Eyewitness: Dr. Charles A. Leale on the Lincoln Assassination

By Wendy Swanson via Lincolnian

Washington D.C.

April 12, 2021


From the Lincoln Group Archives

This Wednesday, April 14, is the 156th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Charles A. Leale, pictured here in his Union uniform, was present at Ford's Theatre that night; he witnessed the assassination and attended to the wounded Lincoln. To mark this week's anniversary, we are providing a document from the Lincoln Group archives, specifically, an article written in 2015 by our former president, the late Dr. John E. Elliff. He highlights his own recent research discovery while describing the various accounts provided by Dr. Leale about that April night. The article also notes our own Lincoln Group connection with Dr. Leale.



Dr. Charles Leale’s 1881 Interview on the Lincoln Assassination

By John Elliff


Charles Leale, a 23-year-old Army doctor, was the first physician to reach the box at Ford’s Theatre after President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865. He remained with the wounded president until Lincoln’s death the next morning in the Petersen boarding house across the street.

Historians have cited three reports of these events by Dr. Leale. His first “brief account” was written the day of Lincoln’s death. Three copies, each in different official handwriting, have been found in the records of the Army, the Surgeon General, and the Sanitary Commission. In 1867 he wrote a letter to Congressman Benjamin Butler, then chair of a committee investigating the assassination. Now at the Library of Congress, Dr. Leale’s letter to Butler closely paralleled the original report. Information from both accounts with substantial more details was included in a 1909 lecture that Dr. Leale delivered to the Loyal Legion of New York on the centennial of Lincoln’s birth and later published in Harper’s Weekly.

In addition to these three accounts, Dr. Leale provided another version in an interview with the New York World after President Garfield was assassinated in 1881. This interview, which has not previously been re-published or cited by historians, contains additional details that do not appear in his other accounts. Lincoln Group member John Elliff recently located a photocopy in the Georgetown University Library manuscript collection of the papers of David Rankin Barbee, a researcher and writer in the 1930s and 1940s.

Comparison of the interview with Dr. Leale’s other accounts reveals several items of new information.


Like his 1865 and 1867 accounts Dr. Leale’s interview in 1881 made no mention of artificial resuscitation; but it did say more about the treatment of Lincoln at the Petersen House: “He was covered with warm blankets, bottles of hot water were placed at his extremities, and other restoratives and remedies were used. All this happened in twenty minutes from the time of his assassination.”


Dr. Leale recalled in 1881 that when Booth tried to talk his way into the box he held in his hand “a package of papers that looked like official documents.” On a question that is still debated, Dr. Leale said the result of Booth’s jump to the stage was “either breaking his leg just above the ankle or spraining his ankle.” One part of Dr. Leale’s 1881 story was clearly wrong: he said Booth blocked the outer door to the box by fixing “an iron hasp on each side of the door” and using “a large beam” to barricade the door. (Booth used a piece of wood from a broken music stand to wedge the outer door shut.)


Other new details in the 1881 interview are more credible: “In the theatre there were many men still wearing the blue uniform, and many of them carried their side arms; in addition to them were soldiers who had not yet mustered out of the service.” As Lincoln was carried across the street, “[t]hese men formed two lines through which we walked, the guards presenting arms to the President as we bore him along.” From an adjoining room in the Petersen house, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton “kept his orderlies running all night long bearing the news of the President’s condition to the people and telegraphing it all over the country.” Lincoln’s son Robert “bore up well during the painful night.”


Dr. Leale listed those present in addition to Lincoln’s son and Senator Charles Sumner mentioned elsewhere in the interview: “As nearly as I remember those who visited the death bed were Secretary of the Navy Wells, Governor Farwell, Secretary McCulloch, Governor Farnsworth, Vice-President Johnson, Speaker Colfax, Dr. Stone, Postmaster General Dennison, Private Secretary Major John Hay, Surgeon C. S. Taft, Attorney General James Speed, Surgeon General Barnes, Mr. Crane, Secretary Usher, General Halleck, General Augur, Secretary Stanton, General Meigs and the Rev. Dr. Gurley, the President’s pastor.”


Dr. Leale’s granddaughter, Mrs. Helen Leale Harper, was a member of the Lincoln Group of DC for many years.


(Photo credit: The Mathew Brady photo of Dr. Leale is available from the Library of Congress Print and Photo Division)