Sitting on the second floor, Dress Circle, of Ford's Theatre gave Charles Leale a wonderful view of Our American Cousin on April 14, 1865. Also, unbeknownst to him, it was going to give him a great vantage point into the tragedy that would be the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
As a twenty-three year old Army surgeon, Leale took a break from his work at the commissioned officers ward of the US Army General Hospital on Armory Square to attend the Ford's Theatre attraction, but his main intention was on seeing President Lincoln. Leale had seen the President, a few nights before, give his last speech, from the White House window. It drew such interest from the young surgeon that he wished to see Lincoln again.
With the announcement of Lincoln and Grant at Ford's, Charles Leale had his opportunity. Upon arrival, he requested a seat in the orchestra, thinking it would give a better view into the Presidential box on the second floor. However, the seats were all sold out in that section. Instead, he was seated in the only spot available, in the Dress Circle, "on the same side and about forty feet from the President's box". (Lincoln's Last Hours).
Leale arrived late, around 8:15, but he managed to arrive before the Presidential party, which entered the theater a few minutes later. Charles Leale had a great view of the Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd, Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris passing into the President's box, as the theater stood at attention, applauding the arrival. From his seat, Leale, unfortunately couldn't see much of the President, so attention turned the performance of Our American Cousin. All was normal until he noticed a man trying to gain entrance to the Presidential box. Leale noticed an usher in discussion with John Wilkes Booth. It's assumed this usher was Lincoln's footman, Charles Forbes, as he was sitting just outside the box. Forbes accepted Booth's calling card and allowed the actor to enter.
Moments later, Dr. Leale was startled by the "report of a pistol", followed soon after by "a man in midair leaping from the President's box to the stage, brandishing in his hand a drawn dagger." Leale also reported that Booth's boot spur caught in the American flag draped in front of the box, causing him to "stumble when he struck the stage", falling to "his hands and knees." It's assumed by many historians, this is when Booth broke his leg, while others believe Booth's injury came later in the night after falling from his horse.
As cries for Booth's capture rose in the theater and screaming patrons bolted for the door, others ran towards the Presidential box to assist. Leale, sitting nearby, didn't have far to travel and announced himself as a surgeon. He was the first person allowed to enter the box and unsure of what to expect, he calmed his nerves the best he could. He noticed Major Rathbone and quickly ascertained that he was no "immediate danger". It was then that he found Mary Todd Lincoln cradling her husband and calling out, "Oh, Doctor, is he dead?" Can he recover?"
Charles Leale began his inspection of the slain President and immediately noticed "his eyes were closed and his head had fallen forward." He appeared dead to Leale, sitting in the rocking chair, being propped up by Mary Todd. Leale felt no pulse at first, then requested to have the President's body moved from the chair to floor. Remembering the knife that Booth brandished on stage, Leale first assumed the wound was from a knife. he asked to have Lincoln's shirt cut open, to search his body for wounds. It was done, but nothing was found. Leale then passed "quickly passed the separated fingers of both hands through his blood-matted hair to examine his head" and discovered the gunshot wound. After some further tests, Leale knew that "instant death would not occur", but that "his wound was mortal."
A few minutes later, Leale was joined by Dr. Charles S. Tafft and Dr. Albert F.A. King. They all agreed that President Lincoln needed to be removed from the Ford's Theatre box and into a more appropriate location for further care. They feared Lincoln couldn't even make the short distance to the White House and as they carried his body out the front door of the theatre, ultimately choosing the Petersen house across the street for Lincoln's body. He was laid diagonally on a short bed in the back bedroom and Lincoln's family physician Dr. Robert K. Stone and Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes were sent for. Upon their arrival, Leale gave his report and resigned his charge of Lincoln to the Stone and Barnes.
Throughout the night Leale periodically removed coagulated blood from Lincoln's gunshot wound to relieve pressure, but there was nothing much else to do but wait. At 7:22 am, President Lincoln stopped breathing and he was pronounced dead. Due to his involvement and quick treatment of Lincoln, Leale was allowed to participate in the President's funeral proceedings. Dr. Charles Leale went on to record multiple accounts of his recollections from the Lincoln Assassination, in 1865, 1867 and 1909. They can be found in the links below:
1909 Harper's Weekly Article written by Leale