Dr. Charles A. Leale: First Surgeon to Reach the Assassinated President Abraham Lincoln

     It was 130 years ago on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, that 23–year–old Assistant Surgeon Charles A. Leale, M.D., United States Volunteers, responding to calls for a doctor, leaped over chairs in Ford’s Theater to reach the Presidential Box. Upon identifying himself as a United States Army Doctor (he had received his medical degree on March 1st), Dr. Leale was the first person to be admitted to the box after the shooting.

Dr. Charles A. Leale

Last spring on the 125th anniversary of Oakland Cemetery in Yonkers, Dr. Leale’s grave was one of those singled out to be visited. A catered champagne reception in a cemetery! Who had ever heard of such a function, but such was the case in Yonkers last spring at Oakland’s Anniversary Celebration! A huge tent had been erected in the cemetery across Beech Avenue. At the welcoming table an illustrated map of the cemetery was distributed. Mrs. Rosalie Flynn, Editor of the Yonkers Historical Society Newsletter, greeted me and introduced me to the Board of Directors of Oakland Cemetery:

William Watson, President, Michael Puchir, Vice President and Peter Brouwer, Secretary. As there was time before the program began, I accompanied the Board of Directors and their professional photographer to the Leale plot and briefly told them about Grandpa caring for the mortally wounded President.

Oakland Cemetery abuts Saint John’s Cemetery so that John Copcutt’s vault in Saint John’s is directly behind the Leale plot in Oakland. Dr. Leale was John Copcutt’s son–in–law. On September 3, 1867 Dr. Charles A. Leale married Rebecca Medwin Copcutt, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Copcutt. The ceremony was performed by the Reverend Dr. Carter, Rector of Saint John’s Episcopal Church, in the Nepperhan Avenue Copcutt home, now the rectory for Saint Casimir’s Church. But this story is about Dr. Leale.

In 1865 when Dr. Leale heard President Lincoln deliver what was to be his last public speech, Leale noticed the “almost divine appearance of the President’s face in the glow of the light from the White House.” At that time Dr. Leale vowed that he would try to study the President’s face at the next opportunity.

Several days later, Dr. Leale heard that President and Mrs. Lincoln would attend the play Our American Cousins at Ford Theater. After completing his duties as Surgeon–in–Charge of the Wounded Commissioned Officers’ Ward at the United States Army General Hospital, Armory Square, Washington, D.C., Leale changed to civilian clothes and rushed to the Theater, not to see the play, but to study President Lincoln’s face and facial expressions.

At the theater he purchased a seat in the Dress Circle on the same side as the Presidential box. (My seat for the rededication of the restored Ford Theater was in the same location.)

The play was in progress when the Presidential party arrived. The acting ceased when the orchestra struck up “Hail to the Chief.” As the Presidential party walked behind the seats of the dress circle, Leale had a good view of both the President and Mrs. Lincoln. In acknowledgement of the thunderous ovation, the party paused several times.

Once the Presidential party was seated, the acting resumed. And then a shot rang out! As Dr. Leale was looking through his opera glasses toward the Presidential box, he could see Booth’s threatening, black eyes as he jumped from the box flashing a dagger! (He had dropped his gun.) Leale rushed to Mrs. Lincoln who was bravely holding the President upright in his chair. Upon identifying himself, Leale gently took her outstretched hand as she placed him in charge of the medical care of the wounded President.

Leale felt no pulse, placed the President on the floor and administered mouth–to–mouth resuscitation as well as artificial respiration until the President was able to breathe independently. Raising the President’s eyelids, Leale saw indication of brain damage. Running his fingers through Lincoln’s blood–matted hair, Leale found the bullet wound behind the President’s left ear and probed the wound for the bullet.

Dr. Leale’s diagnosis was telegraphed to the country: “His wound is mortal; it is impossible for him to recover.”

By this time Acting Assistant Surgeons Charles S. Taft, MD, and Albert F. A. King, MD, of the United States Army had arrived to assist. Leale requested that the President be moved from the theater to the nearest house across the street as Lincoln would not be able to survive the carriage ride to the White House.

Leading the procession from the box, Dr. Leale held the President’s head, Dr. Taft the right shoulder, Dr. King the left shoulder, and others carried the torso and legs. At the top of the narrow, curving stairs the order of the procession was reversed with the feet being carried first. At the foot of the stairs the order was again reversed with Dr. Leale leading the procession. Several times Dr. Leale had to call, “Guards, clear the passage.” Out in the street, Leale had to again request that a path be cleared through the crowd to the nearest house. Every few minutes the procession had to stop so that Leale could remove the blood clot from the wound to ease the President’s breathing.

Diagonally across the street a man with a lighted candle beckoned them to the Petersen House, where Leale requested the best room. They were led to the small back bedroom where the bed was much too short for the 6’4” President! As the foot of the bed was securely attached, efforts were made to put the President in as comfortable position as possible by laying him diagonally on the bed and propping him with numerous pillows.

During the long night, Dr. Leale held the President’s right hand so that, if possible, he would know that he was not alone. Also, Leale continued to remove the blood clots from the wound.

During the President’s last hours, the Reverend Dr. Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, the Lincoln family church, prayed with those present. When the end came at 7:20 A.M., the few remaining knelt as Dr. Gurley prayed, “That our Heavenly Father look down in pity upon the bereaved family and preserve our afflicted and sorrow stricken country.”

Dr. Leale had gone to Ford’s Theater only to study the President’s face and facial expressions, but instead he gave the President tender, loving care for nine hours.

Helen Leale Harper at Oakland Cemetery, May 1994.

On Wednesday, April 19, 1865, Dr. Leale was Honor Guard at the head of President Lincoln’s catafalque during the service in the East Room of the White House. In the Grand Funeral Procession from the White House to the Capitol, Dr. Leale rode in the carriage immediately preceding the catafalque. During the public funeral in the Rotunda of the Capitol, Leale was again assigned as Honor Guard at the head of the catafalque. On May 24, during the return of the Northern Army for final review, Dr. Leale sat in the grandstand in front of the White House.

Dr. Leale never wanted to talk about his care of the assassinated President Lincoln, as he wanted to devote his life to the care and treatment of the sick. However, on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, Leale’s friends in the New York State Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, told him that it was his duty to record it for posterity. At their February 1909 dinner Dr. Leale delivered his address, “Lincoln’s Last Hours,” which has often been referred to by Lincoln historians.

—Helen Leale Harper, Jr.

(Editor’s Note: This article, based on Lincoln’s Last Hours by Dr. Charles A. Leale, was written by Dr. Leale’s granddaughter, Helen Leale Harper, for the Yonkers Historical Society Newsletter.)

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