A “New Find” in 2012: Dr. Charles Leale’s 1865 Report on Lincoln’s Death
© Richard Wightman Fox 2015
In early June 2012, websites and newspapers around the world reported an exciting “new find” in Lincoln studies. In May, a researcher working for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project had been sifting through boxes of 19th century records at the National Archives in Washington. Suddenly she found herself holding a manuscript marked (in black ink), “Chas A Leale, Report on death of President Lincoln.” Just above that title, an unknown cataloguer had written (in red ink) the date “1865.”
Historians had been trying to find this document for nearly a century and a half. It was Dr. Leale’s original account of what happened on the evening of April 14, and during the long night that followed.
At about 10:30 p.m., the 23 year-old Leale rushed to Lincoln’s aid as he sat mortally wounded in Ford’s Theatre. Leale’s quick decision to lay the president down on the floor of his stage-left box— relieving the pressure on his brain-- may have extended his life until early Saturday morning.
That stretch of nine hours from Booth’s gunshot at about 10:30 p.m. to the president’s death at 7:22 a.m. gave high government officials the chance to gather around his deathbed and absorb the calamity together. Northerners as a group took comfort in the familiar deathbed ritual, described for them in detail in their Sunday and Monday newspapers and soon reproduced visually in many commercial lithographs.
Two years later, in 1867, Dr. Leale wrote an account of Lincoln’s death for a congressional committee, and in that document (today located in the Benjamin Butler Papers at the Library of Congress) he said he was drawing on an unpublished manuscript that he’d written “a few hours after leaving [Lincoln’s] death bed.”
The “new find” of June 2012 gives us our first look at what Leale wrote on April 15, 1865-- not the actual pages, but the undated copy of them marked “1865” by the National Archives cataloguer. (You can read this copy at “The Papers of Abraham Lincoln”: enter “Leale” in the Papers’ “Search” box to retrieve the “Report of Dr. Charles A. Leale on Assassination, April 15, 1865.”)
It turns out the “new find” doesn’t disclose anything new, but that’s an important bit of knowledge in its own right. We now know there’s no bombshell waiting to be divulged in Leale’s long-misplaced report. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to compare Leale’s 1865 and 1867 accounts of the assassination. It shows us how his memory of the event was evolving, and it points us to moments during the last hours of Lincoln’s life that aren’t well known today.
Three such moments strike one immediately in reading Leale’s two reports: Lincoln’s entry into the dress circle at Ford’s Theatre; John Wilkes Booth’s brandishing of his dagger; and the prayer (or was it prayers?) intoned by the Reverend Phineas Gurley at the time of Lincoln’s death.
(1) In 1865, Dr. Leale wrote that he watched from his seat in the dress circle as the president’s party walked by on their way to their stage-left box. The audience was cheering heartily, and the president and Mrs. Lincoln “reciprocated” the warm welcome with “a smile and bow” (p. 2 of the 1865 report).
But this happy Lincoln was replaced in Leale’s 1867 account by a despondent one: “the President as he proceeded to the box looked expressively mournful and sad.” Leale had either suppressed the news of Lincoln’s sorrowful mien in his 1865 document, or only later remembered the dejected look on the president’s face.
(2) In 1865, Dr. Leale was already intently focused on the long knife wielded by the “man of low stature and black hair and eyes” who had leapt to the stage from the president’s box. He noticed the “drawn dagger” Booth was “flourishing in his hand” before he jumped (p. 3) and again as he ran across the stage (p. 4). In 1867, Leale was still preoccupied with the dagger, and embellished his memory of it by adding a striking visual metaphor: Booth had “raised his shining dagger in the air, which reflected the light as though it had been a diamond.”
The dagger’s continuing importance to Leale reminds us that when he rushed to Lincoln’s aid he first checked the president for a stab wound, not a gunshot wound. And he did so despite having “distinctly” heard, from his seat in the dress circle, “the report of a pistol” cracking through the theatre (p. 3). When he arrived at Lincoln’s side, and saw him slumped forward in his rocking chair, why didn’t he infer that he had been shot? Perhaps because an actual stabbing was staring him in the face-- the one inflicted by Booth on Major Henry Rathbone, a member of Lincoln’s party. And perhaps because Leale, like many others in the audience, was hoping against hope that the president had only been slashed.
(3) In 1865, Dr. Leale described the scene beside the bed after Lincoln died. The grieving officials and family friends “bowed down” for a prayer delivered by the Lincoln family’s minister Phineas Gurley (p. 20). In 1867, however, Leale remembered them all kneeling down together for two prayers, one before the president died and the other after his last breath.
With his avid interest in Gurley’s words, we might expect Leale to have heard, and recorded, Edwin Stanton’s alleged phrase “now he belongs to the ages”—if Stanton had in fact said it. But Leale made no mention of it in 1865 or 1867. As far as we know, there’s no record Stanton having spoken those words in any source before 1890. If only Dr. Leale had noted Stanton’s supposed words in his 1865 report. For students of Lincoln, that would have qualified as a true bombshell.