Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

11:00 P.M.

The president of the United States cannot die on a dirty floor. No one knows how much longer he will live, but he must be moved. Dr. King suggests they move him to the White House, where he can pass the final moments of life in the comfort of his own bed. But Dr. Leale knows better than to attempt a bumpy carriage ride through Washington, D.C., particularly through panicked crowds that will necessitate the driver stopping and starting and turning quite suddenly. “He will be dead before we get there,” Leale says firmly.

The young doctor agrees, however, that Lincoln should be resting in a bed, not on the floor. Dr. Taft sends a soldier to scour nearby boarding-houses for an empty room. Four other young soldiers are ordered to lift Lincoln back into the rocking chair and carry the president out of the theater.

But Dr. Leale overrules Taft. The logistics of carrying a rocking chair containing a man with very long legs borders on the absurd. Just getting down to the lobby involves navigating sharp angles, a narrow corridor, two small doorways, and a flight of stairs. A stretcher would be ideal, but none is available. Leale orders the four soldiers to stop gawking and get to work. They will lock their hands beneath the president and form a sling. Two will lift the torso, while two will carry the legs. They will transport Lincoln headfirst. Leale will walk backward, cradling Lincoln’s head in his hands.

Laura Keene steps aside. She can’t help but marvel at Lincoln’s upper body, still possessing the lean musculature of the young wrestler renowned for feats of strength. The youthful power and appearance of his chest is in marked contrast to that famously weathered face. The only clue that this great body is actually dying is that his skin is pale and growing more so by the moment.

The four soldiers—John Corry, Jabes Griffiths, Bill Sample, and Jacob Soles of the Pennsylvania Light Artillery—now slip their hands under that torso and raise Lincoln to a sitting position. Dr. Leale, with help from the other two physicians, dresses the president in his frock coat and buttons it.

“Guards,” barks Leale. “Clear the passage.”

As if leading a processional, Laura Keene waits for the body to be lifted. She then marches out of the box, followed by the backward-walking Leale, the four soldiers, and Dr. King, who supports a shoulder, if only so he can remain a part of the action. Through the hallway, out into the dress circle, and down the stairs they travel. Mary Lincoln follows in their wake, stunned and shaky as she walks.

Their progress is slow, for two reasons. The first is that theatergoers block the way, desperate for a peek—desperate to be able to say they saw Lincoln’s corpse. The faithful make the sign of the cross and mumble a quiet prayer as Lincoln passes before their very eyes.

“Clear the way,” Leale barks. Soldiers in the crowd respond, jumping forth to push back the mob. It becomes a wrestling match. Chairs are destroyed. Punches are thrown. Noses are bloodied. A Union officer finally draws his sword and threatens to cut down any man standing in Lincoln’s path. This manages to quiet the crowd but only for an instant.

The second reason for the dawdling pace is that the bullet hole in Lincoln’s head is clotting at an amazing rate. When this happens, Lincoln appears to be in obvious discomfort from increased pressure against his brain. So despite the anarchy all around him, Dr. Leale orders the processional halted every few feet. Then he slips his forefinger into Lincoln’s skull to clear the hole, bringing forth even more blood but taking pressure off the president’s brain.

They finally reach the lobby but don’t know where to go next. By now, soldiers have found the partition usually used to divide the state box. At seven feet long and three inches thick, it makes a perfect stretcher for Abraham Lincoln. His body is shifted onto the board.

Dr. Leale and the other two surgeons decide they will carry Lincoln into Taltavul’s, right next door. A soldier is sent to clear the tavern. But he soon comes back with word that Lincoln will not be allowed inside—and for very good reason. Peter Taltavul is a patriot, a man who spent twenty-five years in the Marine Corps band. Of all the people in the crowd on this frenzied night, he is one of the few who has the foresight to understand the significance of the presidency and how the night’s events will one day be viewed. “Don’t bring him in here,” Taltavul tells the soldier. “It shouldn’t be said that the president of the United States died in a saloon.”

But where should they bring him?

Leale orders that Lincoln be lifted and carried to the row houses across the street. There is an enormous crowd in front of Ford’s. It will be almost impossible to clear a path through their midst, but it’s vital that Leale get Lincoln someplace warm and clean, immediately. The pine stretcher is lifted and Lincoln’s body is carried out into the cold, wet night, the procession lit by that murky yellow light from the tar torches. Lincoln’s carriage, with its magnificent team of black chargers, is parked a few feet away.

Then his bodyguards arrive. Not John Parker, for the instant he heard that Lincoln was shot he vanished into the night, continuing his villainy. No, it is the Union Light Guard, otherwise known as the Seventh Independent Company of Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, that gallops to the rescue. These are the men who have served as Lincoln’s bodyguards during his rides around the city and out to the Soldiers’ Home. They raced over from their stables next to the White House when they heard about the shooting. Rather than dismount, they work with other soldiers on the scene to make a double-wide corridor from one side of Tenth Street to the other. Leale and the men carrying Lincoln make their way down Ford’s granite front steps and onto the muddy road, still not knowing where they will finally be able to bring him but glad to be away from the chaos and frenzy of Ford’s.

Only more chaos awaits them in the street. The violent mob has swelled from dozens to hundreds in mere minutes, as people from all around Washington have sprinted to Ford’s Theatre. Many are drunk. All are confused. And no one is in charge.

“Bring him in here,” a voice shouts above the madness.

Henry S. Safford is a twenty-five-year-old War Department employee. He has toasted the Union victory every night since Monday, and tonight he was so worn out that he stayed in to rest. He was alone in his parlor, reading, when the streets below him exploded in confusion. When Safford stuck his head out the window to see what was happening, someone shouted the news that Lincoln had been shot. Safford raced downstairs and out into the crowd, but “finding it impossible to go further, as everyone acted crazy or mad,” he retreated back to the steps of the Federal-style brick row house in which he rents a room from a German tailor named William Petersen. Safford stood on the porch and watched in amazement as Lincoln’s failing body was conveyed out of Ford’s. He saw the confusion on Dr. Leale’s face as the contingent inched across Tenth Street, and witnessed the way Dr. Leale stopped every few feet and poked his finger into Lincoln’s skull to keep the blood flowing. He saw Leale lifting his own head and scanning the street front, searching for someplace to bring Lincoln.

Now Safford wants to help.

“Put him in here,” he shouts again.

Dr. Leale was actually aiming for the house next door, but a soldier had tried and found it locked. So they turn toward Safford. “This was done as quickly as the soldiers could make a pathway through the crowd,” a sketch artist will remember later. Just moments earlier he had been so enthralled with the happy crowd in front of Ford’s that he had impulsively grabbed a pad and begun drawing“women with wide skirts and wearing large poke bonnets were as numerous as the men … . The scene was so unusual and inspiring.”

But now he is sketching a melee and the sad scene of “the prostrate form of an injured man.”

He will later say, “I recognized the lengthy form of the president by the flickering light of the torches, and one large gas lamp. The tarrying at the curb and the slow, careful manner in which he was carried across the street gave me ample time to make an accurate sketch. It was the most tragic and impressive scene I have ever witnessed.”

Leale and his stretcher bearers carry Lincoln up nine short, curved steps to the front door of the Petersen house. “Take us to your best room,” he orders Safford. And though he is hardly the man to be making that decision, Safford immediately realizes that his own second-floor room will not do. He guides the group down to the spacious room of George and Huldah Francis, but it is locked. Safford leads them deeper into the house, to a room that is clearly not Petersen’s finest—but that will have to do. He pushes open the door, which features a large glass window covered by a curtain, and sees that it is empty.

The room is that of William Clark, a twenty-three-year-old army clerk who is gone for the night. Clark is fastidious in his cleanliness, so at just under ten feet wide and eighteen feet long, furnished with four-poster bed, table, bureau, and chairs, the bedroom is a cramped though very neat space.

But Lincoln is much too big for the bed. Dr. Leale orders that the headboard be broken off, but it won’t break. Instead, the president is laid down diagonally on the red, white, and blue bedspread. The lumpy mattress is filled with corn husks. His head points toward the door and his feet toward the wall. Ironically, John Wilkes Booth often rented this very room during the previous summer. In fact, as recently as three weeks ago, Booth lolled on the very bed in which Lincoln is now dying.

Everyone leaves but the doctors and Mary Lincoln. She stares down at her husband, still wearing his boots, pants, and frock coat; there are two pillows under his head, and that bearded chin rests on his chest. Now and then he sighs involuntarily, giving her hope.

“Mrs. Lincoln, I must ask you to leave,” Dr. Leale says softly.

Mary is like a child, so forlorn that she lacks the will to protest as others make her decisions for her. The first lady steps out of William Clark’s rented room, into the long, dark hallway.

“Live,” she pleads to her husband before she leaves. “You must live.”

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