New Document Sheds Light On Lincoln's Last Hours While sifting through boxes of documents at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., researcher Helena Iles Papaioannou of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln project came across one report that was particularly interesting. The hand-written, first-person account came from a young doctor who happened to be in attendance at Ford's Theater on the evening of the assassination. The 23-year-old Army surgeon, Charles Leale, was the first to come to the president's aid, and stayed with him through the night until Lincoln passed away in the early hours of the morning. Robert Siegel speaks with Papaioannou about the finding and its significance.

New Document Sheds Light On Lincoln's Last Hours

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Here's a story fit for a prime-time medical drama: A young doctor rushes to help a gunshot victim. The wounded man is leaning against his distraught wife. He appears paralyzed, comatose. There's a bullet wound in his head. The wife cries, "Oh, doctor, do what you can for him; do what you can!" The doctor clears a blood clot, and gets the man breathing normally. He stays with him all night. But hours later, the man dies from his wounds.

It's not "Grey's Anatomy" or an "E.R." rerun. It is the account of a 23-year-old Army surgeon named Charles Leale.His patient was Abraham Lincoln. The details come from a long-forgotten report, evidently written hours after Lincoln's death - a report that was discovered just last month. Helena Iles Papaioannou is the researcher who found it at the National Archives, here in Washington, and she joins me now. Welcome to the program.

HELENA ILES PAPAIOANNOU: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Why were you leafing through papers at the National Archives? What were you looking for?

PAPAIOANNOU: I am part of an organization called the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. We are affiliated with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, and we are attempting to collect everything written to and from Lincoln and make it, ultimately, available in an open-access database along with transcriptions and annotations.

SIEGEL: And how did you come across Dr. Leale's account of Lincoln's shooting?

PAPAIOANNOU: Well, the record group I was currently searching was the records of the Office of the Surgeon General. And I was looking through his letters received, and I was in the L's. And I was going through 1865, so I - since Lincoln died in 1865. I was almost finished with L and there it was, sitting right in the middle of a box.

SIEGEL: L, for Leale?

PAPAIOANNOU: L, for Leale - not Lincoln - yes.

SIEGEL: Tell us a bit about Dr. Leale. He was an awfully young doctor.

PAPAIOANNOU: He was incredibly young. He was only 23 years old when - the night he was at Ford's Theatre. He'd only qualified for medical school, I think, six weeks previously, but he had had some experience. He had been a surgeon working in a hospital for wounded officers at the end of this - very tail end of the Civil War.

SIEGEL: So you're reading through this account. When did it hit you - I've just found something that is really, of some historical value here?

PAPAIOANNOU: Well, I knew it was interesting straight away. I mean, I started reading out passages to my colleagues and we were all, you know, very interested. And we knew who Leale was. We - sort of reading it out, just so - there's some really touching moments in it and, you know, looking through it.

But then, it was only when I started looking into it, sort of just Google-searching for Dr. Leale, I realized there isn't an 1865 report of Lincoln's assassination that we know about, only his - he reported to an assassination commission in 1867. And then he didn't speak about it again until the centennial of Lincoln's birth, in 1909.

SIEGEL: There are some details, which give us a glimpse of emergency medicine as it was practiced in 1865. He sends two fellows - one to get some water, the other to get some brandy.


SIEGEL: And he takes care of Lincoln after it's implied, in his account, that the patient is lost; the president is lost.

PAPAIOANNOU: Yeah, absolutely. It's clear that this was somebody he cared deeply for, even if he didn't personally know him. He was very concerned with making Lincoln comfortable. He doesn't say that in this report but elsewhere, he says he didn't want Lincoln to be taken to the White House - or the Executive Mansion, as it was called then - because he knew he wouldn't survive the trip.

I think what makes this report really interesting and unique is because it's a very poignant account, but it's also very immediate. And there's some moments in it that are really, quite heartwrenching. For instance, he talks about the president's lower legs - his lower extremities being cold, and they brought him hot-water bottles and hot blankets. And I think that's just a very touching moment. It shows that they really tried to make Lincoln as comfortable as possible.

SIEGEL: To make him comfortable. He understands that they're losing the president right there, when he's...

PAPAIOANNOU: Yes, that the wound is mortal.

SIEGEL: ...going cold, yeah. How did this account go missing for the past - well, over a century?

PAPAIOANNOU: I've been thinking of it as sort of hiding in plain sight. It was there in a box, open to any researchers who looked. And I don't know how well-traversed the records of the surgeon general are, but I would suspect that people have used them. Just maybe not this box from the L's, from 1865, I guess.

SIEGEL: Like a good history lesson, this one includes a vocabulary lesson as well. I - we both, I gather, learned recently the word stertorous.

PAPAIOANNOU: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: Stertorous.


SIEGEL: What does it mean?

PAPAIOANNOU: I had to look this one up, too. It means kind of gasping for breath; shallow breaths, gasping, choking for air.

SIEGEL: And it's a description of President Lincoln after he's been shot, yes.

PAPAIOANNOU: Right. Sadly.

SIEGEL: Helena Iles Papaioannou, thank you very much for talking with us.


SIEGEL: Helena Papaioannou is the researcher who found the report of Dr. Charles Leale, in papers at the National Archives.



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