First Hand Account of Moving the Assassinated President Lincoln From Fords Theatre to the Peterson House
Lincoln's Death Bed
We decided that the President could now be moved from the possibility of danger in the theatre to a house where we might place him on a bed in safety. To assist in this duty I assigned Dr. Taft to carry his right shoulder, Dr. King to carry his left shoulder and detailed a sufficient number of others, whose names I have never discovered, to assist in carrying the body, while I carried his head, going first. We reached the door of the box and saw the long passage leading to the exit crowded with people. I called out twice: "Guards, clear the passage! Guards, clear the passage!" A free space was quickly cleared by an officer and protected by a line of soldiers in the position of present arms with swords, pistols and bayonets. When we reached the stairs, I turned so that those holding the President's feet would descend first. At the door of the theatre, I was again asked if the President could be taken to the White House. I answered: "No, the President would die on the way."
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. This we did, not having been interrupted in the slightest by the throngs in the street, but a number of the excited populace followed us into the house.
The great difficulty of retaining life during this brief time occupied in moving the President from the theatre to Mr. Petersen's house, conclusively proved that the President would have died in the street if I had granted the request to take him such a long distance as to the White House. I asked for the best room and we soon had the President placed in bed. He was lifted to the longitudinal center of the bed and placed on his back. While holding his face upward and keeping his head from rolling to either side, I looked at his elevated knees caused by his great height. This uncomfortable position grieved me and I ordered the foot of the bed to be removed. Dr. Taft and Dr. King reported that it was a fixture. Then I requested that it be broken off; as I found this could not satisfactorily be done, I had the President placed diagonally on the bed and called for extra pillows, and with them formed a gentle inclined plane on which to rest his head and shoulders. His position was then one of repose.
The room soon filled with anxious people. I called the officer and asked him to open a window and order all except the medical gentlemen and friends to leave the room. After we had given the President a short rest I decided to make a thorough physical examination, as I wished to see if he had been wounded in any other part of the body. I requested all except the surgeons to leave the room. The Captain reported that my order had been carried out with the exception of Mrs. Lincoln, to whom he said he did not like to speak. I addressed Mrs. Lincoln, explaining my desire, and she immediately left the room. I examined the President's entire body from his head to his feet and found no other injury. His lower extremities were very cold and I sent the Hospital Steward, who had been of great assistance to us in removing the President from the theatre, to procure bottles of hot water and hot blankets, which were applied. I also sent for a large sinapism and in a short time one very nicely made was brought. This I applied over the solar-plexus and to the anterior surface of his body. We arranged the bed clothes nicely and I assigned Dr. Taft and Dr. King to keep his head upon the pillows in the most comfortable position, relieving each other in this duty, after which I sent an officer to notify Mrs. Lincoln that she might return to her husband; she came in and sat on a chair placed for her at the head of the bed.
As the symptoms indicated renewed brain compression, I again cleared the opening of clotted blood and pushed forward the button of bone, which acted as a valve, permitted an oozing of blood and relieved pressure on the brain. I again saw good results from this action.
After doing all that was professionally necessary, I stood aside for a general view and to think what to do next. While thus watching several army officers anxiously asked if they could in any way assist. I told them my greatest desire then was to send messengers to the White House for the President's son, Captain Robert T. Lincoln, also for the Surgeon General, Joseph K. Barnes, Surgeon D. Willard Bliss, in charge of Armory Square General Hospital, the President's family physician, Dr. Robert K. Stone, and to each member of the President's Cabinet. All these desires of mine were fulfilled.
Having been taught in early youth to pay great respect to all religious denominations in regard to their rules concerning the sick or dying, it became my duty as surgeon in charge of the dying President to summon a clergyman to his bedside. Therefore after inquiring and being informed that the Rev. Dr. Gurley was Mrs. Lincoln's pastor, I immediately sent for him.
Then I sent the Hospital Steward for a Nelaton probe. No drug or medicine in any form was administered to the President, but the artificial heat and mustard plaster that I had applied warmed his cold body and stimulated his nerves. Only a few were at any time admitted to the room by the officer, whom I had stationed at the door, and at all times I had maintained perfect discipline and order.
While we were watching and letting Nature do her part, Dr. Taft came to me with brandy and water and asked permission to give some to the President. I objected, stating as my reason that it would produce strangulation. Dr. Taft left the room, and again came to me stating that it was the opinion of others also that it might do good. I replied: "I will grant the request, if you will please at first try by pouring only a very small quantity into the President's mouth." This Dr. Taft very carefully did, the liquid ran into the President's larynx producing laryngeal obstruction and unpleasant symptoms, which took me about half a minute to overcome, but no lasting harm was done. My physiological and practical experiences had led to correct conclusions.
On the arrival of Dr. Robert K. Stone, who had been the President's family physician during his residence in Washington, I was presented to him as the one who had been in charge since the President was shot. I described the wound and told him all that had been done. He said he approved of my treatment.
Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes' long delay in arriving was due to his going first to the White House, where he expected to find the assassinated President, then to the residence of Secretary Seward and his son, both of whom he found requiring immediate attention, as they had been severely wounded by the attempts of another assassin to kill them.
On the arrival of the Surgeon General and Assistant Surgeon General, Charles H. Crane, I reported what we had done and officially detailed to the Surgeon General my diagnosis, stating that whenever the clot was allowed to form over the opening to the wound the President's breathing became greatly embarrassed. The Surgeon General approved the treatment and my original plan of treatment was continued in every respect until the President's death.
The Hospital Steward arrived with the Nelaton probe and an examination was made by the Surgeon General and myself, who introduced the probe to a distance of about two and a half inches, where it came in contact with a foreign substance, which lay across the track of the ball; this was easily passed and the probe was introduced several inches further where it again touched a hard substance at first supposed to be the ball, but as the white porcelain bulb of the probe on its withdrawal did not indicate the mark of lead it was generally thought to be another piece of loose bone. The probe was introduced the second time and the ball was supposed to be distinctly felt. After this second exploration nothing further was done with the wound except to keep the opening free from coagula, which, if allowed to form and remain for a short time, produced signs of increased compression, the breathing becoming profoundly stertorous and intermittent, the pulse more feeble and irregular. After I had resigned my charge all that was professionally done for the President was to repeat occasionally my original expedient of relieving the brain pressure by freeing the opening to the wound and to count the pulse and respirations. The President's position on the bed remained exactly as I had first placed him with the assistance of Dr. Taft and Dr. King.
Captain Robert T. Lincoln came and remained with his father and mother, bravely sustaining himself during the course of the night.
On that awful memorable night the great War Secretary, the Honorable Edwin M. Stanton, one of the most imposing figures of the nineteenth century, promptly arrived and recognized at that critical period of our country's history the necessity of a head to our Government and as the President was passing away established a branch of his War Department in an adjoining room. There he sat, surrounded by his counsellors and messengers, pen in hand, writing to General Dix and others. He was soon in communication with many in authority and with the Government and army officials. By Secretary Stanton's wonderful ability and power in action, he undoubtedly controlled millions of excited people. He was then the Master, and in reality Acting President of the United States.