across the square to Seward’s house. The Secretary of State lay unconscious across his bed, his cheek laid back by a deep knife wound inflicted by Booth’s confederate Lewis Paine. The President, they were saying, had been murdered, too, and who knew how many others. Now, through all the floundering and confusion and pain, Stanton assumed total power. And he did so swiftly, rushing by hack to the Petersen house and setting up an office in the room next to where Lincoln lay. Along with his Assistant Secretary of War, Charles A. Dana, Stanton began dictating orders and telegrams. The country had to be alerted, witnesses questioned, the assassins identified and captured. Road blocks were to be set up in Maryland, all passenger trains and ships heading south on the Potomac were to be stopped, the sixty-eight forts and batteries guarding Washington were to be alerted, any suspicious persons in Alexandria were to be arrested, the whole countryside round about the city was to be patrolled. The orders to all commanders: Find a man named John Wilkes Booth, “twenty-five years old [sic], five feet eight inches tall, dark hair and mustache. Use all efforts to secure him.”
It was a frenzied night for Stanton, a pudgy, curt, rude, disobliging but dedicated man who worked with a kind of demon energy every day and far into the night in the crumbling old War Department building, just a short walk for Lincoln across the White House lawn.
Now, all night long, as Stanton issued his orders from the room next door, people moved endlessly in and out of the tiny chamber where the President lay dying. Here came Senator Charles Sumner, Boston Brahmin and impatient abolitionist, together with Robert Lincoln. Sumner sat down at the head of the bed and took the President’s hand. A doctor said, “It’s no use, Mr. Sumner. He can’t hear you. He is dead.” “No, he isn’t dead,” replied Sumner. “Look at his face, he’s breathing.” “It will never be anything more than this,” came the answer. Then Robert broke down in tears and Sumner put his arm around Lincoln’s eldest son and held him close and tried to comfort him.
Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s efficient, garrulous Secretary of the Navy, had attended the Cabinet meeting held on the morning of the President’s last day. Along with the others he had heard the President tell of his strange dream of the night before—one that he always had before some important event—of being in a strange vessel, sailing rapidly toward a shadowy shore. Lincoln had turned to Welles and remarked, “It has to do with your element, Mr. Welles, the water.”
That evening Secretary Welles went up to bed about ten thirty, and soon afterward a Navy Department messenger called up to the window the news about Lincoln and Seward. While Welles was dressing he did an unprecedented thing: swearing in front of his wife. “Damn the Rebels,” he said, “this is their work!”
Through the night Welles sat quietly beside Lincoln’s bed; later he described the scene in his extraordinary diary. “The giant sufferer lay extended diagonally across the bed,” Welles began. ”… His slow, full respiration lifted the clothes with each breath that he took. His features were calm and striking. I had never seen them appear to better advantage than for the first hour, perhaps, that I was there. After that, his right eye began to swell and that part of his face became discolored.”
On the night of the assassination, Andrew Johnson was staying at the Kirkwood House, at Twelfth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and in the middle of the night Stanton sent for him because he thought the Vice President should make an appearance at the dying President’s bedside. Johnson had been there only a very few minutes when word came from the front room that Mrs. Lincoln wanted to pay another visit to her husband. It was quickly agreed that Johnson must be got rid of first, as Mrs. Lincoln despised him so. The Vice President went back to his hotel with a guard and spent the rest of the night excitedly walking up and down his room saying, “They shall suffer for this! They shall suffer for this!” Mrs. Lincoln never stopped believing Johnson was somehow mixed up in the assassination plot. A year later she wrote in one of her violent letters: "… that miserable inebriate Johnson. He never wrote me a line of condolence and behaved in the most brutal way. … As sure as you and I live, Johnson had some hand in all this.”
Lincoln’s gay, witty assistant private secretary, John Hay, was another of Mary Lincoln’s pet dislikes. Once she had questioned the cost of the grain that Lincoln’s secretaries’ horses were eating in the White House stables, and when she economized by getting rid of an employee, she wanted Hay to turn over to her for her personal use the money the employee would have been paid. “The Hell-cat,” Hay said of her, “is getting more Hell-cattical day by day.” But when the terrible news reached him this April evening, he hurried to the Petersen house and several times during the night attempted to comfort the distraught First Lady.
Benjamin B. French, the Commissioner of Public Buildings, first incurred Mrs. Lincoln’s wrath on the same subject over which she had fought with Hay—money. French refused to manipulate the White House expense account and cover up for her when she overran her decorating allowance by thousands of dollars. At the Petersen house French controlled his true feelings, sought out Mrs. Lincoln in her front room, and took her hand. But privately, in his diary, he set down in verse what he really thought of her. She
As the visitors came and went, the doctors kept up their frantic fight to do something, anything—probing the wound to keep it bleeding, trying to warm the President’s cold body, trying to remember to put clean towels over the blood-soaked pillows whenever Mrs. Lincoln appeared, to save her the horror that transfixed everyone else. At 11:30 P.M. a great protrusion of the President’s right eye was noted, and for the next twenty minutes there was twitching on the left side of his face. At five minutes before one o’clock, Lincoln began making a struggling motion with his arms. His chest muscles stiffened, his breath held, and then finally exhaled as the spasm passed. Twice during the night the Lincolns’ pastor, Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, prayed, and everyone in the room got down on his knees. At a quarter to two and again at three o’clock, Mrs. Lincoln made visits to the bedside. She wept piteously, throwing herself upon her husband’s body, begging the doctors to kill her and let her join him. Putting her face close to Lincoln’s, she pleaded, “Love, live but one moment to speak to our children—Oh, Oh that my little Taddy might see his father before he died.” A spell of loud, rattling breathing by the President frightened her, and with a piercing shriek she fell fainting to the floor. Stanton ordered: “Take that woman out and do not let her in again!” As she was led down the hall, Mrs. Lincoln cried, “Oh, my God, and have I given my husband to die!” It was the last time she would see him alive.
Finally dawn came. It was Saturday morning, the fifteenth of April. As the end drew near Dr. Africanus King—a young Englishman with a flare for telling words—made notes. At 6:25, Lincoln’s breaths were “jerking.” At 6:40, “the expirations prolonged and groaning,—a deep, softly sonorous cooing sound at the end of each expiration.” At 6:25, “respiration uneasy and grunting, lower jaw relaxed.” Then, “a minute without a breath, face growing dark.” At seven, “still breathing at long pauses.” Now Dr. Gurley left Mrs. Lincoln in the front parlor and entered the death room.
At twenty-two minutes past seven o’clock Dr. Taft’s hand, pressed upon Abraham Lincoln’s chest, felt that great heart throb one last time and then go still. The Surgeon General, Dr. Joseph Barnes, touching the carotid artery, felt the last thrust of blood, as did Dr. Leale, who held the right wrist pulse. All night long Leale had held Lincoln’s hand “so that in his darkness he would know he had a friend.” Now the darkness was absolute.
The fullest account of that terribly sad, historic moment was made by James Tanner, a legless corporal who lived next door and who had been summoned to take down testimony through the night for Stanton. ”… His stertorous breathing subsided a couple of minutes after 7 o’clock. From then till the end only the gentle rise and fall of his bosom gave indication that life remained. The Surgeon General was near the head of the bed, sometimes sitting on the edge, his finger on the pulse of the dying man. Occasionally he put his ear down to catch the lessening beats of his heart. … Dr. Gurley stood a little to the left of the bed. Mr. Stanton sat in a chair near the foot on the left … I stood quite near the head of the bed and from that position had full view of Mr. Stanton, across the president’s body. At my right Robert Lincoln sobbed on the shoulder of Charles Sumner. Stanton’s gaze was fixed intently on the countenance of his dying chief. The first indication that the dreaded end had come was at twenty-two minutes past seven, when the surgeon general gently crossed the pulseless hands of Lincoln across the motionless breast and rose to his feet. Rev. Dr. Gurley stepped forward and lifting his hands began ‘Our Father and our God’ … As ‘Thy will be done, Amen’ in subdued and tremulous tones floated through the little chamber, Mr. Stanton raised his head, the tears streaming down his face. A more agonized expression I never saw on a human countenance as he sobbed out the words: ‘He belongs to the angels now.’ ”
As Mrs. Lincoln left the Petersen house to be driven back to the Executive Mansion, she stood a moment beside her carriage and cried. “That dreadful house! That dreadful house!” A few minutes later the body of her husband was carried out and placed in a hearse, the coffin wrapped in a star-spangled flag. Then, with measured tread and arms reversed, the little procession moved away—a lieutenant and ten privates. Slowly up Tenth Street to G the horses pulled the dead President back to the While House. Meanwhile, far from regarding it as an honor 10 have Abraham Lincoln die in his boardinghouse, landlord William Petersen was in a black temper. Even before Mr. Lincoln's body had been removed. Petersen had advanced to the bed, seized one of the bloodstained pillows from beneath the head of the recently expired President, and hurled it angrily through the window into the yard. He soon made loud explanation. His house was a mess: all that blood and mud underfoot, unwashed basins and bottles piled up, and dozens of old leaking mustard plasters littering the hall. What was worse, he had read in the paper that the President had died in a tenement. He would let that paper know, and soon, that his was one of the most respectable dwelling houses in Washington.
For a few days after the murder, people talked a lot about what they had seen, and blew up scraps of information and guesswork, for the thrill of dabbling in a real-life mystery. There had been nearly two thousand people in the theatre, more than ninety over in the death room, and twenty-five who had borne the body. From all these conflicting accounts the story of that terrible night was emerging crazily.
Eight of the bearers insisted that theirs had been the honor of carrying the head. One, a New York grocer on a sight-seeing trip in Washington, announced that he had run up and supported an elbow, had moved along with his other hand on Lincoln’s pulse, and recalled giving the weeping crowd the news that the injury would be fatal. Another bearer remembered that the president had sagged in the middle until two men were assigned to reach beneath him and push upward—he had been a pusher. As a third told it, the victim had made the trip extended perfectly flat on a shutter wrenched from a theatre window. One of the most positive recollections had Lincoln transported sitting upright in the rocking chair in which he had failed to rock out of range of John Wilkes Booth’s huge bullet.
The picture of Booth’s escape from Ford’s Theatre was given earnestly, and with bewildering variations.
Booth had put one hand on the box rail, vaulted over it, and sailed through the air the twelve feet to the stage. As he jumped, his right spur had turned the framed engraving of Washington completely over and had snagged the blue Treasury Guards flag festooned around the front of the box: a shred of the the blue material fluttered behind his heel all the way. Booth had risen, flourished his dagger, shouted, "Sic semper tyrannis!" and strode out of sight.
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.
"… 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.
“Don’t cry so, Mama, or you will make me cry too,” said Tad. That was the only thing that stopped Mrs. Lincoln’s hysterics: she could not bear to see little Tad cry.
No one could be hardhearted enough not to feel sorry for Mary Lincoln now. Her desolation was complete because she did not have the character to meet her grief with any dignity and fortitude. She had hidden herself away to rail against her fate, while the country prepared to bury her husband. All during the war years it had been a kind of sport to make fun of the President’s wife from the West and let her read in print that she was a dumpy woman with no taste who wore overgorgeous, too-low-necked dresses, that she carried whole flower gardens on her head, that she didn’t know any better than to wear her rings over her gloves. Now that kind of criticism was silenced, but pity could not bring liking.
The news that President Lincoln was dead spread like a prairie fire across the nation. The people heard the news and were stunned, and each in his own heart suffered alone and in his own way. The mantle of grief was like a bond, so that all of a sudden friends felt a terrible closeness and strangers passing in the street knew what was in each other’s eyes and hearts and were brothers.
The business of saying good-by to the President was to take the city of Washington almost a full week. The plan was for Lincoln to be carried downstairs to the East Room in his huge coffin on Monday night; there, starting Tuesday morning, he would be on view to the public and there, on Wednesday, his official funeral would be held. Afterward his body was to be taken in procession from the White House to the Capitol, where he would lie in state in the Rotunda until Friday morning. Finally, a special train would take him slowly north, then west through a country of sorrow toward Springfield, on almost the same route he had taken east four years before.
George A. Harrington, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, was put in charge of the funeral preparations, and now he issued orders for the building of a catafalque in the East Room. Upstairs in her room Mrs. Lincoln was wracked day and night by the sound of nails being hammered as carpenters worked on the huge structure. She cowered and put her fingers to her ears, saying every blow sounded like a pistol shot. She sent a request to Secretary Harrington, begging him not to dismantle the catafalque until she had moved out of the White House, which meant it would stand there—the “Temple of Death” it came to be called—for five whole weeks, while souvenir-hunting citizens snipped away at it.
On Tuesday, Lincoln belonged to the people. Early that morning the line began forming outside the White House and was soon a mile long, six and seven abreast. Promptly at nine-thirty the west driveway gate was opened, and the crowds silently filed in through the heavily draped south portico. In the center of the East Room stood the catafalque. Since it reached up as high as eleven feet from the floor, the middle one of the three enormous, low-hanging crystal chandeliers had had to be removed and its gas pipe capped: the other two were completely shrouded in black bags, like giant bunches of grapes. The eight tall mirrors over the eight marble mantelpieces were swathed from top to bottom with black cloth over their frames and white cloth stretching the length of their glasses. From all the room’s cornices hung black streamers, but it had been impossible to cover the blood red and gold velvet wallpaper which Mrs. Lincoln had so extravagantly sent to France for—had actually dispatched a decorator on an ocean steamer to bring home.
The catafalque which bore Abraham Lincoln’s coffin had been built at top speed and with no regard for economy. It had been designed by Benjamin R. French, Commissioner of Public Buildings, who was in charge of everything in the funeral that had directly to do with Lincoln’s body. From the tops of four seven-foot-high posts rose an arched canopy to the height of eleven feet from the floor. Its upper side was made of black alpaca and the finest black velvet, which, in turn, was decorated with swooping festoons of black crape. The underside of the canopy was white fluted satin which caught and reflected a little of what light there was in the room down on the face below.
The $1,500 coffin had been ready since late Sunday afternoon, after marathon work by the undertaker for more than twenty-four hours. It was the last glorious word in funeral trappings. The wood was walnut, but not an inch of it showed, for it was entirely covered with the finest black broadcloth. It was six feet six inches long on the outside and must have been a tight fit on the inside for its six-foot, four-inch tenant, for the white satin lining was quilted and lavishly stuffed to make the resting place a soft one.
Inside the walnut case was an extra heavy lining of lead. On each side were four massive silver handles, and on the center of the lid there was a shield outlined in silver tacks in the center of which was a silver plate with the inscription
The lid was hinged to fold back a third of the way down, so as to expose the President’s lace and shoulders. In the gloom of the great East Room the people who came to pay their last respects to Lincoln were directed by officers to the foot of the catafalque; there they divided into single lines on each side, mounted the step, and walked along beside the coffin, pausing to look down at the face for an average of one second each.
At 5:30 P.M. the public was shut out, and lor the next two hours special privileged groups were admitted to the East Room. Then carpenters entered in force; they had a big job to do before the funeral the next morning. They began to build a series of steps arranged like an amphitheatre, beginning low about five feet away from the catafalque and growing higher back to the East Room walls, so that everyone invited could have a clear view of the dead president and the clergymen conducting the funeral.
Extra trains, crowded to the platforms, had been running into the city of Washington for the last two days, and people had been driving in from towns and villages in carriages or buggies or even hay wagons—the authorities figured that 6,000 people slept Tuesday night on floors of houses or hotels (Willard’s Hotel turned away 400 applicants) or in their vehicles or on blankets spread on whatever grass plots they could find. Washington was bursting—there were 100,000 human beings in the city, and 60,000 of them were prepared to watch a procession of 40,000 following the White House services on Wednesday.
At sunrise on the morning of the funeral the people who had been sleeping were waked by the booming of cannon in all the forts encircling the city, with a counterpoint of tolling bells in church towers and firehouses. It was a radiantly beautiful day—warm, cloudless, with a bright sun—and as early as eight o’clock there were throngs on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House and under the trees of Lafayette Square Park across the way. The heavy black draping all across the great front of the mansion contrasted with the spring gaiety of the bright green lawns and all the trees in blossom.
Every house and store in Washington was shut tight for the day. The rich had sent messengers to other cities to buy mourning decorations when the supply in the capital gave out, but even the poorest shanties had their bits of black cloth tacked up. And it was these humble, fluttering shreds that made people choke up. The big displays only filled them with awe.
By eleven o’clock, tickets were being presented and the majority of those invited entered the funeral chamber through the Green Room. In the Blue Room, the adjoining oval parlor, appeared the great names. It was crowded almost full with the late President’s personal cavalry guard from Ohio, who had ridden their matched black horses wherever Mr. Lincoln went. A path two and a half feet wide was opened in their midst, and along this path and through the Green Room passed General Grant, Admiral Farragut, the Supreme Court justices, and the diplomatic corps. At two minutes to twelve President Tohnson and his friend Preston King entered, followed by former Vice President Hamlin and the Cabinet: for everyone, there was the shock of Seward’s absence and the thought of how near they had come to standing beside two coffins today.
Lincoln’s complexion had always been dark, but now, instead of being even darker, it was unpleasingly lighter, a grayish putty color. Around his mouth he still had the faintly happy expression that those who watched him die saw come over his face a few minutes after he stopped breathing. They said it resembled “an effort of life,” as though he really had found peace. The trouble was that the smile was froxen on a face that was unfamiliar in its unresponsive stoniness. Gone was the mobility that so entranced anyone who had watched him in life: the magic lighting-up of the features that had made a plain man handsome when his mind struck sparks.
At each corner ol the catafalque was an officer of a special guard of honor. At the foot of the coffin sat Robert Lincoln, along with Ninian W. Edwards and Clark M. Smith of Springfield, the husbands of his mother’s two sisters, and two of his mother’s first cousins, Dr. Lyman Beecher Todd and General John B. S. Todd. Lincoln’s two young secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, stood beside Robert. Mrs. Lincoln would have been at the foot of the coffin, too, had she been there at all. Instead, she remained upstairs in bed the entire day.
General Grant, with tears in his eyes, sat alone at the President’s head, facing a cross of lilies. Just a little over a year before, on March 8, 1864, he had paid his first visit to the White House after being made lieutenant general. It was the evening of a weekly reception, and Mr. Lincoln, surrounded by citizens in the oval Blue Room, spied the shy soldier and recognized him immediately from his photographs. The President stepped up the line to greet his new head of the armies, took hold of him and moved him along to Mrs. Lincoln, saying, “Here is General Grant. What a surprise! What a delight!”
President Johnson stood at the east side of the coffin and behind him, the Cabinet. Standing neatly in their appointed squares were the clergy, the Supreme Court justices, governors of states, officers of the Army and Navy, a tremendous New York delegation, members of the Senate and House, members of the boards of the Christian and sanitary commissions, forty mourners from Kentucky and Illinois, the pallbearers, heads of bureaus, assistant secretaries, the diplomatic corps, and many others, such as the nurse who had taken care of Willie Lincoln in his last illness. At the time of the assassination she herself was ill in a hospital, of typhoid fever. But she was determined to look for a last time on Mr. Lincoln’s face, and she was carried down the hospital stairs and brought to the White House.
Just before the first of the four ministers who were to conduct the service began speaking, Johnson and Preston King stepped up to the coffin, mounted the loot-high ledge at its side, looked down intently at the face for a moment, then retired to their places a few feet back. Johnson had been visited by many delegations in his office in the Treasury Building since Lincoln’s death, and he was trying to show everyone that he was going to be a strong President. He began all his interviews by praising Lincoln, lamenting his loss, and saying that all his own efforts would go to carrying on the great work his predecessor had begun—Lincoln’s policies would be his policies. This he invariably followed up by a statement that treason was the most vicious of all crimes, and those guilty of it must be punished. “Very vigorous,” said some. “Vindictive,” said others. “We will have no trouble now,” said all those who had opposed Mr. Lincoln’s gentle and forgiving attitude toward those who had rebelled.
At exactly ten minutes past twelve Dr. Hall began the Episcopal burial service: “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”
Bishop Simpson of the Methodist Episcopal Church delivered a prayer in which he likened Lincoln to Moses, who brought his people to the edge of the Promised Land but was not permitted to enter it. When lie was done, all six hundred listeners were in tears.
Lincoln’s pastor, Dr. Gurley, gave the funeral sermon, speaking of the “cruel, cruel hand, that dark hand of the assassin, which smote our honored, wise and noble President, and filled the land with sorrow. …”
While the funeral was going on, twenty-five million people all across the nation and even in Canada were hearing similar sermons and prayers in their churches, hearing that Lincoln’s work on earth was finished and that God had removed him purposefully; hearing how regrettable it was that Lincoln had died in such low surroundings; hearing him likened to Washington, the savior of his country; to Moses, deprived of his reward; even to Christ—for Lincoln had been murdered on the anniversary of the Crucifixion.
After the White House services the six hundred people went outside, blinking in the sudden strong sunlight. Twelve Veteran Reserve Corps sergeants, who were to be the only ones ever to lift the coffin until it reached the Springfield tomb, now carried it, lid closed, outdoors and placed it on the funeral car waiting behind its six white horses at the mansion’s front door. The platform on which the coffin rested was eleven feet off the ground, high enough so that everyone in the crowd along the streets would see the object of greatest interest. Much of the height was accounted for by the wheels of the car (right), which were enormous though seemingly frail, with spokes that looked too spindly for the important journey they were to make.
As the procession began to move, the minute guns took up their regular booming, and again the church and firehouse bells began to toll. Lincoln’s old friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, had made the arrangements for the great procession, and he had done it well. Some of the units had been waiting for hours on side streets, and they joined the marching lines just as had been planned. Leading the procession and preceding the coffin on its high black car along Pennsylvania Avenue—full of ruts and potholes made from dragging heavy war supplies over it for four years—was a detachment of Negro troops. They had been the second unit to enter Richmond at its surrender. Officers of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps followed. Then came the marshals, the clergymen who had conducted the funeral, the doctors who had attended the President on his deathbed, the twenty-two pallbearers, General Grant and Admiral Farragut, and finally the civilian mourners.
Just behind the hearse walked Mr. Lincoln’s favorite horse, branded U.S., bearing his master’s boots reversed in the stirrups. Many people who had seen the President riding this horse now remembered the tall figure with the plug hat slipped back on his head, his feet in the long stirrups. Behind the hearse Robert Lincoln and Tad rode in a carriage together, with doorkeeper Tom Pendel up behind. The two brothers rode close enough to their father’s body to see the men’s hats in the crowds along the sidewalks being removed by the hundreds as the colossal coffin with all its silver ornaments shining in the bright sunlight passed by.
Many convalescent soldiers had left their beds in the Washington hospitals to march out of respect to their late Commander in Chief, and though some were too weak to go far, there were those on crutches who actually hobbled all the way to the Capitol. The colored citizens of Washington made one of the most impressive sights of all. They walked in lines of forty, straight across the avenue from curb to curb, four thousand of them. They wore high silk hats and white gloves and marched in dignified silence, holding hands.
The scene was solemn and impressive as the procession swept around into Pennsylvania Avenue from Fifteenth Street—and suddenly, movingly, the whole mile-and-a-half distance leading to the Capitol came into view. Every window, housetop, and tree was weighted down with silent watchers, the sidewalks were crowded, and there were many colored people with very young children. The grandeur and sadness of it all was indescribable. Every face in line was solemn—and most were streaked with tears. The measured tread of the marchers, the slow rolling of the wheels of the gun carriages over the cobblestones, the dirges of the thirty bands, the beat, beat, beat of the muffled drums—the sounds as well as the sights—made the day unforgettable.
Amid the solemn pageantry of the funeral in Washington, one family was not represented—Mr. Lincoln’s own people, those who had raised him and grown up with him. But they had received the heartbreaking news. Dennis Hanks, the cousin who had lived with Abe in a cabin in Indiana, took the news out to an old woman on the Illinois prairie. This was Sarah Bush Lincoln, Abe’s stepmother, born December 13, 1788, and twice a widow. No one knew the origins of the boy from the wilderness the way Sarah did, and his yearnings. And no one was more responsible for the paths he had taken. A widow with three children of her own, Sarah married Abe’s father, Thomas Lincoln, after the boy’s mother died of the “milksick”- drinking milk from cows that had eaten poison snakeroot.
When their new stepmother arrived, Abe and his sister Sarah liked her immediately. She was tall, slim, and curlyhaired, with lovely white skin, blue-gray eyes, and a beautiful nature. She scrubbed Abe and his sister, made one family of all five children—six, with Dennis Hanks—cooked the good game with which the forest was filled, and made Thomas clear more land and raise vegetables. She also got him to put a wood floor in the cabin and stop the roof from leaking. Although she could not read or even sign her own name, Sarah brought with her three books—Webster’s Speller, Robinson Crusoe, and The Arabian Nights. Abe already owned Aesop’s Fables and The Pilgrim’s Progress, and there was the family Bible which his own mother had read daily to him. The boy, “raised to farmwork,” as he said of himself, spent long hours reading—borrowing every neighbor’s book within walking distance. Sarah’s greatest contribution to her stepson’s life was persuading her husband not to disturb this reading time or force Abe to turn wholly to physical labor. She had felt immediate kinship with this boy. “His mind and mine,” she said proudly, “what little I had, seemed to run together, move in the same channel.”
Later, when Thomas and Sarah lived in their cabin in Illinois, Lincoln came as often as he could when he was practicing law in Springfield or riding the circuit. Mary Lincoln never went the seventy miles to see her husband’s parents, nor did she ever invite Sarah to Springfield or allow her sons to meet such humble relatives. A few days before he went east to be inaugurated President of the United States, Lincoln made the trip once more to see the woman he wrote and spoke to as “Mother.” He brought her a woolen shawl and a black wool dress. He took her in his arms and she cried over him. She told him she would never see him again and that he would be killed.
So when Dennis Hanks set out for Sarah’s cabin with the dread news, the old lady knew before he spoke. “Aunt Sairy,” Dennis said, “Abe’s dead.”
“Yes, I know, Denny, I knowed they’d kill him. I ben awaiting fur it.”
Several weeks before this mournful day, the President and his wife were driving by horse and buggy along the James River in Virginia when they came to an old country graveyard. It was far from the busy world and had tall trees, and on the graves the buds of spring flowers were opening in the sunlight. They both wanted to stop and walk through it, and they did. Mr. Lincoln, said his wife, seemed thoughtful and impressed. He said, “Mary, you are younger than I. You will survive me. When I am gone, lay my remains in some quiet place like this.”
Twenty days after the shooting at Ford’s Theatre, the President got his wish. After twelve funerals in twelve cities as he was borne home to his prairie state, his long coffin was placed in a hillside tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois,—with tender leaves of spring opening on all the trees and a little brook, brimming with April rains, dashing joyfully by.