On April 14, 1865, Charles Augustus Leale was a 23-year old Union army medical officer, just two months out of Bellevue Medical College in New York. He was in charge of the Officers Ward in Armory Square Hospital, Washington, D.C. That evening he decided to see a play at nearby Ford’s Theatre.
The famous English play, “ Our American Cousin,” by Tom Taylor, starring the well-known British actress Laura Keene, was to be performed. There was another reason he decided to attend: he had read in the newspaper that President Abraham Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln would be there.
Dr. Leale was seated in the Dress Circle, forty feet from the Presidential Box.
Leale, along with the rest of the audience, heard the gunshot that killed President Lincoln. He saw John Wilkes Booth jump from the box on to the stage, brandishing a knife, to make his escape from the theatre.
There was a call for a Doctor. Leale hurried to the President’s box and was the first to arrive and take charge.
Mrs. Lincoln, who was holding her husband upright in his chair, begged Dr. Leale to do all that he could.
Because he had seen a knife in Booth’s hand on stage, Leale assumed that there would be a knife wound, but he discovered, instead, a gunshot wound to the rear of President Lincoln’s skull. He removed a blood clot and restored Lincoln’s breathing.
Other Doctors soon arrived, but since Leale was there first, they agreed that the new 23-year-old Doctor would be in charge. One can only imagine the sense of responsibility and enormous pressure on young Doctor Leale to not make a mistake and cause the death of the President.
It was Leale who decided to move the President from the theatre to a private home across the street, where he might be cared for more easily and be made more comfortable in a bed. Lincoln never regain consciousness.
The next day, at the end of the terrible tragedy, after the President finally breathed his last, Leale walked back to the theater alone. In the excitement, he had forgotten his hat.
Leale was a military doctor. As we all know, nothing takes place in the military without a report being made. While the events were fresh in his mind, Leale wrote a detailed report to his superior officer, recounting the events of the evening and detailing everything he did to try to save President Lincoln’s life.
Then, Dr. Leale filed his report and it was placed in a drawer with thousands of other documents and forgotten.
Forty-four years later, in 1909, Leale used his report to form a speech, detailing what took placed on that tragic evening. The speech was subsequently printed, circulated and then forgotten again. Dr. Leale lived a long life, passing away at the age of 90 on June 13, 1932.
Two years ago, in 2012, Helena Iles Papaioannou, a researcher at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois, was assigned, along with three other researchers, to examine the records of the Surgeon General in the National Archives in Washington. She was asked to examine the documents to learn if anything new and interesting existed pertaining to Lincoln’s life.
There are millions of uncatalogued documents in the archives. Where would one start? Perhaps under L for Lincoln? And there, amidst all those papers, she found Dr. Leale’s original military report, filed away in 1865 and lying there, unread, all those years.
“What is remarkable about this newly discovered report is its immediacy and poignancy,” said Daniel Stowell, Director of the papers of Abraham Lincoln. “You can sense the helplessness Leale and the other doctors felt that night.”
I shared those feelings when I read the report and the dramatic speech Dr. Leale gave in 1909. The speech was written in first person, as Dr. Leale shares, moment by moment, the events of that evening and details his efforts to trying to save the President.
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LINCOLN’S LAST HOURS by Dr. Charles Augustus Leale.
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