Report of first doctor to reach shot Lincoln found

Posted June 05, 2012, at 5:54 p.m.
Last modified June 05, 2012, at 7:27 p.m.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The first doctor to reach President Abraham Lincoln after he was shot in a Washington theater rushed to the presidential box and found him paralyzed, comatose and leaning against his wife. Dr. Charles Leale ordered brandy and water to be brought immediately.

Leale’s long-lost report of his efforts to help the mortally wounded president, written just hours after his death, was discovered in a box at the National Archives late last month.

The doctor, who sat 40 feet from Lincoln at Ford’s Theater that night in April 1865, saw John Wilkes Booth jump to the stage, brandishing a dagger, and heard the cry that the “President has been murdered” before pushing his way through the crowd. Thinking Lincoln had been stabbed, Leale ordered men to cut off the president’s coat.

“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,” Leale reported. “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.”

The historians who discovered the report believe it was filed, packed in a box, stored at the archives and not seen for 147 years.

A researcher for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, Helena Iles Papaioannou, found it among correspondence of the U.S. surgeon general from April 1865, filed under “L” for Leale.

“What’s fascinating about this report is its immediacy and its clinical, just-the-facts approach,” said Daniel Stowell, director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. “There’s not a lot of flowery language, not a lot of emotion.”

Physicians have long debated whether Lincoln could have lived with modern medicine. Trauma treatment was virtually unknown in 1865, and Leale’s report illustrates “the helplessness of the doctors,” Stowell said. “He doesn’t say that but you can feel it.”

Leale wrote a report for an 1867 congressional committee investigating the assassination that referenced the earlier account, but no one had ever seen it, said Stowell, whose group’s goal is to find every document written by or to Abraham Lincoln during his lifetime.

At least four researchers have been painstakingly scouring boxes of documents at the National Archives for more than six years. They methodically pull boxes of paper — there are millions of documents packed away and never catalogued, Stowell said — and look for “Lincoln docs,” as Papaioannou called them.

She was assigned the surgeon general’s documents and was leafing through letters pitching inventions for better ambulances and advice about feeding soldiers onions to ward off disease when she hit Leale’s report.

“I knew it was interesting. What we didn’t know was this was novel,” Papaioannou said. “We didn’t know that this was new, that this was an 1865 report and that it likely hadn’t been seen before.”

Leale, a 23-year-old Army surgeon just six weeks into his medical practice, never spoke or wrote about his experiences again until 1909 in a speech commemorating the centennial of Lincoln’s birth.

The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, administered by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, has found and is digitizing 90,000 documents, Stowell said.

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Online:

Leale’s report: http://bit.ly/MzLqv9

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