Special Report

The Night Abraham Lincoln Was Assassinated

What happened on that fateful Good Friday evening

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

The clamor had roused the entire household. Anna sent the servant to fetch Dr. Tulio S. Verdi, while Pvt. Robinson, though bleeding from his head and shoulders, lifted Seward onto the bed and instructed Fanny about “staunching the blood with clothes & water.” Still fearing that another assassin might be hiding in the house, Frances and Anna checked the attic while Fanny searched the rooms on the parlor floor.

Dr. Verdi would never forget his first sight of Seward that night. “He looked like an exsanguinated corpse. In approaching him my feet went deep in blood. Blood was streaming from an extensive gash in his swollen cheek; the cheek was now laid open.” So “frightful” was the wound and “so great was the loss of blood” that Verdi assumed the jugular vein must have been cut. Miraculously, it was not. Further examination revealed that the knife had been deflected by the metal contraption holding Seward’s broken jaw in place. In bizarre fashion, the carriage accident had saved his life.

“I had hardly sponged his face from the bloody stains and replaced the flap,” Verdi recalled, “when Mrs. Seward, with an intense look, called me to her. ‘Come and see Frederick,’ said she.” Not understanding, he followed Frances to the next room, where he “found Frederick bleeding profusely from the head.” Fred’s appearance was so “ghastly” and his wounds so large that Verdi feared he would not live, but with the application of “cold water pledgets,” he was able to stanch the bleeding temporarily.

Once Fred was stabilized, Frances drew Verdi into another room on the same floor. “For Heaven’s sake, Mrs. Seward,” asked the befuddled doctor, “what does all this mean?” The doctor found Gus lying on the bed with stab wounds on his hand and forehead, but assured Frances that he would recover. Frances barely had time to absorb these words of comfort before entreating Dr. Verdi to see Pvt. Robinson. “I ceased wondering,” Verdi recalled, “my mind became as if paralyzed; mechanically I followed her and examined Mr. Robinson. He had four or five cuts on his shoulders.”

“Any more?” Verdi asked, though not imagining the carnage could go on. “Yes,” Frances answered, “one more.” She led him to Hansell, “pit­eously groaning on the bed.” Stripping off the young man’s clothes, Verdi “found a deep gash just above the small of the back, near the spine.”

“And all this,” Verdi thought, “the work of one man—yes, of one man!”

In preparing for the attack on the vice president, George Atzerodt had taken a room at the Kirkwood Hotel, where Johnson was staying. At 10:15, he was supposed to ring the bell of Suite 68, enter the room by force, find his target and murder him. When first informed that the original plan to kidnap the president had shifted to a triple assassination, he had balked. “I won’t do it,” he had insisted. “I enlisted to abduct the President of the United States, not to kill.” He had eventually agreed to help, but 15 minutes before the appointed moment, seated at the bar of the Kirkwood House, he changed his mind, left the hotel and never returned.

John Wilkes Booth had left little to chance in his plot to kill the president. Though already well acquainted with the layout of Ford’s Theatre, Booth had attended a dress rehearsal the day before to better rehearse his scheme for shooting Lincoln in the state box and then escaping into the alley beside the theater. That morning he had again visited the theater to collect his mail, chatting amiably in the front lobby with the theater owner’s brother, Harry Ford. Booth had already taken his place inside the theater when the Lincolns arrived.

The play had started as the presidential party entered the flag-draped box in the dress circle. The notes of “Hail to the Chief” brought the audience to their feet, applauding wildly and craning to see the president. Lincoln responded “with a smile and bow” before taking his seat in a comfortable armchair at the center of the box, with Mary by his side. Clara Harris was seated at the opposite end of the box, while Henry Rathbone occupied a small sofa on her left. Observing the president and first lady, one theatergoer noticed that she “rested her hand on his knee much of the time, and often called his attention to some humorous situation on the stage.” Mary herself later recalled that as she snuggled ever closer to her husband, she had whispered, “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?” He had looked at her and smiled. “She won’t think any thing about it.”

During the performance, the White House footman delivered a message to the president. At about 12 minutes after 10, the impeccably dressed John Wilkes Booth presented his calling card to the footman and gained admittance to the box. Once inside, he raised his pistol, pointed it at the back of the president’s head and fired.

As Lincoln slumped forward, Henry Rathbone attempted to grab the intruder. Booth pulled out his knife, slashed Rathbone in the chest, and managed to leap from the box onto the stage 15 feet below. “As he jumped,” one eyewitness recalled, “one of the spurs on his riding-boots caught in the folds of the flag draped over the front, and caused him to fall partly on his hands and knees as he struck the stage.” Another onlooker observed that “he was suffering great pain,” but, “making a desperate effort, he struggled up.” Raising “his shining dagger in the air, which reflected the light as though it had been a diamond,” he shouted the now historic words of the Virginia state motto—Sic semper tyrannis (“Thus always to tyrants”)—and ran from the stage.

Until the screams broke forth from the president’s box, many in the audience thought the dramatic moment was part of the play. Then they saw Mary Lincoln frantically waving. “They have shot the president!” she cried. “They have shot the president!”

Charles Leale, a young doctor seated near the presidential box, was the first to respond. “When I reached the president,” he recalled, “he was almost dead, his eyes were closed.” Unable at first to locate the wound, he stripped away Lincoln’s coat and collar. Examining the base of the skull, he discovered “the perfectly smooth opening made by the ball.” Using his finger “as a probe” to remove “the coagula which was firmly matted with the hair,” he released the flow of blood, relieving somewhat the pressure on Lincoln’s brain. Another doctor, Charles Sabin Taft, soon arrived, and the decision was made to remove the president from the crowded box to a room in the Petersen boardinghouse across the street.

By this time, people had massed in the street. The word began to spread that assassins had attacked not only Lincoln but Seward as well. Joseph Sterling, a young clerk in the War Department, rushed to inform Stanton of the calamity. On his way, he encountered his roommate, J.G. Johnson, who joined him on the terrible errand. “When Johnson and I reached Stanton’s residence,” Sterling recalled, “I was breathless,” so when Stanton’s son Edwin Jr. opened the door, Johnson was the one to speak. “We have come,” Johnson said, “to tell your father that President Lincoln has been shot.”

Young Stanton hurried to his father, who had been undressing for bed. When the war secretary came to the door, Sterling recalled, “he fairly shouted at me in his heavy tones: ‘Mr. Sterling, what news is this you bring?’” Sterling told him that both Lincoln and Seward had been assassinated. Desperately hoping this news was mere rumor, Stanton remained calm and skeptical. “Oh, that can’t be so,” he said, “that can’t be so!” But when another clerk arrived at the door to describe the attack on Seward, Stanton had his carriage brought around at once, and against the appeals of his wife, who feared that he, too, might be a target, he headed for Seward’s house at Lafayette Square.

The news reached Gideon Welles almost simultaneously. He had already gone to bed when his wife reported someone at the door. “I arose at once,” the naval secretary recorded in his diary, “and raised a window, when my messenger, James, called to me that Mr. Lincoln the President had been shot,” and that Seward and his son had been assassinated. Welles thought the story “very incoherent and improbable,” but the messenger assured him that he had already been to Seward’s house to check its veracity before coming to see his boss. Also ignoring his wife’s protests, Welles dressed and set forth in the foggy night for the Seward house on the other side of the square.

Upon reaching Seward’s house, Welles and Stanton were shocked at what they found. Blood was everywhere—on “the white wood work of the entry,” on the stairs, on the dresses of the women, on the floor of the bedroom. Seward’s bed, Welles recalled, “was saturated with blood. The Secretary was lying on his back, the upper part of his head covered by a cloth, which extended down over his eyes.” Welles questioned Dr. Verdi in a whisper, but Stanton was unable to mute his stentorian voice until the doctor asked for quiet. After looking in on Fred’s unconscious form, the two men walked together down the stairs. In the lower hall, they exchanged what information they had regarding the president. Welles thought they should go to the White House, but Stanton believed Lincoln was still at the theater. Army Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery Meigs, who had just come to the door, implored them not to go to Tenth Street, where thousands of people had gathered. When they insisted, he decided to join them.

Twelve blocks away, in his home at Sixth and E streets, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase had already retired for the night. Earlier that afternoon, he had taken a carriage ride with his daughter Nettie, intending to stop at the White House to remonstrate with Lincoln over his too-lenient approach to Reconstruction and his failure to demand universal suffrage. At the last minute, “uncertain how [Lincoln] would take it,” Chase had decided to wait until the following day.

He was fast asleep when a servant knocked on his bedroom door. There was a gentleman downstairs, the servant said, who claimed “the president had been shot.” The caller was a Treasury employee who had actually witnessed the shooting “by a man who leaped from the box upon the stage & escaped by the rear.” Chase hoped “he might be mistaken,” but in short order, three more callers arrived. Each “confirmed what I had been told & added that Secretary Seward had also been assassinated, and that guards were being placed around the houses of all the prominent officials, under the apprehension that the plot had a wide range. My first impulse was to rise immediately & go to the President...but reflecting that I could not possibly be of any service and should probably be in the way of those who could, I resolved to wait for morning & further intelligence. In a little while the guard came—for it was supposed that I was one of the destined victims—and their heavy tramp-tramp was heard under my window all night....It was a night of horrors.”

When Stanton and Welles arrived at the crammed room in the Petersen boardinghouse, they found that Lincoln had been placed diagonally across a bed to accommodate his long frame. Stripped of his shirt, “his large arms,” Welles noted, “were of a size which one would scarce have expected from his spare appearance.” His devastating wound, the doctors reported with awe, “would have killed most men instantly, or in a very few minutes. But Mr. Lincoln had so much vitality” that he continued to struggle against the inevitable end.

Mary spent most of the endless night weeping in an adjoining parlor, where several women friends tried vainly to comfort her. “About once an hour,” Welles noted, she “would repair to the bedside of her dying husband and with lamentation and tears remain until overcome by emotion.” She could only rotely repeat the question, “Why didn’t he shoot me? Why didn’t he shoot me?” Though everyone in the room knew the president was dying, Mary was not told, out of fear that she would collapse. Whenever she came into the room, Taft recalled, “clean napkins were laid over the crimson stains on the pillow.”

Early on, Mary sent a messenger for her son Robert, who had remained at home that night in the company of Lincoln’s secretary John Hay. He had already turned in when the White House doorkeeper came to his room. “Something happened to the president,” Thomas Pendel told Robert, “you had better go down to the theater and see what it is.” Robert asked Pendel to get Hay. Reaching Hay’s room, Pendel told him, “Captain Lincoln wants to see you at once. The president has been shot.” Pendel recalled that when Hay heard the news, “he turned deathly pale, the color entirely leaving his cheeks.” The two young men jumped in a carriage, picking up Senator Charles Sumner along the way.

Mary was torn over whether to summon Tad, but was apparently persuaded that the emotional boy would be devastated if he saw his father’s condition. Tad and his tutor had gone that night to Grover’s Theatre to see Aladdin. The theater had been decorated with patriotic emblems, and a poem commemorating Fort Sumter’s recapture was read aloud between the acts. An eyewitness recalled that the audience was “enjoying the spectacle of Aladdin” when the theater manager came forward, “as pale as a ghost.” A look of “mortal agony” contorted his face as he announced to the stunned audience that the president had been shot at Ford’s Theatre. In the midst of the pandemonium that followed, Tad was seen running “like a young deer, shrieking in agony.”

“Poor little Tad,” Pendel recalled, returned to the White House in tears. “O Tom Pen! Tom Pen!” Tad wailed. “They have killed Papa dead. They’ve killed Papa dead!” Pendel carried the little boy into Lincoln’s bedroom. Turning down the bedcovers, he helped Tad undress and finally got him to lie down. “I covered him up and laid down beside him, put my arm around him, and talked to him until he fell into a sound sleep.”

From Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincolnby Doris Kearns Goodwin. Copyright (c) 2005 by Blithedale Productions, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus