Dr. Charles A. Leale Letter

Dr. Charles A. Leale
Location: Dress circle, right
Letter to General Benjamin Butler, Library of Congress
July 20, 1867

Leale's account is one of the most detailed. He provides an invaluable description of the medical attention given to Lincoln inside the theater. Although it was written in 1867, it is included with the April 1865 accounts because Leale based the letter on notes written within days of the assassination.

My dear General,
Yours of the 15th inst. has been received and heard of the assassination of our late President Abraham Lincoln, and in answer to which I herewith forward to you an account in brief of what transpired from the time that the President entered the theatre until the time of his death on the following morning, which account is principally copied from (a never published) one written by me a few hours after leaving his death bed in which I noted the events in connection with what transpired on that most memorable and never-to be forgotten night that are so indeniably impressed upon my mind. More especially on account of the grave responsibilities that rested upon me. As I was the first person to arrive to his assistance was requested by Mrs. Lincoln to do what I could for him, discovered where he had been wounded by the ball of the assassin, removed the coagula from the opening through the cranium and had charge of him until Dr. Stone his family physician arrived which was about twenty minutes after we had placed him comfortably in bed in the house of Mr. Petersen and as I alas remained with him until his death, the following account of what transpired is respectfully transmitted.

Very Respectfully Your Obedient Servant
Charles A. Leale, M.D.
Brevet-Captain and Late A. Surgeon United States Volunteers

Major General B. F. Butler
Member of United States Congress and
Chairman of Assassination Investigating Committee

On the evening of the 14th April 1865 while engaged with the execution duties of the United States Army General Hospital "Armory Square" Washington I was requested to visit Ford's Theatre, being told that the President Lincoln, General Grant and Staff were to be there. I arrived at the theatre about 8 1/4 PM and endeavored to procure a seat in the orchestra but it being so densely crowded I left it for the dress circle where I found a vacant seat on the same side and within 40 feet of the President's box, the play was then progressing and in a few minutes I saw the President, Mrs. Lincoln, Major Rathbone, and Miss Harris enter, the play ceased for a short time and as soon as they were seen by the audience they were cheered which was responded by the President with a smile and a bow. The President as he proceeded to the box looked expressively mournful and sad.

The door of the box was opened by an usher who proceeded them but who after they had all entered closed the door then took a seat near by for himself. All parts of the theatre were well filled and the play of Our American Cousin was progressing very pleasantly until about 5 minutes past 10 when on looking towards the box I saw a man speaking with another near the door and endeavoring to enter, which he at last succeeded in doing after which the door was closed.

I again looked toward the stage and was pleased with the amusing part then being performed, but soon heard the report of a pistol, and about a minute or two after I saw a man with dark hair and bright black eyes, leap from the box to the stage below, while descending he threw himself a little forward and raised his shining dagger in the air, which reflected the light as though it had been a diamond, when he struck the stage he stumbled a little forward but with a bound regained the use of his limbs and ran to the opposite side of the stage soon disappearing behind the scenes.

I then heard cries that the President had been murdered which were followed by those of "Kill the murderer" "Shoot him" etc which came from different parts of the audience.

I remained in my seat believing it until I saw some one open the door of the box, and heard him call for a Surgeon and help.

I arrived at the door of the box, and upon saying that I was a Surgeon was immediately admitted.

When I entered the box, Mr. Lincoln was sitting in a high backed armchair with his head leaning towards his right-side and which was supported by Mrs. Lincoln who was weeping bitterly. Miss Harris was at her left-side behind the President, Major Rathbone was at the door of the box.

While approaching the President I was told that he had been murdered and I sent for some Brandy and water.

Upon Mrs. Lincoln being told that I was a Surgeon she said, "Oh Doctor do what you can for my dear husband" "do what you can for him and for Dr. Stone."

I told her that I would do all which was in my power to do.

When I reached the President he was almost dead, his eyes were closed he was parallel. I placed my finger on his right radial pulse, but could feel no movement of the artery. His breathing was exceedingly stertorous there being long intervals between each inspiration and he was in a most profoundly comatosed condition.

With the assistance of two gentlemen I immediately placed him in a recumbent position while doing this and holding his head and shoulders my hand came in contact with blood on his left-shoulder, the thought of the dagger then recurred to me, and supposed that he might have been stabbed in the subelavical artery or some of its branches. I asked a gentleman near by to cut his coat and shirt off that shoulder to enable me if possible to check the supposed hemorrhage, as soon as his arm was bared to a distance below the shoulder, and I saw that there was no wound there, I lifted his eyelids and examined his eyes, the pupil of which was dilated. I then examined his head and soon discovered a large firm clot of blood situated about one inch below the superior curved line and an inch and a half to the left of the median line of the occipital bone.

The coagnin which was firmly matted with the hair, [was] removed [I] passed the little finger of my left hand directly through the perfectly smooth opening made by the ball, he was then apparently dead.

When I removed my finger which I used as a knife an oozing of blood followed and he commenced to show signs of improvement.

I believe that he would not have lived five minutes longer if the pressure on the brain had not been relieved and if he had been left that much longer in the sitting posture.

The Brandy and water now arrived and I put a small quantity into his mouth which was the only thing that passed into his stomach from his assassination until his death.

Dr. C. S. Taft and Dr. A. F. A. King now arrived, and after a moments consultation we agreed to remove him.
While in the theatre, I was several times asked the nature of the wound and said that the ball had lodged in the encephalens and that it was a mortal wound.

We now commenced to remove him carefully descending the steps first while supporting his head and shoulders as soon as we arrived at the door of the box, I saw that the passage was densely crowded by those coming towards that part of the theatre.

I called out twice "Guards clear the passage" which was so rapidly done that we proceeded without a moments delay towards the stairs leading to the hall which is entered from the street, when we arrived at the head of the stairs we turned around those holding his lower extremities descending first.

There was an officer present who rendered great assistance in making the passage through the crowd.

When we arrived to the street I was asked to place him in a carriage and remove him to the White House this I refused to do being fearful that he would die as soon as he would be placed in an upright position. I said that I wished to take him to the nearest house and place him comfortably in bed.

We slowly crossed the street there being a barrier of men on each side of an open passage towards the house. Those who went ahead of us reported that the house directly opposite was closed.

I saw a man standing at the door of Mr. Peterson's [sic] house and beckoning us to enter which we did and immediately placed him in bed, all of which was done in less than twenty minutes from the time that he had been assassinated we not having been in the slightest interrupted while removing him.


Good, Timothy S. We Saw Lincoln Shot. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MISS, 1995.

Copyright © 2016 by Patrick Scrivener

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