Sunday, May 17, 2009

'Death certainly would soon close the scene'

Still making my way through the transcipts of the military trial investigating a possible conspiracy behind the murder of President Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln's personal physician, Dr. Robert King Stone, was called to the stand as a witness for the prosecution. His primary burden of proof seemed to be identifying the bullet he dug out of the dead president's skull and tying it to a pistol that also had been introduced into evidence.

But his entire testimony is of interest. It shows the primitive state of health care in 1865, when even the president of the United States was "treated" in a private home after being shot in the head. When you read what was done for the dying Lincoln, you'll see why I scare-quote "treated".

Compare in your imagination the minimalist "treatment" Lincoln's blown-open skull received to the medical hysteria surrounding a contemporary president, say, choking on a pretzel!

Dr. Robert King Stone takes the stand.
I was sent for by Mrs. Lincoln immediately after the assassination. I arrived in a very few moments, and found that the President had been removed from the theater to the house of a gentleman living directly opposite; and had been carried into the back room of the residence, and was there placed upon a bed. I found a number of gentlemen, citrzens, around him, and, among others, two assistant surgeons of the army, who had brought him over from the theater, and had attended to him. They immediately gave the case over to my care, knowing my relations to the family.

I proceeded to examine the President, and found that he had received a gun-shot wound in the back part of the left side of his head, into which I carried my finger. I at once informed those around that the case was a hopeless one; that the President would die; that there was no positive limit to the duration of his life; that his vital tenacity was very strong, and he would resist as long as any man could; but that death certainly would soon close the scene.

I remained with him, doing whatever was in my power, assisted by my friends; but, of course, nothing could be done, and he died from the wound the next morning at about half-past 7 o clock. It was about a quarter past 10 that I reached him.

The next day, previous to the process of embalmment, an examination was made in the presence of Surgeon-General Barnes, Dr. Curtis, and Dr. Woodward, of the army. We traced the wound through the brain, and the ball was found in the anterior part of the game side of the brain, the left side; it was a large ball, resembling those which are shot from the pistol known as the Derringer; an unusually large ball that is, larger than those used in the ordinary pocket revolvers. It was a leaden hand-made ball, and was flattened somewhat in its passage through the skull, and a portion had been cut off in going through the bone.

I marked the ball “A.L.”; the initials of the late President, and in the presence of the Secretary of War, in his office, inclosed it in an envelope, sealed it with my private seal, and indorsed it with my name. The Secretary inclosed it in an other envelope, which he indorsed in like manner, and sealed with his private seal. It was left in his custody, and he ordered it to be placed among the archives of his department.

[An official envelope, sealed with the official seal of the Secretary of War, was here opened by the Judge Advocate in the presence of the witness, from which was taken a Derringer pistol and an envelope containing a leaden ball in two pieces.]

This is the ball which I extracted from the head of the President; I recognize it from the mark which I put upon it with my pen-knife, as well as from the shape of the ball. This smaller piece is the fragment which was cut off in its passage through the skull. The ball was flattened, as I have before described.

[The ball was then offered in evidence.]

This bullet now is on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C.

Image of Dr. Robert King Stone from The National Archives.

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