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"Oh Doctor, do what you can!"

June 2024
4min read

First Medical Report on Lincoln's Assassination Uncovered

It was the discovery of a lifetime. Helena Iles Papaioannou, a researcher with the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project, was meticulously combing through 1865 correspondence of the U.S. Surgeon General when she came upon the long-lost report of Charles Leale, the doctor who treated the president on the night he was shot.

While Dr. Leale’s later testimony at a congressional hearing was known to historians, his original 21-page clinical report written the day after the assassination was missing.

Leale, a 23-year-old Army doctor just out of medical school, was sitting only 40 feet from the Lincolns at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. He saw John Wilkes Booth jump to the stage, waving a dagger.

Hearing cries that the “President had been murdered,” and thinking Lincoln had been stabbed, Leale rushed to the president’s box and found him paralyzed, comatose, and leaning against his wife. “O Doctor, do what you can for him,” cried Mary Lincoln several times.

“I commenced to examine his head ... and soon passed my fingers over a large firm clot of blood,” Leale wrote the next day. “The coagula I easily removed and passed the little finger of my left hand through the perfectly smooth opening made by the ball.”

By clearing away the blood clot, Leale relieved pressure on Lincoln’s brain and probably extended his life by some eight hours. Leale remained by the President’s side the entire night.

“What I found fascinating is the immediacy and the poignancy of the report,” says Daniel Stowell, director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project. “Leale had just gotten his medical license six weeks earlier, and he’s thrust into this historic event. He’s holding Lincoln’s wrist when he passes away. He goes home and writes up this account. It’s a first draft of history.”

The Lincoln Papers project has thus far identified some 90,000 documents written by or to Abraham Lincoln during his lifetime. Researchers have visited hundreds of repositories and scanned documents in 47 states. The project is sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.

Original Text of the Leale Report

“The theatre was well filled and the play of Our American Cousin progressed very pleasantly until about half past ten, when the report of a pistol was distinctly heard and about a minute after a man of low stature with black hair and eyes was seen leaping to the stage beneath, holding in his hand a drawn dagger.

While descending his heel got entangled in the American flag, which was hung in front of the box, causing him to stumble when he struck the stage, but with a single bound he regained the use of his limbs and ran to the opposite side of the stage, flourishing in his hand a drawn dagger and disappearing behind the scene. 

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 immediately ran to the President’s box and as soon as the door was opened was admitted and introduced to Mrs. Lincoln when she exclaimed several times, ‘O Doctor, do what you can for him, do what you can!’ I told her we would do all that we possibly could.

Mr. Lincoln was seated in a high backed arm-chair with his head leaning towards his right side supported by Mrs. Lincoln who was weeping bitterly. While approaching the President I sent a gentleman for brandy and another for water.

When I reached the President he was in a state of general paralysis, his eyes were closed and he was in a profoundly comatose condition, while his breathing was intermittent and exceedingly stertorous. I placed my finger on his right radial pulse but could perceive no movement of the artery. As two gentlemen now arrived, I requested them to assist me to place him in a recumbent position, and as I held his head and shoulders, while doing this my hand came in contact with a clot of blood near his left shoulder.

Supposing that he had been stabbed there I asked a gentleman to cut his coat and shirt off from that part, to enable me if possible to check the hemorrhage which I supposed took place from the subclavian artery or some of its branches.

Before they had proceeded as far as the elbow I commenced to examine his head (as no wound near the shoulder was found) and soon passed my fingers over a large firm clot of blood situated about one inch below the superior curved line of the occipital bone.

The coagula I easily removed and passed the little finger of my left hand through the perfectly smooth opening made by the ball, and found that it had entered the encephalon.

As soon as I removed my finger a slight oozing of blood followed and his breathing became more regular and less stertorous. The brandy and water now arrived and a small quantity was placed in his mouth, which passed into his stomach where it was retained.

Dr. C. F. Taft and Dr. A. F. A. King now arrived and after a moments’ consultation we agreed to have him removed to the nearest house, which we immediately did, the above named with  others assisting.

When we arrived at the door of the box, the passage was found to be densly crowded by those who were rushing towards that part of the theatre. I called out twice, ‘Guards clear the passage,’ which was so soon done that we proceeded without a moments delay with the President and were not in the slightest interrupted until he was placed in bed in the house of Mr. Peterson, opposite the theatre, in less than 20 minutes from the time he was assassinated.

The street in front of the theatre before we had left it was filled with the excited populace, a large number of whom followed us into the house.

As soon as we arrived in the room offered to us, we placed the  President in bed in a diagonal position; as the bed was too short, a part of the foot was removed to enable us to place him in a  comfortable position....”

Request to our Readers

If you know of letters or documents relating to our 16th President, including letters to him, commissions, etc., please contact the Lincoln Project at 217.785.9131.

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