Abe Lincoln's Last Friend

This article was written by Jim Bishop and appeared in the 27 December 1977 Los Angeles Times.

Leale looked like a sandy-haired boy. He was 23, a face with a faint mustache and sideburns. The title was imposing: Capt. Charles A. Leale, assistant surgeon at the U.S. Army General Hospital.

His hero was Abraham Lincoln. He cared nothing for theater; even less for humor. The captain bought a single ticket to see Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater for the night of April 14th 1865. From the far left of the balcony he could see his president in a box on the right.

Leale ignored the laughter, the puns and a comedian who lisped. He wanted his eyes to engrave the portrait of his hero so that, in the long years ahead, he would remember. The faces in the audience were contorted with laughter when Dr. Leale heard a loud cough.

Smoke lifted in the presidential box. A woman screamed. A man leaped to the stage and fled. Somebody called for a doctor. Charles Leale responded. He called soldiers. They lifted Lincoln from a rocker and placed him on the floor. "Remove his coat and cut his shirt and undershirt," the captain ordered.

He felt no pulse. Leale straddled the president and gave him the kiss of mercy, breathinng in and out of his hero. He probed the chest, the neck, the matted hair. In the back he lifted a penny-sized clot free and Lincoln began to snore. Mrs. Lincoln wrung her hands. "Can he recover?"

The theater patrons had become a mob. Some fought to leave. Others swung fists and tried to get to the presidential box. Laura Keene, star of the play, tiptoed into the box. She sat on the floor with Lincoln's head in her lap.

Leale sent two fingers far down Lincoln's throat. He lifted the mucus clear. Breathing improved. Two doctors came in. They whispered to the young captain. "His wound is mortal," the captain said. "It is impossible for him to recover."

Looking down, the doctor became a boy again. He saw the pale skin; the homely warty features; the thick, disorderly black hair. He felt a deep sorrow. Then he became professional. "Remove him to safety," he snapped. "Someone suggested the White House but I fear he will die before we reach there," he said.

Older, senior army doctors were on the scene. The junio captain ordered them to lift his patient and take the body out backward. Soldiers carried feet and head. The captain shuffled at the head of the solemn procession. The moon was out. It silvered the frightened faces on Tenth Street.

In fury, a major drew his sword and roared, "Out of the way." The party got to Petersen House across the street, and Lincoln was placed diagonally in a bed too small. Leale sat next to the wall, removing clots every two minutes. Statesmen hurried into the room, asked questions and were told that the president would lose his fight.

Dr. Leale ordered porous plasters to be applied to the front of Lincoln's body from collar bones to ankles. He sought to preserve body heat when it was pointless to do so. At midnight, Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes arrived and took charge of the case.

He frowned at Leale, but the young man remained at his post, gently squeezing Lincoln's hand. Cabinet members jammed the little bedroom and wondered why the young captain was permitted to stay.

A great clock in the hall ticked slowly. Fresh kerosene lamps were brought to the bedroom. The night took its interminable time moving toward a gray dawn. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, imperious and unforgiving, stood in the living room interrogating witnesses and ordering some to be arrested.

The president saw nothing; heard nothing. Mrs. Lincoln became hysterical. She was escorted from the bedroom. The early light sneaked through the windows and tried to overcome the lamps. Leale refused to release his hero's hand. All night he stroked it gently, and squeezed a little.

At 7:22 a.m. the president of the United States heaved a big sigh. The surgeon general closed his lids. Leale stood. He said a silent prayer.

Later he was asked why he had held that hand all night long. "Sometimes," he said, "recognition and reason return just before departure. I held his hand firmly to let him know, in his blindness, that he had a friend."