President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination is one of the saddest events in American history. Yet on the morning of April 14, 1865, the President awoke in an uncommonly good mood. One day less than a week before, on Palm Sunday, April 9, Robert E. Lee, the commander of what remained of the Confederate States’ Army, surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, the commanding General of the Union. The truce reached at the Appomattox, Virginia, Court House signaled the end of the nation’s most destructive chapter, the Civil War.To celebrate, Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln decided to attend the hit farce comedy “Our American Cousin, ” which was playing at Ford’s Theatre. The Lincolns invited Gen. Grant and his wife to attend the play with them. At a cabinet meeting later that morning, however, Gen. Grant informed President Lincoln that they would not be able to join the first couple and, instead, would be visiting their children in New Jersey.
Even more ominous, the ornery Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, pleaded with the President not to go out that evening for fear of a potential assassination. Stanton was hardly the only presidential advisor against the outing. Mrs. Lincoln almost begged off, complaining of one of her all too frequent headaches. And even President Lincoln moaned about feeling exhausted as a result of his heavy presidential duties. Nevertheless, he insisted that an evening of comedy was just the tonic he and his wife required. Mr. Lincoln, confident that his bodyguards would protect him from any potential harm, shrugged off the warnings and invited Maj. Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, to join them for a night at the theater.
Lincoln’s main bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon did not attend the play and, instead, John Parker, a police guard well known for his love of whisky, protected the president. Parker left his post outside the presidential box during intermission to satisfy an alcoholic craving at the nearby Star Saloon.
During the third act, as the Lincolns laughed and held hands, a man barged into the unguarded box. The intruder, of course, was the actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. The assassin discharged his Derringer pistol into the back of Lincoln’s head. Major Rathbone tried to tackle Booth down but the assassin overpowered him by slashing his arm with a dagger. Historians, as they are wont to do, bicker over whether Booth yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” (“Thus always to tyrants!”) before or shortly after he shot the president (Aside from the controversy over the timing of Booth’s exclamation, some have claimed he said “The South is Avenged!”, “Revenge for the South!” or even “I have done it!”) We do know that Booth jumped from the box to the stage, caught his spur in the curtain, and may have broken his left shin (another source of contention among historians). He somehow managed to limp away and exit through the stage door, thus initiating one of the most intense manhunts in American history.
When it comes to medical history, however, it is not Booth’s injured limb that captures our imagination. Instead, it is the hours of agony the wounded president endured before finally succumbing early on the morning on April 15.
As members of the audience cried out that the president had been murdered and shouted pleas to catch and kill the escaping culprit, the first doctor to attend Lincoln was a 23-year-old Army captain named Charles A. Leale. He had just received his medical degree six weeks earlier, on March 1, from the Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York, widely regarded as one of the best in the nation. Leale was in the audience that evening after he learned that Lincoln, who he greatly admired, would be at Ford’s Theatre.
Dr. Leale immediately discerned, by sense of touch along the bloody wound, that the bullet had entered the president’s head just behind his left ear and tore its way through the left side of his brain. Sending out for some brandy and water, Dr. Leale recalled, “When I reached the president he was in a state of general paralysis, his eyes were closed and he was in a profoundly comatose condition, while his breathing was intermittent and exceedingly stertorous (i.e., noisy and laborious). I placed my finger on his right radial pulse but could perceive no movement of the artery.”