Taft's account is one of many eyewitness accounts of the assassination
collected in book form
in February 1893, but was based on notes Taft wrote
the day after Lincoln's death, i.e. in April 1865.
The notes from which this article is written were made the day succeeding
Mr. Lincoln's death, and immediately after the official examination of the
body. They were made, by direction of Secretary Stanton for the purpose
of preserving an official account of the circumstances attending the assassination,
in connection with the medical aspects of the case.
On the fourth anniversary of the fall of Fort Sumter, the beloved President,
his great heart filled with peaceful thoughts and charity for all,
entered Ford's Theater amid the acclamations of the loyal multitude assembled
to greet him. Mr. Lincoln sat in a high-backed upholstered chair
in the corner of the box nearest the audience, and only his left profile was
visible to most of the audience from where I sat, almost under the box, in
the front row of orchestra chairs, I plainly saw that Mrs. Lincoln rested
her hand on his knee much of the time, and often called his attention to
some humorous situation on the stage. She seemed to take great pleasure
witnessing his enjoyment.
All went on pleasantly until half-past ten o'clock when during the
second scene of the third act, the sharp report of a pistol rang through the
house. The report seemed to proceed from behind the President's box.
While it startled every one in the audience, it was evidently accepted by all
as an introductory effect preceding some new situation in the play, several
of which had been introduced in the earlier parr of the performance. A
moment afterward a hatless and white-faced man leaped from the front of
the President's box down twelve feet to the stage. As he jumped, one
of the spurs on his riding-boots caught in the folds of the flag dropped
over the front, and caused him to fall partly on his hands and knees as he
struck the stage. Springing quickly to his feet with the suppleness of an
athlete, he faced the audience for a moment as he brandished in his right
hand a long knife, and shouted "Sic Semper Tyrannis!" Then, with a rapid
stage stride, he crossed the stage, and disappeared from view. A piercing
shriek from the President's box, a repeated call for "Water! water!" and
"A surgeon!" in quick succession, conveyed the truth to the almost paralyzed
audience. A most terrible scene of excitement followed. With loud
shouts of "Kill him!" "Lynch him!" part of the audience stampeded toward
the entrance and some to the stage.
I leaped from the top of the orchestra railing in front of me upon the
stage, and, announcing myself as an army surgeon, was immediately lifted
up to the President's box by several gentleman who had collected beneath.
I happened to be in uniform, having passed the entire day in attending to
my duties at the Signal Camp of Instruction in Georgetown, and not
having had an opportunity to change my dress. The cape of a military
overcoat fastened around my neck became detached in clambering into
the box, and fell upon the stage. It was taken to police headquarters,
together with the assassin's cap, spur, and deringer, which had also been
picked up, under the supposition that it belonged to him. It was recovered,
weeks afterward, with much difficulty.
When I entered the box, the President was lying upon the floor surrounded
by his wailing wife and several gentlemen who had entered from
the private stairway and dress circle. Assistant Surgeon Charles A. Leale,
U.S.V., was in the box, and had caused the coat and waistcoat to be cut off
in searching for the wound. Dr. A. F. A. King of Washington was also
present, and assisted in the examination. The carriage had been ordered to
remove the President to the White House, but the surgeons countermanded
the order, and he was removed to a bed in a house opposite the