History Matters: A Personal Link to Lincoln … “I’ve Touched the Man’s Blood!”
Dr. Charles Leale did all he could that night to aid the fallen president. After rushing to his side and discovering a large clot of blood in the back of Lincoln’s head, he felt through and parted the blood-stained hair, finding the cause.
One inch below the superior curved line and an inch and a half to the left of the median line of the occipital bone, he found the place where a .44 caliber lead ball had entered the skull. And in his probing, Lincoln’s blood seeped into his clothing, a fact that will gain more resonance in a moment and will bring us to a surprising local connection.
“This wound is mortal; it is impossible for him to recover,” Dr. Leale would sadly announce to a shocked nation still reeling from the horrors of Civil War.
The night had begun with so many hopeful expectations for the 23-year-old, recently graduated, Army doctor. Despite the crowded conditions at Ford’s Theatre, Charles Augustus Leale was very fortunate to have found a seat about 40 feet from the presidential box, where he might excitedly view the great man for the first time.
The theater, he noted, was beautifully decorated with American flags to honor the occasion. The play “Our American Cousin” was in progress but came to a halt when the president’s party arrived.
“Suddenly there was a cheering welcome…as many in the audience rose to their feet in enthusiasm and vociferously cheered,” Dr. Leale narrated. “Turning, I saw in the aisle a few feet behind me, President Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln, Major Rathbone and Miss Harris. Mrs. Lincoln smiled very happily in acknowledgment of the loyal greeting, gracefully curtsied several times and seemed to be overflowing with good cheer and thankfulness.
“I had the best opportunity to distinctly see the full face of the President, as the light shown directly upon him.
“After he had walked a few feet, he stopped for a moment, looked upon the people he loved and acknowledged their salutations with a solemn bow. His face was perfectly stoical, his deep-set eyes gave him a pathetically sad appearance. The audience seemed to be enthusiastically cheerful, but he alone looked particularly sorrowful, as he slowly walked with bowed head and drooping shoulders towards the presidential box.
“I was looking at him as he took his last walk,” Dr. Leale would later recount.
Mrs. Lincoln had been hysterical ever since that shot had been fired from behind and was holding her husband’s head in her hands when Dr. Leale entered the box.
“Do for him what you can, doctor,” she entreated. But nothing could be done.
Numerous Army officers and two other doctors also rushed to the presidential box to lend assistance but soon concluded that nothing could be done except take him to a quiet place to die. He was carried to the Petersen Boarding House across the street from the theater.
Throughout that terrible night, Dr. Leale stood at Lincoln’s bedside and held the President’s hand. “I held his hand firmly to let him know in his blindness, that he had a friend.”
When Lincoln passed away nine hours later at 7:22 the next morning, Dr. Leale and the others began exiting the boarding house.
“I left the house in deep meditation. In my lonely walk I was aroused from my reveries by the cold drizzling rain dropping on my bare head, my hat I had left in my seat in the theater. I had not once been seated since I first sprang to the President’s aid. My clothing (I now noticed) was stained with blood. I was cold, weary and (very) sad,” Dr. Leale reported.
The triumphant yet tragic story of arguably America’s greatest and most beloved president, Abraham Lincoln, continues to draw great interest from many quarters. I wrote an article recently about trying to personally connect to this famous man through a series of shared handshakes. I admit to being quite satisfied with my efforts, that is, until I heard the following story from a man currently living part-time in Stonington.
Michael Baker has an impressive resume. He has been a successful businessman and entrepreneur, an author and playwright, and has devoted many years of his life to community service, mostly as a long-time New Yorker.
But while at his Stonington home recently, Michael happened upon an article about Lincoln and the six-handshake rule in the History Matters column of the Times. He said he was taken by it and was inspired to reach out and share with readers a compelling Lincoln connection he had of his own.
It turned out to be one doozy of a story.
“Years ago, I worked as a financial adviser in White Plains, New York,” Mr. Baker began. “During that time, I had a client, Ginny B., come to me and say she had a second cousin by the name of Helen Harper who was dying and would like to turn over her securities to me to make her estate less complicated.”
“I found Helen to be a complicated woman who, among other things, cherished her ancestor’s memory, one being her great-great grandfather, John Harper, who founded Harper’s Publishing, and her grandfather, Dr. Charles Leale, the doctor who first attended Abraham Lincoln when he was shot at Ford’s Theatre.
“Though the Harper history is substantial, Helen had dedicated much of her life to the memory of Dr. Leale and his legacy.
“One of Helen’s quirks was she was a hoarder in the extreme, and to retrieve her securities we had to enter her house to get the keys to safe deposit boxes in three banks. The clutter presented an immediate challenge as we were barely able to open the front door enough to squeeze through.
“Once inside we had the feeling that ancient invaders must have had when they first entered the pyramids as I could see American artifacts that dated back almost two hundred years along with antiques the Harpers had brought back from Egypt and other foreign places as was the custom for the very rich in the late 1800s.
“Once through the door and having calmed from the excitement of the treasures buried amongst the obvious rubble, I ventured upstairs and found the keys to the safe deposit boxes as Helen had instructed.
“The next day, Ginny, who now had power-of-attorney, accompanied me to the Chase Bank in New Rochelle and we began to open dozens of large manilla envelopes which held Mrs. Harper’s stock certificates. About a half hour into our work, I spotted one envelope with a handwritten inscription on it. It read ‘THE CUFFS OF DR. LEALE.’
“I turned to Ginny, and she said ‘Oh, it’s Dr. Leale’s shirt cuffs with Lincoln’s blood on them!’ As I opened the envelope, I found myself staring at a single bloodstained cuff. I just could not help myself. I reached out slowly with the index finger of my right hand and lightly touched the soiled cuff.
“‘This is Abe Lincoln’s blood,’ I remember saying to myself. Chills ran down my body and still do whenever I think of that moment or retell this story as I am doing for your readers now,” Michael Baker concluded.
When I heard Michael tell this part of the story, I began to remember back to my Civil War reenacting days to some details regarding men’s shirts. Shirts were generally considered underwear at the time and not fit to be shown in public. That was one reason why detachable collars, cuffs and bibs became fashionable during Lincoln’s time.
Made from linen, paper, perhaps a paper and linen mixture or even cellulose, those accessories were fastened on to the shirt itself with clips. Shirts could then be worn for long periods of time (sometime months) without washing, as that process was very time consuming and labor intensive.
Those parts of the shirt that were publicly viewable and most susceptible to soiling could then be easily removed and replaced.
“That was the beginning of my favorite job ever as I took over the project of cleaning out Helen’s house once she died,” Michael Baker added. “It was obvious that millions of dollars were involved with treasures abounding between the Harper treasures and those of Dr. Leale.
“One example we found was a calligraphy report from Congress on Lincoln’s assassination which was valued at a million dollars. We also discovered numerous unopened envelopes lying scattered about the floor which contained over five hundred dollars’ worth of contributions that had been sent to Helen for many of the political causes she championed.”
“Helen also had in her possession a mummified hand from the daughter of Egyptian pharaoh, Ramses the 2nd. She disliked it because it turned ‘soft’ in the summer and ‘hard’ in the winter and because of that had earlier given it to the Smithsonian.
“We did find several pictures of it while looking through the trash strewn throughout her home. We were, however, able to add Dr. Leale’s military dress sword to our list of great finds.
“We had a security system installed inside the house and brought in an appraiser from Sotheby’s where many of the high-end items were later auctioned off. The less valuable items were handled by another auction house.
“That job took two years and was the most fun I have ever had even though I was gladly not compensated. Ginny’s enthusiasm for history and family, along with her devotion to her cousin Helen was infectious. I was just glad to be included in the project and felt history and friendship were being served. That was certainly payment enough,” Michael Baker concluded.
Our frugal 19th century ancestors often recycled detachable shirt cuffs to use as writing paper. A quickly dashed off note on just such a surface was thought to be done “off the cuff,” an expression still with us today.
Thankfully, Dr. Leale’s shirt cuff never doubled as stationery as its value as a historic relic is obviously priceless. It can currently be viewed at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. just as Helen Harper had wished it to be.