Frequently Asked Questions: The Aftermath

Where was President Lincoln shot? Did he ever regain consciousness?

The bullet entered the back of his head, about an inch to the left of the medial line of the skull and at the level of his ear, traveled diagonally through his brain, and lodged behind the orbit of his right eye. The force of the initial impact also fractured both orbital plates of the frontal plate of the skull, and additional damage was done by skull fragments propelled into the brain by the bullet. The doctors performing the autopsy on Lincoln provided varying accounts, though, with one doctor writing that the bullet had passed straight forward and had lodged in the left side of Lincoln’s brain.

No, the president never regained consciousness before his death.

Could Lincoln have been saved with modern medicine?

Some medical specialists have suggested that with advances in modern medicine, Lincoln’s life could have been saved if taken immediately to a trauma center. Other specialists are certain that Lincoln would not have survived, even today, especially if the bullet did in fact travel over the centerline of the brain, doing damage in both halves. Anybody suffering a similar wound today, even if surviving through an effective trauma protocol, would experience considerable neurological problems. Right-side paralysis, partial blindness, and difficulties with speaking, writing, and hand-eye coordination would all be likely consequences from the injury. In any case, in 1865, the wound was very definitely 100% fatal.

Why didn’t they bring Lincoln to a hospital?

Two surgeons arrived in the box very soon after the president was shot. Both Dr. Charles Leale and Dr. Charles Sabin Taft feared that President Lincoln might die en-route within a carriage to a hospital given the condition of the roads and the knowledge that the bullet was still in his brain, capable of doing more damage. The closest hospital at the time was Armory Square Hospital located on the south side of the Mall near where the present Air and Space Museum is now located. This distance from Ford’s Theatre was just over one-half of a mile.
Back then hospitals were considered unhealthful places where one goes to die and were only used as a last resort. Persons of means would be taken back to their houses where their personal physician would have been expected to make a house call. Had the doctors tending Lincoln had the freedom to treat the president in the best possible manner according to the constraints of the time, they would have taken him to the White House. That trip, about ¾ of a mile, would likely have proven fatal as well.

Where is the actual bullet that killed President Lincoln?

The actual original .44 caliber bullet is on public display today at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM) located at 2500 Linden Lane, Silver Spring, Maryland. It is displayed alongside some skull fragments, and the probe doctors used to search the wound for the bullet. All three were transferred to the NMHM’s predecessor organization from the storage vaults of the Lincoln Museum in 1956.

What happened to Mrs. Lincoln after the shooting?

Very shortly after Mr. Lincoln was shot, Mrs. Lincoln, understandably, became hysterical and terrified. She followed the doctors tending the president and the soldiers carrying him out onto the street. She continued following them into the Petersen Boarding House across from the theater. Once in the house, she waited in the front parlor, only occasionally being allowed to venture into the room where the president was dying. Throughout the night, friends and her son Robert arrived and tried to comfort and console her. She was not in the room when President Lincoln died.

Following the death of Lincoln, the newly sworn-in President Andrew Johnson graciously allowed Mary Lincoln to live inside one of the rooms of the White House while in seclusion and in mourning. This lasted for around a month. Following that, Mary Lincoln largely remained in seclusion from the rest of society except for the immediate members of her family. Mary Todd’s grief and depression was often overpowering, and she dressed in black the rest of her life. For a period of time she travelled abroad with her son Tad, who tragically died of Tuberculosis in 1871. Around 1875, Robert Todd had Mary briefly committed to an asylum, largely for her safety. Mary sadly never forgave him and both her and Robert remained estranged. Mary spent the last remaining years of her life living with her sister in Illinois and, largely broken in spirit, died in 1882 at age 63.

What happened to Major Rathbone and Miss Harris, the Lincoln’s guests, after the shooting?

Major Rathbone, who was seated with the Lincolns inside the box, tried to stop Booth and was stabbed for his trouble. Despite the wound, he yelled out “stop that man, somebody stop that man!” and made his way to the door of the box to remove the wooden piece Booth had use as a wedge to block the door closed. He pleaded for a surgeon, and let Dr. Charles Leale into the box. After the president was removed, he escorted Mrs. Lincoln and Clara Harris over to the Petersen House. It was there that he fainted in the front hallway due to loss of blood and was laid onto the floor. His wound was then treated, and he was taken by carriage back to his home on Lafayette Square. Much of the blood throughout the scene at Ford’s and the Petersen House belonged to Rathbone, as Lincoln’s wound bled very little.

Clara Harris and Major Rathbone married and had three children. They moved to the German province of Hanover in 1882 when Rathbone was appointed as diplomatic consul. Rathbone never really recovered from the emotional trauma of that night at Ford’s Theatre, and his behavior had grown increasingly erratic. In 1883, Major Rathbone shot his wife in a fit of madness, leaving three young children to be raised by their mother’s sister. Rathbone was committed to an asylum for the insane and remained in the institution until his death in 1911.
His son, Henry Riggs Rathbone, entered politics and represented Illinois in the 68th Congress. He was instrumental in getting a bill passed which authorized the government to purchase the Petersen House as a museum for the display of the Osborn H. Oldroyd collection of Lincoln memorabilia (much of which is in the Ford’s Theatre museum today).

What happened to Booth after the assassination?

John Wilkes Booth spent almost two weeks on the run, traveling through southern Maryland and across the Potomac River into Virginia trying to make it far enough South. Twelve days after the assassination, A cavalry detachment of 26 soldiers from the 16th New York Cavalry, under the command of Col. E.J. Conger, found John Wilkes Booth and one of his accomplices, David Herold, hiding in a tobacco barn on a farm owned by Richard Garrett near Bowling Green, Virginia. The soldiers surrounded the barn. They set the building on fire. David Herold surrendered to the soldiers but Booth stayed in the barn. The purpose of a tobacco barn is to dry tobacco, so they are not sealed buildings. A sergeant in that cavalry unit, named Boston Corbett, was peering through an open slat in that burning barn. Thinking that John Wilkes Booth was raising his rifle to shoot, Sgt. Corbett drew his own pistol and fired it through the open slat of the barn. Booth was shot in the neck and paralyzed. He died several hours later in the early morning hours just before sunrise on April 26, 1865. His body was sewn into an army blanket and placed on a tugboat for transport to the Washington Navy Yard about 80 miles north.

An autopsy performed on April 27 and a handful of people, who knew Booth by sight, identified his body during the autopsy. The doctors removed a small portion of Booth’s spine containing the bullet that tore through his body. This bone fragment was once on display at the Army Medical Museum that was on the rebuilt third floor of Ford’s Theatre. Today it is part of the collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, MD.

Last updated: August 15, 2020

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