Biographies & Memoirs


FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 


10:20 P.M.

Lincoln’s life is slipping away. Mary Lincoln lays her head to the president’s breast as Major Rathbone uses his one good arm to yank the music stand from its notch in the doorway. Booth’s knife missed a major artery by just one-third of an inch. Otherwise Rathbone would now be dead.

The major swings open the outer door of the state box. Dozens of unruly theatergoers fill the dress circle and try to fight their way into the state box. “Doctors only!” Rathbone shouts as blood drips down his arm and pools on the floor. The truth is that the major needs medical attention, but all eyes are on Lincoln.

“I’m bleeding to death!” Rathbone shouts as a twenty-three-year-old doctor, Charles Leale, fights his way forward. Dr. Leale came to the theater solely because he wanted to see Lincoln in person. Now he is the first physician to come upon the crime scene. Leale reaches out a hand and lifts Rathbone’s chin so that he might look into his eyes and gauge his physical condition. Noting in an instant that Rathbone is quite obviously not bleeding to death, Dr. Leale turns his attention to Lincoln.

“Oh, Doctor,” sobs Mary Lincoln as Leale slowly removes her from her husband’s body. “Can he recover? Will you take charge of him?”

“I will do what I can,” Dr. Leale says calmly. With a nod to the crowd of men who have followed him into the box, the young doctor makes it clear that Mary must be removed. She is ushered to a couch on the other side of the box, next to Clara Harris, who begins stroking her hand.

Leale asks for a lamp and orders that no one else be admitted to the state box except for physicians. Then he stands in front of the rocking chair, facing Lincoln’s slumped head. He pushes the body upright, the head lolling back against the rocker. He can feel the slightest breath from Lincoln’s nose and mouth, but Leale is reluctant to touch the body without making a preliminary observation. One thing, however, is quite clear: Lincoln is not dead.

Dr. Leale can’t find any sign of injury. Onlookers light matches so that he can see better, and the call goes out for a lamp. The front of Lincoln’s body shows no sign of physical violence, and the forward slumping indicates that the attack must have come from behind. Yet there’s no visible entry wound or exit wound. If Dr. Leale didn’t know better, he would swear that Lincoln simply dozed off and will awaken any minute.

“Put him on the floor,” the doctor orders. Gently, ever so gently, Lincoln’s long torso is lifted by men standing on both sides of the rocking chair and then lowered to the carpet.

Based on Major Rathbone’s wounds, and the fact that he didn’t hear any gunshot during the performance, Leale deduces that Lincoln was stabbed. He rolls the president on one side and carefully searches for a puncture wound, his fingers slipping along the skin, probing for a telltale oozing of blood. But he feels nothing, and when he pulls his hands away, they’re completely clean.

He strips Lincoln to the waist and continues the search, cutting off the president’s white shirt with a pocketknife. But his skin is milky white and smooth, with no sign of any harm. Leale lifts Lincoln’s eyelids and examines the pupils. Finding clear evidence that the right eye’s optic nerve has somehow been cut, he decides to reexamine. Perhaps Lincoln was stabbed in the back of the skull. Head wounds are notorious bleeders, so such a wound is unlikely, but there has to be some explanation.

Dr. Leale, more befuddled by the mystery with each passing moment, runs his hands through Lincoln’s hair. This time they come back blood-red.

Alarmed, Leale examines the president’s head a second time. Beneath the thick hair, just above and behind the left ear, hides a small blood clot. It’s no bigger than the doctor’s pinkie, but when he pulls his finger away, the sensation is like a cork being removed from a bottle. Blood flows freely from the wound, and Lincoln’s chest suddenly rises and falls as pressure is taken from his brain.

Dr. Leale has been a practicing physician for all of two months, having just graduated from Bellevue Hospital Medical College. He wears an army uniform, as befitting a doctor who currently works in the Wounded Commissioned Officers’ Ward at the U.S. Army’s General Hospital in nearby Armory Square. The bulk of his medical education took place during the Civil War, so despite his short time as a practicing physician, he has seen more gunshot wounds than most doctors see in a lifetime. Yet he encountered those wounds in hospitals far removed from the battlefield, when the patients were in advanced stages of recovery. He has never performed the sort of critical life-saving procedures that take place immediately after an injury.

But now Dr. Leale somehow knows just what to do—and he does it well.

Working quickly, Leale straddles Lincoln’s chest and begins resuscitating the president, hoping to improve the flow of oxygen to the brain. He shoves two fingers down Lincoln’s throat and presses down on the back of the tongue, just in case food or drink is clogged in the esophagus. As he does so, two other doctors who were in the audience arrive on the scene. Though far more experienced, army surgeon Dr. Charles Sabin Taft and Dr. Albert King defer to Dr. Leale. When he asks them to stimulate the blood flow by manipulating Lincoln’s arms in an upand-down, back-and-forth manner, they instantly kneel down and each take an arm. Leale, meanwhile, presses hard on Lincoln’s torso, trying to stimulate his heart.

Then, as Leale will one day tell an audience celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, he performs an act of great and urgent intimacy: “I leaned forcibly forward directly over his body, thorax to thorax, face to face, and several times drew in a long breath, then forcibly breathed directly into his mouth and nostrils, which expanded the lungs and improved his respirations.”

Dr. Leale lies atop Lincoln, his lips locked with Lincoln’s, offering what looks to be a lover’s kiss. The theater below is a madhouse. Men in the box around him look on, recognizing that Leale is performing a medical procedure, but struck by the awkward pose nonetheless.

Dr. Leale doesn’t care. Every bit of his energy is poured into accomplishing the impossible task of saving Lincoln. Finally, he knows in his heart that the procedure has worked. He will later recall, “After waiting a moment, I placed my ear over his thorax and found the action of the heart improving. I arose to the erect kneeling posture, then watched for a short time and saw that the president could continue independent breathing and that instant death would not occur. I then announced my diagnosis and prognosis.”

But Dr. Leale does not utter the hopeful words the onlookers wish to hear. They have seen the president breathe on his own. They know that his heart is functioning. Clearly, they think the president might survive.

Only Dr. Leale has seen the dull look in Lincoln’s pupils, a sure sign that his brain is no longer functioning. “His wound is mortal,” Leale announces softly. “It is impossible for him to recover.”

A soldier vomits. Men remove their caps. Mary Lincoln sits just a few feet away but is in too much shock to comprehend what’s been said. Someone hands Dr. Leale a dram of brandy and water, which he slowly dribbles into Lincoln’s mouth. The president’s prominent Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows.

The pandemonium in the theater, meanwhile, has not diminished. The frenzy and shouting are deafening. No one in the state box speaks as Dr. Leale works on Lincoln, but its list of occupants has grown larger and more absurd. With John Parker, Lincoln’s bodyguard, still strangely missing, no one is blocking access to the little room. To one side, on the couch, the distraught Mary Lincoln is being comforted by Clara Harris. Major Rathbone drips blood on the carpet, trying to stanch the flow by holding tight to the injured arm. There are three doctors, a half dozen soldiers, and a small army of theater patrons who have battled their way into the box. And then, almost absurdly, the actress Laura Keene forces her way into their midst and kneels at Lincoln’s side. She begs to be allowed to cradle Lincoln. Dr. Leale, somewhat stunned but knowing it can do no harm, agrees.

Keene lifts the president’s head into her lap and calmly strokes his face. Before becoming an actress she worked for a time as a restorer of old paintings, so she is more than familiar with the world of art and sculpture. She knows that this moment is Michelangelo’s Pietà come to life, with her as Mary and Lincoln as Christ. Surrounded on all sides by what can only be described as anarchy, Laura Keene nurtures the dying man. The war years have been hard on her—drink has made her face puffy, and the constant wartime barnstorming has done little to stop her slowly declining popularity. The chestnut-eyed actress with the long auburn hair knows that this moment will put her name in papers around the world, so there is more than a touch of self-indulgence in her actions. But Laura Keene is not maudlin or the slightest bit dramatic as Abraham Lincoln’s blood and brains soak into the lap of her dress. Like everyone else in the state box, she is stunned. Just a few minutes before, the president of the United States had been a vibrant and larger-than-life presence. Now everything has changed.

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