While scouring boxes hidden in the National Archives, historians have stumbled across a report from the first doctor to rush to Abraham Lincoln’s side as he lay bleeding in his box at Ford’s Theater.
The document, discovered last month tucked away in a file of medical reports, is probably the earliest firsthand account of the assassination of Lincoln by actor John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865. Before it was unearthed by Helena Iles Papaioannou, a researcher for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project, it’s believed that no one had seen it for nearly 147 years. The organization says it plans to digitize the report for release.
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Its author, Dr. Charles Leale, was an Army surgeon sitting just 40 feet from President that evening. When he saw Booth jump on stage, he suspected something was immediately wrong and rushed to Lincoln’s side. The report details what Leale found when he came to the president’s aid:
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. The coagula I easily removed and passed the little finger of my left hand through the perfectly smooth opening made by the ball.
Though Leale was only 23 years old when the incident happened, according to health professionals and historians, he did everything correctly. “When Dr. Leale got into the president’s box, Lincoln was technically dead,” Dr. Blaine Houmes, an emergency room specialist, told the Associated Press. “He was able to regain a pulse and get breathing started again. He basically saved Lincoln’s life, even though he didn’t survive the wound.”
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There has been scrutiny over Lincoln’s treatment after suffering a gunshot wound for Wilkes. Even certain details, like how Leale resuscitated the fallen president, are still a subject of debate. Modern trauma treatment was not yet available and Lincoln’s chances of surviving the bullet were slim.
“[You can sense] the helplessness of the doctors,” Daniel Stowell, director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, summed up in an interview. [Leale] doesn’t say that but you can feel it.”