In early June, 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, a 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 he’d done and witnessed on the evening of April 14, and morning of April 15, in 1865.
The 23-year-old Leale had been the first physician to come to Lincoln’s aid as he sat unconscious and mortally wounded in his box at Ford’s Theatre. Leale’s quick decision to lay Lincoln down on the floor of the box — relieving the pressure on his brain — may have been responsible for extending Lincoln’s 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 the deathbed and absorb the calamity together. Northerners as a group took comfort from the familiar deathbed ritual, described for them in great detail in their Sunday and Monday newspapers and soon reproduced visually in countless 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in that document (today located in the Benjamin Butler Papers at the Library of Congress) he said he was drawing on an unpublished manuscript that he’d written “a few hours after leaving [Lincoln’s] death bed.”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 http://www.papersofabrahamlincoln.org/New_Documents.htm
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 documents. It shows us how his memory of the assassination was evolving, and it points us to moments during the last hours of Lincoln’s life that aren’t usually highlighted in treatments of the assassination.
Here I can mention three such moments: 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.
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 the box. The audience was cheering heartily, and the president and Mrs. Lincoln “reciprocated” the warm welcome with “a smile and bow” (p. 2).
But this happy Lincoln was replaced in Leale’s 1867 report 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 account, or remembered the dejected look on his face only after writing that report.
In 1865, Dr. Leale was intently focused on the long knife wielded by the “man of low stature and black hair and eyes” who had leaped 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). By 1867, Leale had embellished his memory of the menacing knife. Now Booth had “raised his shining dagger in the air, which reflected the light as though it had been a diamond.”
The dagger was so impressive to Leale that when he rushed to Lincoln’s box about 10:30 p.m. — after “distinctly” hearing “the report of a pistol” crack through the theatre (p. 3) — he first checked the president for a stab wound, not a gunshot wound.
Perhaps the actual stab wound that was staring him in the face — the one inflicted by Booth on Maj. Henry Rathbone, a member of Lincoln’s party — influenced his judgment. But maybe Leale was initially unwilling to countenance the idea that Lincoln had been shot, hoping against hope that he’d only been slashed.
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, Leale remembered, they all knelt 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 phrase “now he belongs to the ages” — if Stanton had in fact said it. Leale made no mention of it in 1865 or 1867. It’s one of the nice ironies of Lincoln’s deathbed vigil that the main thing many Americans remember about it today — Stanton intoning his moving phrase over Lincoln’s body — was quite likely a much later addition to Lincoln lore. There’s no record of it in 19th-century sources before 1890. If only Dr. Leale had mentioned it in his 1865 report. That would have been a bombshell.