Researchers working at the National Archives have unearthed a remarkable discovery: the account of the first doctor to reach President Abraham Lincoln after he was shot by an assassin's bullet. The 21-page document has been hidden in a forgotten box of papers for 147 years.
Army doctor Charles Leale was seated just 40 feet away from Lincoln when he was shot by assassin John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater in 1865. The 23-year-old surgeon was the first to reach the president, and he found the 16th president paralyzed and comatose.
"O doctor, do what you can for him, do what you can," first lady Mary Todd Lincoln implored to the doctor as he entered the booth. "I told her we would do all that we possibly could," Leale recounted in his report.
Because Booth, an actor in that night's production, had been brandishing a dagger on stage, Leale first looked for signs of a knife wound on the president's body. He quickly discovered that Lincoln had been shot.
"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," Leale wrote. "The coagula I easily removed and passed the little finger of my left hand through the perfectly smooth opening made by the ball."
Lincoln was technically dead at that point. Leale was able to restore the president's breathing and pulse, but Lincoln never awakened. He died the next morning.
The rediscovered report is not in Leale's own handwriting. Instead, it is a copy made by a clerk at a later date. The report was found by Lincoln researcher Helena Iles Papaioannou in the records of the surgeon general. Researchers have been pouring through millions of never-cataloged files for the past six years looking for documents related to Lincoln.
Daniel Stowell, director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project, says the report does not add much new information to the historical record, but it does provide a "first draft" of history. "What's fascinating about this report is its immediacy and its clinical, just-the-facts approach," Stowell told the press. "There's not a lot of flowery language, not a lot of emotion."
Stowell said the report, which has been posted online, captures the "helplessness" of the doctors as they tried to save the president's life.
Leale remained with Lincoln through the night until his death. The report covers the scope of the evening, from the assassination to conferring with other doctors as the president was moved to the house across the street, and then to Lincoln's passing the next morning.
According to the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project, Leale rarely discussed his role in that fateful night. He did not talk about it publicly until 1909, during the centennial of Lincoln's birth.