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Lincoln’s Assassination

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Ford's Theater
On Friday, April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre.

On Friday night, April 14, 1865, President and Mrs. Lincoln attended a performance of Our American Cousin, a comedy, at Ford’s Theater in Washington.  Coming just five days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, the night at the theater was a chance for the president to take a brief respite from the burdens of the office.

The President and First Lady arrived at Ford's Theatre after the play began, and were led to the presidential box, where Lincoln was seated in a rocking chair on the left-hand side.  They were joined by Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris.

A few minutes after 10:00 p.m., famous actor – and Confederate sympathizer – John Wilkes Booth slipped unnoticed into the presidential box.  He pulled a Derringer from his coat, pointed it at the back of Lincoln’s head, and fired.  The ball pierced the president’s head just below the left ear, passed through his brain, and lodged behind his right eye.

Lincoln slumped forward never to regain consciousness.

Major Rathbone tried to prevent Booth from escaping, but Booth slashed his arm with a knife. Rathbone again tried to stop Booth, but the actor jumped from the box.  As he did, he caught his foot caught on the Treasury flag decorating the front of the box, and Booth crashed to the stage.  Shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus always to tyrants”), the Virginia state motto, Booth escaped into the night.

Booth eluded a massive manhunt for 12 days.  He was cornered in a tobacco shed on Richard Garrett’s farm in Port Royal, Virginia, with his co-conspirator, David Herold, who had been on the run with Booth.  Herold surrendered to the federal troops surrounding the tobacco shed, but Booth held out and was shot while the shed burned down around him.

The mortally wounded President was carefully carried out of Ford's Theatre on to 10th Street.  Dr. Charles Leale, age 23, who was attending Lincoln, described the events that followed:

The crowd in the street completely obstructed the doorway and a captain, whose services proved invaluable all through the night, came to me, saying: "Surgeon, give me your commands and I will see that they are obeyed." I asked him to clear a passage to the nearest house opposite. He had on side arms and drew his sword. With the sword and word of command he cleared the way. We slowly crossed the street. It was necessary to stop several times to give me the opportunity to remove the clot of blood from the opening to the wound. A barrier of men had been formed to keep back the crowds on each side of an open space leading to the house. Those who went ahead reported that the house directly opposite the theatre was closed. I saw a man standing at the door of Mr. Petersen's house, diagonally opposite, holding a lighted candle in his hand and beckoning us to enter... [1]

Henry Safford, unlike the other boarders who went out that night, decided to spend the evening in the Petersen boarding house.  In a 1903 letter, wrote:

I had spent the evening reading in the front room when, about ten o'clock, hearing a disturbance outside, I went to the window and learned that Lincoln had been shot. I hastened down to the front door, and, while standing on the upper steps, the President was brought out of the theatre and into the street towards where I stood. Suddenly those carrying him seemed in doubt as to where they would take him. Quickly realizing the cause of their hesitation, although being alone in the house, I took the responsibility of crying out, "Bring him in here, Bring him in here", which invitation was immediately accepted and he was taken to the bedroom in the rear of the parlors and placed on a bed... [2]

Mrs. Lincoln was escorted across the street by Major Rathbone.   She was joined by her friend Elizabeth Dixon and Clara Harris. Mary stayed in the Petersen House throughout the night.

During the night and early morning, guards patrolled outside to prevent onlookers from coming inside the house. A parade of government officials and physicians was allowed to come inside and pay respects to the unconscious president. One of the officials was Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles who recorded in his diary:

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..."[3

The physicians caring for the president continually removed blood clots that formed over the wound where the bullet had entered Lincoln's head. This process relieved the pressure on the brain and maintained breathing. However, the external and internal hemorrhaging continued throughout the night so that on the next day, April 15, 1865, at 7:22 a.m., a doctor leaned over the president and felt his final breath.

Abraham Lincoln was fifty-six years old.