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Lincoln's final hours: Moment by moment, inside Ford's Theatre and the home where the president died

It was a scene of horror and disbelief, yet those who were there recall feeling inspired to live worthy of the man


Richard Wightman Fox
February 16, 2015 4:59PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History"

The collective sense of what had occurred was of a sadness too noble not somehow to inspire, and it was truly in the air that . . . we could at least gather round this perfection of a classic woe.
— Henry James, 1914

MARY AND ABRAHAM Lincoln arrived late at Ford’s Theatre on Good Friday, April 14, 1865. The president had been entertaining White House visitors, including Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax. An affable Hoosier, nicknamed “Smiler” for his sunny disposition, Colfax was leaving town the next day on an overland trip to California. Later he remembered Lincoln telling him he’d love to see California himself, but could only dream about it since “public duties chain me down here.” Lincoln’s comments to the Speaker about the “pleasures” of the West were among his last spoken words.

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Lincoln tried to entice Colfax to join the party headed to Ford’s, but the Speaker begged off, saying he had to pack his bags. He walked beside Lincoln as the president “took his last steps” from the White House Red Room to the North Portico. Colfax received “the last grasp of that generous and loving hand, and his last goodbye.” With that, Lincoln clambered into his carriage for the two-block ride to Fifteenth and H Streets, where he and Mary picked up their two guests, Clara Harris, the daughter of a New York senator, and her fiancé, Major Henry Rathbone. Then they rode on another eight blocks to Tenth Street, between E and F, where a small crowd, pelted by occasional cloudbursts, was waiting to greet them.

Jiggling along on the unpaved streets, the presidential party got a glimpse of the decorations put up to celebrate Lee’s April 9 surrender. The public euphoria had peaked on Thursday night, April 13, with a festive “grand illumination” running into the wee hours. The city’s homes, shops, and buildings were now even more lavishly appointed, as the April 14 Washington Star catalogued in a five-column survey of the most striking embellishments.

Jaunty or solemn words had been put up all over town. “How are you Lee?” taunted a motto spelled out in gas jets at E. L. Seldner’s clothing store at Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventh Street. At the Swiss consulate on A Street South, a sign read, “The old Republic of the Old World greets the new Republic of the New World on the occasion of its new birth.” If Lincoln’s carriage was traveling east on E Street between Thirteenth and Fourteenth Streets on its way to Ford’s, he could have read the large illuminated transparency mounted in front of Grover’s Theatre, summing up the trajectory of the rebellion: “April 1861 the cradle, April 1865 the grave.”

At Wolfsheimer & Brothers clothiers on Seventh Street, a poem- prayer placed in a large display window petitioned the Lord to protect Lincoln, whose health was widely thought to be failing:

Long live our chief, the President,
In glory, peace and health;
Nobly he brought the war to end,
Crushed treason in its wealth.
O God! Preserve his worthy life,
Let never war or civil strife
Again disturb our land.

The fifty-six-year-old president did look bedraggled during this week of northern jubilation. His face had withered over the previous year: deep creases beside his nose, sunken eyes, hollowed cheeks, graying temples and beard. The outer man appeared old and frail, but on the inside, as Colfax and other friends testified, Lincoln felt revitalized by Appomattox and by his recent two-week stay at General Grant’s headquarters on the James River. The epic April 4 march through Richmond had capped the visit, with thousands of slaves striding through town in the wake of the man they hailed as liberator. Colfax told Lincoln on his return from Virginia that he’d worried about the president’s safety in the rebels’ fallen capital. Lincoln replied that he would have fretted too if it had been anyone else; for himself, he’d felt no qualms at all.

AROUND 8:30 P.M., the Lincoln party of four made its way up the staircase from the foyer of Ford’s Theatre to the dress circle. The audience was already engrossed in the evening’s performance of the comedy Our American Cousin, but with the gaslights in all likelihood burning bright (dimming the house became customary in American theaters only a generation later) most people in the orchestra seats would have had no trouble catching the Lincolns’ entrance. Once they appeared, spectators rose to their feet in applause, actors on stage joined in the welcome, and the orchestra launched into “Hail to the Chief.” Seated in his wicker chair in the dress circle, Charles Leale, a twenty-three-year-old army surgeon, noted the presidential couple smiling and bowing as they proceeded to their stage-left box.

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When the play resumed, Lincoln’s good spirits persisted, for the actors were freely adding humorous lines, for his benefit, to an already funny play. To one character’s expressed desire to “escape the draft” of cool air, another answered that she needn’t worry: the “draft has just been abolished,” as the morning papers on April 14 had announced (referring to the military draft). Treasury Department employee John Deering got a straight-on view of the presidential party from his stage-right seat in the dress circle, and he noticed the “broad smile on Uncle Abraham’s face.” Actors and audience members were all keeping up the weeklong spirit of levity, and Lincoln was enjoying the party.

Shortly after 10:15 p.m., during the second scene of the third act of Our American Cousin, Deering heard what sounded like a gunshot. Later he claimed that upon hearing the report of the weapon, he sensed a gunman might have attacked the president. If so, he outclassed the rest of the audience in quick mental work. Hardly anyone realized initially that Lincoln might have been assaulted, and many did not register the sharp sound as gunfire. Virtually everyone in 1865 thought about assassination in the abstract, but few were prepared for it as a real prospect. Lincoln had attended Ford’s and Grover’s Theatres on many occasions with no apparent risk, and no security detail.

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Grudgingly, after several moments of confusion, the audience began accepting the idea of an assassination unfolding in their midst. Yet, after Booth had launched the lead ball from his derringer muzzle-loader into the back of Abraham Lincoln’s head, rendering him instantly and per- manently unconscious; and after Booth had slashed the Lincolns’ guest Major Rathbone in the upper arm with a long blade, causing blood to spurt all over the box as Rathbone kept trying to subdue the assailant; and after Mary had let out an anguished scream; and after Booth had vaulted over the balustrade of the box, falling ten or twelve feet to the stage below and shouting “sic semper tyrannis”—many in the audience still could not take in what had happened. Witnessing Booth’s awkward landing on the boards, Edwin Bates, a New England businessman sit- ting in the front row of the orchestra underneath the presidential box, assumed at first that Booth had crashed onto the stage because someone had shot at him.

The audience at Ford’s on that evening inhabited an America fundamentally different from the one that came abruptly into being the very next day—a new dispensation in which freely elected presidents might succumb to violent attack, not just to illness (like William Henry Harrison in 1841 and Zachary Taylor in 1850). “It seemed,” wrote the Cincinnati Daily Commercial in a pained, page-one pronouncement four days later, “as if we had turned over a new page in history, and become suddenly possessed of new natures and new destinies—the one baleful and ungovernable, and the other leading to shipwreck.”

Newspapers soon scoured the annals of history for the most recent example of an assassinated republican leader, and they settled on Dutch Protestant nobleman William of Orange, shot and killed without warning in 1584 by a French Catholic assassin because he objected to Spanish rule. Almost three hundred years had passed since that murder. Assassination made no sense in a republic, and three centuries of European and American history confirmed it.

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The Sunday and Monday papers on April 16 and 17 engraved the entire sequence of events into millions of northern minds: Booth’s stealthy approach, the distinct crack of his weapon, the bloody scuffle with Rathbone, Mary’s cry, Booth’s leap and declaration and escape, the impotent stupor of the audience. The killing lodged in people’s memories as a succession of images, as a quickly developing action narrative that couldn’t have happened, but did. The implausibility of the event made the theatergoers’ anguished confusion vital to the story: their experience could stand for the gaping incomprehension of the entire Union population of twenty-five million. At the center of the sequence sat Lincoln’s hulking frame, mute and motionless in his red damask rocking chair.

For villainous flair, John Wilkes Booth has never been surpassed: incensed at the public elation in the North over Lee’s surrender to Grant, he waited for the Ford’s theatergoers to roar with delight before pulling the trigger. Has any other martyr in history been dispatched while a thousand of his admirers were bent over in stitches? A master of dramatic irony, Booth had also made a careful calculation. The people’s glee would slow down their perceptions. They wouldn’t know how to react. They’d think the odd noise piercing their laughter had been intentionally added to the play—one more comic bit. Their disorientation would ease his escape. Some in the theater were ashamed of their slow response that night.

What the Ford’s audience went through on April 14—a wrenching reversal from mirth to misery—was repeated in northern hamlets and cities in the days to come. It made Lincoln’s death all the more inconceivable and all the more searing. For so incomprehensible a killing it was impossible to limit the blame to Booth (immediately named as the assassin in the weekend press), or to the Confederate government that must surely have controlled him, or to a negligent bodyguard from the Washington Metropolitan Police.

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Many northerners blamed themselves for letting their guard down after Lincoln’s return from Richmond. They had lost focus in celebrating Appomattox day after day since Monday, April 10. They had lulled themselves into believing that if Lincoln had walked unscathed through the former Confederate capital on April 4, he was surely safe in Washington, DC. “Of all the occurrences within the range of possibility,” said the shaken and disbelieving St. Louis Democrat, “the assassination of our President in Washington, at this triumphant stage of the war, and while he was devoting himself in the most liberal spirit to an adjustment with the rebels, was perhaps the one event never thought of, still less looked for.” For those who lived through the assassination, the brutal emotional turnabout from April 14 to 15 forever colored their sense of loss. “Noon and midnight,” noted Brooklyn preacher Henry Ward Beecher, “without a space between.”

IN LINCOLN’S DAY, Americans were infatuated with the dying sentiments of public officials. Mass-produced lithographs depicted great men’s deathbed scenes and printed their parting phrases as captions. The two previous presidents to expire in office—Harrison and Taylor— had declined little by little, giving them the chance to offer solemn last reflections. “Sir,” the sixty-eight-year-old Harrison had said to his doctor, “I wish you to understand the true principles of the government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.” The sixty-five-year-old Taylor, famous for his exploits in the war with Mexico, spotted his doctor and spoke soldier to soldier: “You have fought a good fight, but you cannot make a stand.” To those gathered around his bed, including his wife, Margaret, and his son-in-law Jefferson Davis, he added, “I die. I am ready for the summons. I have endeavored to do my duty. I am sorry to leave my old friends.”

During the Civil War, the nation’s readers consumed a steady diet of dying phrases spoken by common soldiers and by great leaders, past and present. In its column “Last Words,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, one of the most popular weeklies of the day, reminded everyone that George Washington’s parting declaration was as “firm, cool, and reliant as himself: ‘I am about to die, and I am not afraid to die.’” When Lincoln’s old nemesis, Stephen Douglas, lay on his deathbed in 1861, his wife put her arms around him and said, “Your boys, Robby and Stevie, and your mother and sister Sarah—have you any message for them?” Douglas replied, “Tell them to obey the laws and support the Constitution of the United States.”

In the days ahead, northerners speculated freely about the words Lincoln would have chosen if he’d been given the time. Perhaps he’d have offered a message of reconciliation for North and South, or a Christian word of forgiveness for his attacker. Perhaps he’d have repeated words he’d already spoken elsewhere, like “with malice toward none, with charity for all” from his second inaugural address, delivered only six weeks before the assassination. Newspapers by the hundreds reminded readers of the martyr’s favorite poem: the Scottish poet William Knox’s fourteen-stanza “Oh, Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud?” written in the early 1820s. In doing so, they gave it the status of a self-eulogy, Lincoln’s virtual last words.

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In 1850, at the end of the eulogy he delivered for Zachary Taylor at a public gathering in Chicago, Lincoln had recited six of Knox’s last seven stanzas from memory. His oration was soon published, and from that point on Lincoln was frequently taken as the poem’s author. With good reason: he recited it to all comers and told them he couldn’t remember who had written it. He melted at its fatalistic insistence on the universality and unanswerable power of death.

So the multitude goes, like the flowers or the weed That withers away to let others succeed;
So the multitude comes, even those we behold,
To repeat every tale that has often been told.
’Tis the wink of an eye—’tis the draught of a breath
From the blossom of health to the paleness of death
From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroud
Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?

“I would give all I am worth, and go in debt,” Lincoln wrote in 1846, “to write so fine a piece as I think that is.”

THE NEW YORK HERALD reported that as Booth approached him from behind, Lincoln was bending forward in his rocking chair, eyes fixed on the stage, head resting on his hand in his carefree way, sharing “a hearty laugh” with the audience. Sitting below Lincoln in the orchestra, Julia Adelaide Shepard noticed “how sociable” the event seemed, “like one family sitting around their parlor fire.” Lincoln had tried to mingle as best he could from his elevated position. She described him as “a father watching what interests his children, for their pleasure rather than his own . . . How different this from the pomp and show of monarchial Europe.”

Many of those who loved Lincoln in 1865 regretted that he had spent his last conscious hours in a theater, in their eyes a morally dubious destination at best. But they took comfort in knowing that to the very end, he had sought out the company of ordinary citizens. He had been sitting among them, relishing their merriment, when he was struck down. Most northerners believed he’d given up his life for them. They took the assassination not as a retroactive martyrdom made possible by Booth’s bullet, but as a voluntary self-sacrifice, akin to the death of a soldier in battle. “President Lincoln fell a sacrifice to his country’s salvation as absolutely, palpably,” said a New York Tribune editorial on April 17, “as though he had been struck down while leading an assault on the ramparts of Petersburg.”

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Lincoln didn’t know he had a date with death that night, but he did know that his republican duty entailed an attitude of disinterestedness as to life or death. A confirmed reader of the Bible, if not a professed Christian, he understood the relevance to his republicanism of Matthew 10:28 (“fear not them which kill the body but are not able to kill the soul”) and Paul’s comment to the Philippians (1:20) that “Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death.”

He might have said the same about the American Republic being magnified by his dying as much as by his living. Perhaps once in a while President Lincoln came close to imagining the appropriateness, in the midst of all the war losses, of his own death. Schuyler Colfax remembered the president telling him, after spending a sleepless night agonizing over Union fatalities in 1863, “how willingly” he would “exchange places today with the soldier who sleeps on the ground in the Army of the Potomac.” On that occasion, Lincoln was plainly aching for a good night’s sleep, but he also sensed that solid rest now depended on imagining his body exposed to the risks run by his soldiers.

SITTING in the dress circle forty feet from the president’s box, army surgeon Charles Leale was startled like everyone else, not long after 10:15 p.m., by what sounded like a pistol going off. He rushed in the direction of the shot and reached the box before anyone else did. Lincoln sat slumped in his rocking chair, propped up by his wife, unconscious but still breathing. Leale couldn’t tell where Lincoln had been wounded, and he quickly laid him out on the floor to examine him. He glanced at Major Rathbone’s bleeding arm and inferred that Lincoln, too, might have been stabbed. A bystander with a penknife cut away Lincoln’s coat and shirt, revealing no wound.

Running his hands through the victim’s thick black hair (Lincoln had likened it to a horse’s mane), Leale found the entry point of the derringer ball behind the left ear. Ignorant of microbial transmission, he used his pinky to probe the entry point of the .41-caliber projectile (four-tenths of an inch in diameter). Feeling the cavity convinced Leale that Lincoln had suffered a fatal injury. The surgeon conveyed this news to the people pressing into the box, and it spread quickly through the theater and into the crowd already forming in anger and gloom on Tenth Street.

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By this time, a second young army surgeon, Charles Taft (uncle of future president William Howard Taft, then seven years old) had been boosted into the balcony box from the stage below. He concurred with Leale’s dire prognosis, as did a third doctor, Albert F. A. King, who soon joined the others. Immediately they turned their attention from saving the president to keeping him alive as long as they could. As the doctors deliberated about what to do next, actress Laura Keene, the star of the show, arrived in the box and got Leale’s permission to cradle Lincoln’s head in her lap, absorbing drops of Lincoln’s blood into the folds of her dress.

Laura Keene was, in effect, sitting in for Mary Lincoln, who was too distraught to stroke her husband’s forehead. In the weeks to come, many lithographs were produced to capture the scene in the president’s box, but apparently none showed Laura Keene performing the holy service of succoring the dying martyr. Perhaps too many citizens would have taken umbrage at the idea of a “public woman,” an actress, playing this poignant familial role. Such judgment did nothing to lessen interest in the bloodstained patches of her dress that she eventually distributed, along with affidavits attesting to their authenticity.

Major Rathbone’s blood is dripping from Booth’s knife as he leaps to the stage, and the top of Lincoln’s rocking chair has been squared off to look like a coffin.

Dr. Leale recollected decades later that his only thought at this point was to “remove [the president] to safety.” He and the other doctors ruled out a bumpy carriage ride back to the White House, a trip they felt would surely kill him, and chose instead to carry him out into the street in search of shelter. Had protecting his body alone controlled their decision, they might have asked the many soldiers present to clear the theater and make Lincoln as comfortable as they could. Something besides the victim’s physical security drove their decision to take him on a jostling journey down the staircase and into a volatile crowd on Tenth Street, where, for all they knew, more danger lurked in the form of another assassin.

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Merely moving the president outdoors posed medical risks too: “retaining [Lincoln’s] life” as they crossed the street, Dr. Leale recalled, was accomplished only with “great difficulty.” They had to keep stopping so that he could remove the clot of blood on the wound, reducing cranial pressure to aid the president’s breathing. Dr. Taft was supporting Lincoln’s head as the group shuffled along, led by a soldier who parted the crowd with his drawn sword. As Taft later remembered, “the motion of the body in being carried” caused additional oozing, “and my hands, which supported the head, were covered with blood and brain tissue.”

Meanwhile, Lincoln’s body was barely covered above the waist. William DeMotte, an Illinois state official who’d attended the play and was now watching the Tenth Street spectacle, said the president was “denuded of the upper clothing, not only his face and neck exposed but his breast and arms. His coat or cloak was thrown loosely over his chest.” On the evening of April 14, dozens if not hundreds of citizens got a glimpse of Lincoln’s head and bare chest as he was carried past them in the open air.

The idea of putting Lincoln in a lodging house on the other side of Tenth Street may have seemed so enticing to Leale, Taft, and King because it offered them a domestic setting where they could temporarily have the dying man to themselves. In a real bedroom they could close the door, keeping family, politicians, and soldiers out of the way as they prepared the president for a proper deathbed vigil. The pull of this enclosable space, where the physicians could perform their medical duties unimpeded, was matched by an equally compelling push factor: relocating Lincoln to a boardinghouse would ensure he didn’t die on Good Friday in a setting many Americans considered suspect at best, disgraceful at worst. Realizing that the wound was mortal, the doctors may have sensed that the threat to the “safety” of the president included his moral legacy just as much as his bodily survival for, at best, a few more hours.

For years, Lincoln had been roundly chastised for his regular trips to the theater; one historian counts forty-three such trips during his four years in the White House. He had attended Grover’s (later National) Theatre more frequently than Ford’s, taking in performances of Shakespeare and of ordinary playwrights like Tom Taylor, author of Our American Cousin. For many American Protestants, theaters ranked with gambling dens and dance halls as cesspools of vice, and the president’s spending the anniversary of Christ’s crucifixion chuckling at an English comedy struck many of them as a lamentable lapse of judgment.

“Multitudes of his best friends,” said the Lincolns’ own minister, Phineas Gurley, in a public address six weeks later, “would have preferred that he should have fallen in almost any other place. Had he been murdered in his bed, or in his office, or on the street, or on the steps of the Capitol,” said Gurley, “the tidings of his death would not have struck the Christian heart of the country quite so painfully.” If the public roadway ranked higher than the theater as a respectable place for a president to die, then Drs. Leale, Taft, and King had done Christians a vital service simply by getting the still breathing Lincoln out onto Tenth Street.

IMMIGRANT TAILOR William Petersen owned a three-story, eleven-room house across the street from Ford’s Theatre, and he rented out rooms to several young government employees and to Hulda Francis and her husband, George, a dealer in “house furnishing goods” (“cutlery, guns, baskets, brushes, and notions”). About 10:30 p.m., George and Hulda were undressing for bed in their big first-floor room at the rear of the house. Suddenly they heard what George called “a terrible scream” outside, and they ran to the front parlor window looking out on Tenth Street.

At the doorway of Ford’s Theatre they saw “some running in, others hurrying out,” and they heard “hundreds of voices mingled in the greatest confusion.” Buttoning up his clothes and hurrying out the door, George reached the street just as Lincoln was being carried from the theater. Like William DeMotte, Francis registered the unexpected sight of the president’s chest only barely covered with a coat. “I could see as the gas light [from the sidewalk streetlamp] fell upon his face,” George recalled. The president looked “deathly pale,” and “his eyes were closed.”

Holding a candle as he stood on the raised front stoop of the Petersen house, fellow boarder Henry Safford called out to Dr. Leale’s party, inviting them to bring Lincoln inside. The obvious place to lay him down was the large Francis bedroom, but Leale’s group passed it up in favor of a much smaller (10×17-foot) room rented by William Clark, a former soldier in Company D of the Thirteenth Massachusetts Infantry and now a clerk at the Treasury Department. Out for the evening, Clark had left his room neatly made up, and the door unlocked. The gigantic Lincoln was placed diagonally on the black walnut bed, his feet left dangling off the edge of the mattress by the wall, and his head angled toward the door.

This room’s spare simplicity would permit an easy transition to the deathbed vigil. Aside from the bed, it contained only a bureau (topped with a crochet) and a small table. The old standards affixed to the wall— prints of J. H. Herring Sr.’s Barnyard, Stable, and Village Blacksmith, and a photo reproduction of Rosa Bonheur’s Horse Fair—gave grieving visitors some familiar images of prewar rural tranquillity to contemplate as the night wore on.

Almost immediately, the Francis bedroom was pressed into national service too, as soldiers, officials, family, friends, and ordinary citizens converged on the Petersen house. In chaotic fulfillment of republican doctrine, a random detachment of “the people” had swarmed up the steps and followed the president’s body onto the premises. Taking for granted the propriety of continued free access to their chief magistrate, they hung about the soon impassable hallway until a soldier was finally delegated to throw them out. Then they blended into the large mass of people squeezed into Tenth Street, where reeling theatergoers had been joined by the same roving bands of young men who’d been publicly celebrating every evening since Lee’s surrender to Grant five days earlier.

After the hotheads in their midst had expended themselves with calls to burn down Ford’s Theatre and to hang an allegedly anti-Lincoln passerby from a sycamore tree, the informal assembly settled into patient waiting for hard facts to emerge. Whenever a general or politician appeared on the Petersen house steps, the crowd plied him for information. William DeMotte remembered the people on Tenth Street keeping their collective ear literally to the ground. “At intervals during the night the clatter of horses’ hoofs was heard as squads of cavalry galloped about the city. Each time there would be quiet and listening of the vast crowd till the direction was determined and as the sound always died away from us we knew the assassin was not found.”

Another man standing in the street, Union army officer Roeliff Brinkerhoff, had followed Lincoln’s body down the stairway from Ford’s dress circle, noticing “a plash of blood on every step.” (The blood likely belonged to Major Rathbone, severely gashed by Booth’s knife, not to Lincoln, whose head wound bled far less copiously.) Once outdoors, Brinkerhoff found alarm spreading as rumors pulsed through the crowd. Vice President Johnson, Secretary of State Seward, and Secretary of War Stanton had all supposedly been killed. “It looked as if there might be a second Saint Bartholomew [massacre of 1572 in France] in progress,” Brinkerhoff wrote later. He ran up Tenth Street to get a look at the signal station atop the five-story Winder Building at Seventeenth and F Streets. When he saw the corpsmen sending a message to “the fortifications,” he relaxed, knowing that “any uprising would be quickly suppressed.”

The rumors Brinkerhoff had picked up contained some truth. Booth had planned a coordinated assault against Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward. His accomplice Lewis Powell had in fact “assassinated” Seward, since the word then connoted any violent assault, lethal or not, on the life of a public official. Seward and his son Frederick, also wounded by Powell, survived the knife attack. Johnson’s designated attacker, George Atzerodt, had gotten cold feet and failed to act.

As a deliberating minipublic, sifting out the truth or falsity of its own rumors, the crowd acted the part of a first-alert apparatus, sending off emissaries armed with the latest intelligence to other parts of the city. Until official word of the assassination was cabled from the War Department to the national press soon after midnight, the Tenth Street citizens operated as an informal broadcasting system.

Lounging with a newspaper in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, several blocks west of Ford’s Theatre, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Maun- sell B. Field first learned what had happened when several men ran into the lobby yelling that the president had been shot. He hustled up Tenth Street and began buttonholing members of the crowd, who told him— perhaps grasping at straws of hope based on having seen the president’s upper torso—that Lincoln had been shot in the chest and might survive. Field had little trouble pursuing the truth of the matter on his own by talking his way into the still lightly guarded boardinghouse.

Meanwhile, Dr. Leale had cleared William Clark’s bedroom of everyone but medical personnel—an order that meant ejecting an inconsolable Mary Lincoln. As Secretary Field stepped inside the house, he found her standing alone in the center of the front parlor, still in her bonnet and gloves, keeping solitary company with a marble-topped table. Three times she repeated the question: “Why didn’t he [Booth] shoot me?” Soon she was joined and comforted by her friend Elizabeth Dixon, wife of Connecticut senator James Dixon, who remained with her all night long, and by her pastor, Phineas Gurley. Until the following morning, the front parlor of the Petersen house remained a sanctuary for familial, prayerful mourning.

Having found the president unscathed below the head, yet growing frigid in his extremities, Dr. Leale ordered blankets, hot-water bottles, and “mustard plaster” to increase body temperature (by irritating the skin, the mustard application improved blood circulation). At Dr. Taft’s suggestion, Leale forced a sip of diluted brandy between Lincoln’s lips, which he swallowed with a struggle. Another teaspoonful of brandy did not go down at all. With that, the doctors settled in for a deathbed vigil of indeterminate length, readmitting mourners while continuing to monitor the victim’s breathing and heartbeat.

Excerpted from "Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History" by Richard Wightman Fox. Copyright © 2015 by Richard Wightman Fox. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


Richard Wightman Fox

Richard Wightman Fox is a professor of history at the University of Southern California and the author of Jesus in America and Trials of Intimacy, among other books. He lives in Venice, California.

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