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President Lincoln's Autopsy and Its Results

Lincoln Assassination - Bullet, Probe and Skull Fragments American History Famous Historical Events Assassinations American Presidents

When John Wilkes Booth fired a derringer ball into Abe Lincoln’s head, the President immediately became unconscious and stopped breathing (or, to use a medical term, he became apneic).

An Army surgeon, who was attending the play that night at Ford’s Theater, quickly came to the President’s aid. Dr. Charles A. Leale was a specialist in caring for soldiers with brain injuries.

Dr. Leale could see a wound behind Lincoln’s ear. He began to probe that wound, searching for a bullet. Although he didn’t find the bullet, Leale did find a blood clot. When his probing dislodged that blood clot, the President began to breathe again.

Although Lincoln resumed breathing, he remained unconscious. He was suffering from a wound that would kill him. The President passed away at 7:22 AM on the 15th of April, 1865.

Four physicians participated in Lincoln’s autopsy. Looking for the derringer ball that had killed their President, the doctors also found fragments of bone and metal that had acted as “secondary missiles,” further damaging Lincoln’s brain.

Doctors used the probe (shown in this picture) to search for the single ball that was lodged somewhere in the President’s head. They also used the probe to locate, and remove, fragments of Mr. Lincoln's skull.

Edward Curtis, one of two physicians actually performing the autopsy—the other was Dr. Joseph Janvier Woodward—later gave an account of what he saw and did during the procedure. Dr. Curtis contributed to Personal Recollections of the War of the Rebellion, and his words are included in Volume 4 (“Glimpses of Hospital Life in War Times,” beginning at page 54 of the 1912 release):

The shroud is laid back, and see! A smooth clear skin fitting cleanly over well-rounded muscles, sinewy and strong... Next see the back of the head, low down and a little to the left, a small round blackened wound, such as is made by a pistol-shot at close range. There is no counter-opening, so the missile has lodged and must now be found... The part is lifted from its seat, when suddenly, from out a cruel rent that traverses it from end to end, through these very fingers there slips something hard—slips and falls with a metal’s mocking clatter into a basin set beneath. The search is satisfied; a little pellet of lead! (Curtis, “Glimpses of Hospital Life in War Times,” at pages 64-65.)

Put differently, the doctors performing the autopsy could not locate the derringer ball with their probe. They found it when they removed President Lincoln’s brain, as Edward Curtis describes in a letter to his mother:

Dr. Woodward and I proceeded to open the head and remove the brain down to the track of the ball. The latter had entered a little to the left of the median line at the back of the head, had passed almost directly forwards through the center of the brain and lodged.

Not finding it readily, we proceeded to remove the entire brain, when, as I was lifting the latter from the cavity of the skull, suddenly the bullet dropped out through my fingers and fell, breaking the solemn silence of the room with its clatter, into an empty basin that was standing beneath.

There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger—dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world’s history as we may perhaps never realize. (See “His Wound Is Mortal; It Is Impossible for Him to Recover - The Final Hours of President Abraham Lincoln” online via the National Museum of Health and Medicine.)

As part of its “Wound is Mortal” exhibit, the National Museum of Health and Medicine also provides an image of the derringer ball which John Wilkes Booth fired at President Lincoln.

Booth’s .44-caliber pistol was made by Henry Deringer—note that the gun itself is usually spelled “Derringer”—of Philadelphia. It fired a single shot—a round, lead ball weighing nearly an ounce.

The gun, not always accurate, was more reliable at hitting its target when it was fired at close range.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5123stories and lessons created

Original Release: Sep 04, 2017

Updated Last Revision: Sep 04, 2017


Media Credits

Images online, courtesy National Museum of Health and Medicine (in Silver Spring, Maryland).

PD

 

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