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Arts & Life

President Lincoln was assassinated 150 years ago today

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150 years ago this night, the 16th President of the United States decided that an evening at the theater was just what he needed.

As we all know, Abraham Lincoln’s night at Ford’s Theatre in Washington ended with a bullet fired by assassin John Wilkes Booth. The bullet lodged in his brain, right behind his left ear.

But only recently did we gain a clear idea of what happened immediately following the gunshot. Doctors attempted to treat the President’s head wound at a nearby boarding house during the long hours overnight.

We spoke with University of Michigan physician and medical historian Dr. Howard Markel about this history.

Markel recounted that evening. He said the President's trip to the theater was prompted by the end of what he calls “probably the worst chapter in American history,” -- the Civil War.

President Lincoln wanted a night out despite all the warning signs.

“I mean, there were a lot of angry people – hence the Civil War – and he had a lot of threats,” Markel said. “And in fact, several cabinet officers were worried about him. Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, urged him, ‘don’t go out,’ because they had received assassination threats, several of them that day.”

The President’s subconscious also sent him some warning signs.

“This is probably the strangest part of the tale,” Markel said.

Somewhere around three days prior to the night at the theater, Lincoln told his friend and body guard – who had the night off the night of the assassination – that he had a dream.

In the dream, he entered the East Room of the White House, where a funeral was in progress. The soldier in charge of guarding the casket informed the dreaming President that, “the President was murdered.”

And yet, go out the President did, confident in the abilities of his body guards.

“John Wilkes Booth entered the box, fired his derringer pistol right behind the left ear of Lincoln’s head, and it tore through his brain,” Markel said. “Lincoln slumped forward and Mrs. Lincoln obviously screamed.”

Rathbone attempted to apprehend John Wilkes Booth, but Booth stabbed him with his dagger before leaping down to the stage.

Markel said that historians argue at this point in the story.

Some believe Booth yelled “sic semper tyrannis,” a Latin phrase meaning “thus always to tyrants.” Others believe he said, “the south is avenged,” or “I have done it.” Booth is also known to have broken his leg, though whether he did so upon impact with the stage after his big leap is unclear.

“But it’s really the next several hours that I find fascinating about Lincoln’s ultimate demise,” Markel said.

The first doctor to the scene of the crime was Charles Leale, a new doctor who graduated from Bellevue Hospital Medical School just six weeks prior. In an attempt to save the President, he used his bare hands to feel inside the President’s skull.

“He asked for some brandy and water to try to revive the President, but it was quite clear very quickly that this was a mortal wound,” Markel said.

After two other doctors arrived, the three decided to bring the President across the street to Petersen’s Boarding House where they removed the foot of one of the beds in order to lie the President’s long body down comfortably.

The doctors did what they could. The wound killed the President 150 years ago at 7:20 a.m. on April 15.

Lindsey Scullen, Michigan Radio Newsroom