Abraham Lincoln was assassinated this past Friday, April 14th. Good Friday. That is, 152 years ago he was shot by John Wilkes Booth while Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were in Ford’s Theatre watching the comedic play, Our American Cousin. The anniversary is commemorated every year but this year took on special significance because April 14th once again coincided with Good Friday, a rare occurrence. By Sunday the martyrdom of Abraham Lincoln had begun, with Lincoln’s memory taking center stage during Easter services. An annual Easter service at the Lincoln Memorial continues to this day.
Back in 1865 the still living but limp body of the fallen president was carried across the street to the Petersen House where he died the next morning, April 15, at 7:22 am. “Now he belongs to the ages,” spoke Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, before spearheading a 12-day chase that ended in the death of the assassin.
All of this is the stuff of history, well known to most everyone. Less well known are some of the fascinating details. For example, as the crowd at the theater slowly came to realize what had happened a cry rang out “Is there a surgeon in the house?” There was, Dr. Charles A. Leale, a recent graduate of Bellevue Hospital Medical College and commissioned as assistant surgeon only six days previously. As luck would have it, Leale was seated in the dress circle of Ford’s Theater that night, mere steps from Lincoln’s box. His quick action likely prolonged Lincoln’s life by several hours, though he couldn’t save him from his ultimate fate. Leale’s clinical report gives us a detailed record of the event.
The gun used by Booth was a Philadelphia deringer, a small large-bore pistol fired by loading a percussion cap, some black gunpowder, and a lead ball. Since it can only fire a single shot without reloading, Booth dropped the gun on the floor of the box, slashed Major Henry Rathbone with a large knife, then leaped to the stage. The gun now is on display in the museum of Ford’s Theatre.
Into trivia? Here’s something with which you impress your friends. Deringers were made with “rifling,” that is, grooves in the barrel to spin the ball. Unlike most deringers where the rifling creates a clockwise twist, the one used by Booth had rifling that turned counterclockwise. No matter what the twist, the rifling is designed to improve accuracy by creating a more predictable flight of the ball or bullet. Needless to say the direction of rifling was a moot point since Booth shot Lincoln at very close range.
Ah, but what happened to the lead ball? Well, it now sits in a glass case at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland. Along with it are several skull fragments, just in case you’re into “morbid oddities.”
Soon after Lincoln’s demise, long-time admirer Walt Whitman wrote an extended metaphor poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman lived in Washington during the Civil War and often watched President Lincoln ride by on horseback, later by carriage, to and from his summer living quarters in the Soldier’s Home. It begins:
O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Such a sad, yet exalting, eulogy for the fallen President. It has now been 152 years since that fateful day and battles still remain in our desire to form “a more perfect union.” As Lincoln noted in his Gettysburg Address: “It is for us the living…to be dedicated here to the unfinished work…” that Lincoln “so nobly advanced.”
[The above is adapted from two articles published on the Smithsonian Civil War Studies website. My new book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is in Barnes and Noble stores late summer 2017]
David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His next book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is scheduled for release in summer 2017.