Lincoln’s Assassination, From a Doctor’s Perspective

The medical report from Charles Leale, the first doctor to tend to the dying president, was discovered at the National Archives. Smithsonian curator Harry Rubenstein shares his thoughts

It was about 10:15 p.m. on April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes Booth snuck up behind President Lincoln, enjoying “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre, and shot him point-blank in the head. The assassin brandished a dagger and cut Maj. Henry Rathbone, a guest of the president’s, before leaping to the stage, yelling “Sic semper tyrannis,” before fleeing.

According to most surviving accounts, the scene was sheer chaos. “There will never be anything like it on earth,” said Helen Truman, who was in the audience. “The shouts, groans, curses, smashing of seats, screams of women, shuffling of feet and cries of terror created a pandemonium that through all the ages will stand out in my memory as the hell of hells.”

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The first page of Leale's 22-page medical report, found at the National Archives. Image courtesy of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.

The first page of Leale’s 22-page medical report, found at the National Archives. Image courtesy of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.

“I immediately ran to the President’s box and as soon as the door was opened was admitted and introduced to Mrs. Lincoln when she exclaimed several times, ‘O Doctor, do what you can for him, do what you can!’ I told her we would do all that we possibly could.”

When I entered the box the ladies were very much excited. Mr. Lincoln was seated in a high backed arm-chair with his head leaning towards his right side supported by Mrs. Lincoln who was weeping bitterly. . . .

While approaching the President I sent a gentleman for brandy and another for water.

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.”

– Dr. Leale


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