Lincoln's Last Breath - The Historian Detective

The Short Story you are about to read represents one of the most shocking moments in American History. I carefully researched a lot of this information directly from the archives at the West Point library. This was a seminal moment for Americans and it added a sad ending to a truly terrible saga.

Eyewitnesses tell a story of heart-thumping, blood-pumping adrenalin and excitement. The tension between the main actors of the moment comes across in every account told of the moments directly after the assassination takes place.

I wanted to know what Abraham Lincoln was able to look at the moment a mini-ball was fired into the back of his head. And once I began to uncover the details that other history books have left out, I wanted to put you, the reader, right there next to the assassinated president as he took his last breath.

The great poet Walt Whitman was an eyewitness to the scene that forever changed American History. Here, according to him, is exactly what happened - AS it happened.

''...There is a scene in the play where there is a presenting of a modern parlor - in which two unprecedented English ladies are informed by the in presented and impossible Uanfee that he is not a man of fortune and therefore undesirable for mating catching purposes; after which, the comments being finished, the dramatic trio make exit, leaving the stage clear for a moment; There was a paise, a high as it were. At this very moment, it happened - the murder of Mr. Abraham Lincoln. Great as it was, the actual murder transpired with the quiet simplicity of any of the commonest occurrence- the bursting of a bud or pod in the growth vegetation, for instance.''

Another letter, written by Martin Jones to Union Captain H. Bowen, Jones describes the following setting. Written ten days after the assassination, he says, ''I want to tell you of the recent assassination of out late illustrious chief magistrates, which has cast a gloom over the land'.

Mr. Jones describes actor John Wilkes Booth as a 'man with face of livid whiteness'

He said: 'The theatre was well filled, and the play opened soon after eight o'clock.

'I occupied a front seat in the first section from the private box fitted up for the Presidential company.''

'In the middle of the first scene of the first act, the attention of the actors and audience was attracted by the rustling of silk and other movements to the rear of the dress circle.

'The tall and manly form of President Lincoln greeted the anxious eyes of the assembly. Cheer upon cheer welcomed him as he passed to the entrance of his box.'

'He paused a moment to gratify those whose cheers seemed to die away, and then followed Mrs. Lincoln into the box, and was shut from the view of most of the assembly.

'The President, as usual with him, had no guard - except that which in the greatness and goodness of his heart he deemed sufficient.'

He added: 'The play went 'smoothly on,' and the attention of the audience became so engrossed in it that little thought was given to other subjects.

Through the general quiet following the stage pause, came the muffled sound of a post. There was a shot, which not one hundredth of the audience even heard at the time - and yet a moment's hush somehow surely a startled and vague shrill - and then, though the ornamented banners and starred box of the president, a sudden figure, a man raises himself with hands and feet, stands on the moment on the railing and leaps to the stage - a distance of about fourteen or fifteen feet.

Walt Whitman writes as if his soul is screaming on the inside. He describes the moment. Booth has jumped from the President's box, but to many in the crows it looks as if he was leaping from a great height. ''He rolls out of the fall to his hands and feet, peers out of his wide-eyes, ''Sic Simpre Tyrannis.'' He departs stage right, as if it were all planned, and then a voice - ''Murder!'' It was Ms. Lincoln, pointing at Booth as he left, ''He has just killed the President!"' And then this moment I shall never forget. A pause, the air is complete in silence, a strange incredulous response! And then, then the deluge, the mixture if screams and horror and noises.''

Whitman continues, ''...Such hurriedly sketched were the accompany images, perhaps because a man of this greatness...He died without feeling a pain.''

Photography by Robert Bluestein, 2012 ©

Photography by Robert Bluestein, 2012 ©

Had Abraham Lincoln been able to open his eyes when they carried him out of Ford's Theater on that night of April 1865, he would have seen this very same view. (Without the plaque of course!)

As a historian, I wanted to really imagine what Lincoln might have seen had he been able to process even a little bit of information.

It must have been a shocking moment for everyone. The bloody war was only days over, and the man widely credited with ending the bloodshed now lay motionless, victim of a Southern sympathizer. Lincoln was shot in the back of the head with a small caliber bullet that severed blood vessels in his brain and immediately caused bleeding that would have given him quite the headache in short order.

The bullet entered through the occipital bone about one-half inch to the left of the median line just above the left sinus cavity. The bullet (or ball) passed through the posterior lobe off the cerebrum, entered the left lateral ventricle and lodged in the anterior portion of the left corpus striatum. Lincoln's life was slipping away.

At first, the doctor, (Dr. Leale) who was closest to Lincoln, strained to lift the President's long arm, dangling helplessly off the bed. He can see his breath and pulse have begun to slow dramatically, but initially he couldn't find the cause. Onlookers light matches to help the doctor try to find a wound of some sort. The doctor, more befuddled by the mystery with each of the passing moments runs his hands though the swath of Lincoln's hair and they come back blood-red. His heart sank.

Dr. Leale

Alarmed, Dr. Leale props the president upright and feels behind each ear and finally he feels a small entry wound. It was no larger than his pinkie. The doctor inadvertently released some pressure on the brain when he stuck his finger into the wound and it caused Lincoln to suddenly take a deep and hopeful breath. Working quickly, he resuscitates the president by straddling his chest and pushes furiously in an attempt to increase the flow of oxygen to the brain.

Leale then did something that hasn't been widely practiced at that time. He went face-to-face to Lincoln and forcibly pushed oxygen into the president in an effort to blow air into the lungs of the stricken president. ''What is he doing?'' Asked one on-looker. ''He is young, he doesn't know what he is doing.'' Said another skeptical witness. Dr. Leale, focused and determined, ignored all the commentary doubting his skill.

The Official Documentation of Dr. Leale

Courtesy of the West Point Archives

The president's eyes opened and he began to breathe on his own. The audience, struck by the image of a lip-locked doctor and president, realized they were watching a new medical procedure but it was awkward nonetheless. When his eyes opened, some hopefully proclaimed a miracle. Dr. Leale held his hand up and shook his head. ''No miracle, none.'' He was thought to have said.

Pressure mounted, each moment becoming more and more suspenseful. As they carted him out of Ford's theater, Dr. Leale looked into Lincoln's eyes and saw that his pupils were no longer responding. The last view Lincoln had before his pupils failed to respond was quite likely the one you see here.

An Eyewitness Account

Gideon Welles, Lincoln as Secretary of the Navy

"The President had been carried across the street from the theater to the house of a Mr. Peterson. We entered by ascending a flight of steps above the basement and passing through a long hall to the rear, where the President lay extended on a bed, breathing heavily. Several surgeons were present, at least six, I should think more. Among them I was glad to observe Doctor Hall, who, however, soon left. I inquired of Doctor Hall, as I entered, the true condition of the President. He replied the President was dead to all intents, although he might live three hours or perhaps longer.

The giant sufferer lay extended diagonally across the bed, which was not long enough for him. He had been stripped of his clothes. His large arms, which were occasionally exposed, were of a size which one would scarce have expected from his spare appearance. His slow, full respiration lifted the clothes with each breath that he took. His features were calm and striking. I had never seen them appear to better advantage than for the first hour, perhaps, that I was there. After that his right eye began to swell and that part of his face became discolored.''

Once his pupils became stagnant, Dr. Leale recognizes that the president's brain is no-longer functioning.

''...It is impossible for him to recover, ''he says.


Primary documentation brings to life moments of our past and are what the Detective Historian captures in order to illuminate the feelings inside ourselves that we can relate to. A canopy of understanding makes history come alive and is able to evoke the imagination to those things other than the visual. All five senses and the unrivaled feeling of fear come across our minds and hearts as we read these emotional moments and follow, step-by-step, the last seconds of America's most beloved President. There is no masterpiece written today that can take the place of even one of these letters, one of these places, and one of these moments.


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