Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN

SATURDAY, APRIL 15, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

MIDNIGHT TO DAWN

Dr. Leale strips Lincoln’s body. He, too, marvels at the definition of the muscles on the president’s chest, shoulders, and legs. This is clearly the body of a man who has led a vigorous life. Dr. Leale searches the body for signs of another wound but finds none. The area around Lincoln’s eyes and forehead is becoming swollen and black and blue, like a boxer’s face after a tough fight.

Moving down the long and slender frame, Leale is disturbed to feel that Lincoln’s feet are now icy to the touch, which he immediately treats by applying a mustard plaster to every inch of the front of Lincoln’s body, from shoulders down to ankles. “No drug or medicine in any form was administered to the president,” he will later note. “But the artificial heat and mustard plaster that I had applied warmed his cold body and stimulated his nerves.”

He then covers the president with a blanket as Dr. Taft begins the process of removing the ball from Lincoln’s head. Taft inserts his index finger into the wound and pronounces that the bullet has penetrated beyond the fingertip.

Meanwhile, Lincoln’s pockets are emptied and his belongings carefully cataloged: an Irish linen handkerchief with the embroidered letter A; money, both Confederate and U.S.; newspaper clippings; an ivory pocketknife; and a pair of gold-rimmed glasses whose broken frame the president had mended with string.

More brandy and water is poured between Lincoln’s lips. The Adam’s apple once again bobs during the first spoonful but not at all for the second. With great difficulty, the doctors gently turn Lincoln on his side so that the excess fluid will run from his mouth and not choke him.

Lincoln is battling to stay alive. This is quite clear to each doctor. A normal man would be dead by now.

The surgeon general of the army, Dr. Joseph Barnes, arrives and takes control of the scene. Barnes is closely followed by future surgeon general Charles H. Crane. Dr. Leale has been bold and aggressive these past few hours since the shooting. He now explains his course of action in great detail to two of the most powerful and well-regarded physicians in America. Both men agree with Leale’s assessment and treatment, much to the young physician’s relief.

The human brain is the most complex structure in all the world’s biology, a humming and whirring center of thought, speech, motor movement, memory, and thousands of other minute functions. It is protected on the outside by the skull and then by a layer of connective-tissue membranes that form a barrier between the hard bone of the cranium and the gelatinous, soft tissue of the brain itself. Lincoln’s brain, in which a Nélaton’s probe (a long, porcelain, pencil-like instrument) is now being inserted in hopes of finding the bullet, contains vivid memories of a youth spent on the wild American frontier. This brain dazzled with clarity and brilliance during great political debates. It struggled with war and the politics of being president, then devised and executed solutions to the epic problems of the times. It imagined stirring speeches that knit the country together, then made sure that the words, when spoken, were uttered with exactly the right cadence, enunciation, and pitch. It guided those long slender fingers as they signed the Emancipation Proclamation, giving four million slaves their freedom. Inside his brain, Lincoln imagined the notion of “One country, one destiny.” And this brain is also the reservoir of Lincoln’s nightmares—particularly the one in which, just two weeks earlier, he envisioned his own assassination.

Now, thanks to a single round metal ball no bigger than a marble, Lincoln’s brain is finished. He is brain-dead.

Dr. Leale realizes that he is no longer needed in that cramped bedroom. But he does not leave. Emotion supersedes professional decorum. Leale, like the others, can barely hold back his tears. He has noticed that Lincoln is visibly more comfortable when the wound is unclogged. So he sits next to Lincoln’s head and continues his solitary vigil, poking his finger into the blood clot every few minutes, making sure there’s not too much pressure on Lincoln’s brain.

A light rain is falling outside, but the crowd is eager for news and will not leave. In the room next door, Secretary of War Stanton has arrived and now takes charge, acting as interim president of the United States. Word of the assassination has brought a crowd of government officials to the Petersen house. The police investigation is beginning to take shape. It is clear that Booth shot Lincoln, and many believe that the actor also attacked Seward in his bed. Vice President Andrew Johnson, whose luck held when his assassin backed out, now stands in the next room, summoned after learning of Lincoln’s plight.

All the while, Dr. Leale maintains his vigil by the dim candlelight. The occupants of the bedroom change constantly, with clergymen and officials and family members stepping in for a moment to pay their respects. More than sixty-five persons will be allowed inside before the night is through. The most frequent presence is Mary Lincoln, who weeps and even falls to her knees by the bedside whenever she is allowed a few moments with her husband. Leale takes care to spread a clean white handkerchief over the bloody pillow whenever she is about to walk in, but the bleeding in Lincoln’s head never ceases, and before Mary Lincoln departs the handkerchief is often covered in blood and brain matter.

At three A.M., the scene is so grisly that Mary is no longer admitted.

The various doctors take turns recording Lincoln’s condition. His respiration is shallow and fast, coming twenty-four to twenty-seven times a minute. His pulse rises to sixty-four at five-forty A.M., and hovers at sixty just a few moments later. But by then Leale can barely feel it.

Another doctor makes notes on Lincoln’s condition:

“6:30—still failing and labored breathing.”

“6:40—expirations prolonged and groaning. A deep, softly sonorous cooing sound at the end of each expiration, audible to bystanders.”

“6:45—respiration uneasy, choking and grunting. Lower jaw relaxed. Mouth open. A minute without a breath. Face getting dark.”

“6:59—breathes again a little more at intervals.”

“7:00—still breathing at long pauses; symptoms of immediate dissolution.”

With the president’s death imminent, Mary Lincoln is once again admitted. Dr. Leale stands to make room. She sits in the chair next to Lincoln and then presses her face against her husband’s. “Love,” she says softly. “Speak to me.”

A “loud, unnatural noise,” in Dr. Leale’s description, barks up from Lincoln’s lungs. The sound is so grotesque that Mary collapses. As she is carried from the room she steals one last glimpse of her husband. She has known him since he was just a gangly country lawyer and has shared almost half her life with him. This will be the last time she sees him alive.

“I have given my husband to die,” she laments, wishing that it could have been her instead.

Dr. Leale can’t find a pulse. Lincoln’s breathing becomes guttural, then ceases altogether before starting again. The room fills with a small army of elected officials, all of whom wish to witness the historic moment of Lincoln’s death. Outside, it is dawn, and the crowds have grown even larger, with everyone waiting for a sliver of news.

In the bedroom, Robert Lincoln sobs loudly, unable to control his grief. He stands at the head of the bed and looks down at his father. Dr. Barnes sits in the chair, his finger on Lincoln’s carotid artery, seeking a pulse. Dr. Leale has moved to the other side of the bed and wedged himself against the wall. He once again holds Lincoln’s hand, simultaneously using his index finger to feel for a pulse on Lincoln’s wrist.

There is no death rattle. Lincoln draws his last breath at seven twenty-one. His heart beats for another fifteen seconds, then stops altogether at ten seconds past seven twenty-two A.M.

More than twenty men are packed into the bedroom. Nobody says a word for five long minutes. Dr. Barnes reaches into his vest pocket for a pair of silver coins, which he places over Lincoln’s eyes—one of which is now completely black and blue. Dr. Leale, meanwhile, folds the president’s arms across his chest and carefully smooths his hair.

He barely hears Secretary Stanton rumble, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Sketch created at the deathbed of President Lincoln

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