CSI: Ford's Theatre
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What does science uncover about the circumstances leading up to this point and which ultimately ended in Lincoln's death? To answer this question, A Finger in Lincoln's Brain author E. Lawrence Abel examines from a modern perspective three pieces of evidence—Booth's gun, Booth's state of mind, and the medical treatment that Lincoln received—and their implications.

Washington, D.C.,  April 14, 1865, 10:15 PM

From John Wilkes Booth's perspective, Ford’s Theatre was the perfect place for murder. The three-story former Baptist church had eight private boxes, four on either side of the stage, with two above one another. Booth not only knew exactly where Lincoln would be seated, he was also totally familiar with the layout of the rest of the theater. He had acted in the play being performed that night, knew all the lines by heart, and knew exactly when a line that always got laughter would occur. He entered the vestibule, peered through a hole he had made in the door to one of the boxes and saw exactly where Lincoln was sitting. He opened the door to the presidential box slightly so that he could hear the actors on stage, and waited for the laugh line that would drown out the crack of his derringer. That line came at about 10:15 P.M. The audience burst out laughing, and Booth stepped into the box, cocked his 44-caliber derringer, pointed it at Lincoln, and fired.

Booth Took a Lucky Shot

Title: Single shot 0.44 caliber derringer
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.
The gun Booth used to assassinate Lincoln was a derringer, a gun not used for accuracy, but one meant to be used in a scrape where it could be quickly brought out of a pocket or from up a sleeve. In 1996, a series of experiments were conducted to duplicate the shot that wounded Lincoln. The results revealed that the bullet met its target not because Booth was a marksman but because he had a lucky shot. As there was no way to know how much powder Booth used, the gun was loaded with a mixture of charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate. The experiments indicated that the amount of powder Booth would have used in order for the bullet to penetrate Lincoln's skull would have made the gun recoil violently. There is no evidence that Booth ever practiced firing his derringer. Without practicing, he would not have been prepared for the recoil, which would cause the gun to fire upward. Because the bullet entered the back of Lincoln’s head, Booth would have had to be aiming lower on Lincoln's back, probably in the area of his heart.

Disease May Have Pushed Booth over the Edge

Title: Booth, John Wilkes at twenty-six
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Could John Wilkes Booth's murderous behavior have resulted from an advanced stage of syphilis?  The essential starting point for this question was one of Booth's frequently mentioned personality traits: his sexual adventurism, which is believed to have led to his contracting the disease. Syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to mental instability, ultimately turned Booth to murder. This theory has been met with understandable skepticism, as it is based on only one symptom of syphilis, Booth's recurrent hoarseness. However, we now know that syphilis has a legion of symptoms that vary depending on the stage of the disease. When someone comes down with several of them, as Booth did, the likelihood of infection is high. Proof that Booth had syphilis comes from the cumulative evidence of his symptoms: hoarseness, which he developed as an ongoing condition in February 1864; tumors, which Booth had removed from the back of his neck in 1863; rashes, which Booth developed in August 1864 over his right elbow; pain in the chest, which he complained of frequently to his friends; personality changes, which included bouts of rage and depression and illusions of grandiosity; and lack of restraint as Booth became increasingly impulsive—indicative of damage to the frontal lobe which can result from syphilis.

If the Shot Didn't Kill Lincoln, Infection Would Have

Title: Nelaton probe and fragments from Lincoln's brain
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.
Dr. Charles Leale was the first physician to treat Lincoln after he had been shot. When Leale entered the presidential box at Ford's Theatre, Lincoln was unconscious and slumped in his rocking chair. First, Leale got Lincoln onto the floor to avoid a sudden loss of blood pressure that would cut off the blood flow to his brain. It was the one thing Leale did that unquestionably prolonged Lincoln's life. Then, Leale passed his hand over the back of Lincoln's head and found a firm clot of blood behind his left ear. Leale picked the scab away, and using his finger as a probe, found that the bullet had entered Lincoln's brain. Later that night, Dr. Charles Taft stuck his finger into Lincoln's brain to see whether he could feel the bullet; Lincoln's other doctors took turns using a metal probe to find the bullet as well. Each time they did this, they enlarged the wound and caused further damage. When they maneuvered the probe around bone fragments, they broke more of the capillaries that nourish the brain. Any chance Lincoln might have survived, no matter how slim, was lost. There is no question Lincoln's wounds would have become infected from the unsterile fingers and probes inserted into his brain. But at the time, no one knew about germs. Doctors would not come to understand the importance of sterile conditions until several years after the war.

E. Lawrence Abel

MLA Citation

"CSI: Ford's Theatre." Lincoln's Assassination through Modern Science. ABC-CLIO, 2019. Web. 10 December 2019.

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