As He Lay Dying

A Union League volume contains the testimony of witnesses to Lincoln's assassination, compiled just feet from where he breathed his last.

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President Lincoln lying in state on April 24, 1865, in New York. The photograph, taken by Jeremiah Gurney Jr., is the only known image of the president in an open coffin.

Through an open door came the sound of labored, heavy breathing and groans as President Abraham Lincoln lay dying from a gunshot wound to the head.

First lady Mary Todd Lincoln passed from the room into a hallway, moaning with inconsolable grief, "O, my God, and have I given my husband to die?"

The long death vigil at the Petersen House in Washington unfolded before James Tanner, who'd been summoned to record the testimony of witnesses to the assassination at Ford's Theatre.

Though not widely known, Tanner's shorthand and transcribed cursive from the night of April 14, 1865, and morning of April 15, 1865, survived and are kept in an acid-free box in a vault at the Union League of Philadelphia.

In his notes are the fresh, raw emotions and shock of the time. One playgoer was struck by the ferocious look of the attacker - John Wilkes Booth - and the "glare in his eye." Another remembered Booth leaping from the box, brandishing a knife and exclaiming "Sic semper tyrannis," or "Thus always to tyrants."

"This is Booth playing his greatest Shakespearean role, his Brutus to Lincoln's Caesar," James G. Mundy Jr., director of education and programming, said as he laid Tanner's notes on a cabinet. "This is a remarkable piece of American history."

The treasured volume "is probably the single most important piece we have related to the assassination," said John Meko, executive director of the League's Abraham Lincoln Foundation. "It's Tanner sitting next to Lincoln while he's dying."

Tanner, later elected commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union veterans, appeared at the Union League several times, knew of its support of the Union, and gave his notes to the club in 1917.

He said he believed "that they are of considerable interest to the general public owing to the circumstances surrounding their creation and believing they will become more so as the years pass. . . ."

The notes are the only direct record taken by Tanner at the Petersen House during the hours immediately after the assassination, as a second copy he created for the War Department was lost. The original sheets of testimony were later glued to linen and bound in leather by the Tanner family.

A facsimile is on display at the League as part of a sesquicentennial Civil War exhibit called "1865: Triumph and Tragedy," which includes a bottled medical specimen, fleshy tissue taken from Booth after he was fatally shot; a lock of Lincoln's hair; a piece of the shirt worn by the president the night he was shot; a life mask of Lincoln; and a small section of the bunting from the theater box. The display is open to the public from 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and from 1 to 4 p.m. on the second Saturday of the month through February.

Last week, the League unveiled a statue by Pennsylvania sculptor Chad Fisher, depicting George Henry Boker, a leading poet and playwright who helped form the Union League to support Lincoln and the Union cause.

But 150 years after Lincoln's death, the Tanner volume remains one of the most poignant reminders of that time.

Tanner, of Richmondville, N.Y., was 17 years old when the war broke out. He enlisted and was soon promoted to corporal - a title that became his nickname the rest of his life.

The young Union soldier fought in several battles, including the Peninsula Campaign, and lost both legs when fragments of a Confederate artillery shell struck him at the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862.

He later learned to walk with artificial limbs and held various jobs, eventually winning an appointment as a clerk and stenographer in the Ordnance Department in Washington. His shorthand abilities - at the time referred to as phonography - made him valuable after the assassination.

That night, Tanner and a friend were taking in a play called Aladdin, or the Wonderful Lamp when a man burst in and announced news of the attack. The veteran left for his boarding home next to the Petersen House.

About midnight, the general in command of the troops in Washington came to the front steps of the Petersen House, and asked if anyone knew shorthand.

Tanner was ushered into a parlor between the bedroom where Lincoln's 6-foot-4 frame lay diagonally across a bed, and a front room where the first lady was "weeping as though her heart would break."

He took notes during the interrogation of six witnesses: Henry Phillips, an actor-singer from Philadelphia; Lt. A.M.S. Crawford of the Volunteer Reserve Corps; Harry Hawk, the only actor on the stage when Booth jumped from the box; James Ferguson, a local saloon keeper; Alfred Cloughly, a clerk in the Second Auditor's Office; and Col. George V. Rutherford of the Quartermaster Corps.

Some of the most striking testimony came from Crawford, who was sitting in the dress circle at Ford's Theatre when he saw a suspicious man with a "dark slouch hat, a dark coat, jet black hair, dark eyes," and "a heavy black mustache."

"There was a glare in [his] eye," Crawford said. ". . . He left very suddenly and stepped into the box where the President was."

Then came a shot and the assassin jumped from the box with a knife in hand. "I saw him as he ran across the stage," Crawford said. ". . . What attracted my attention was the glare in his eye."

On the stage was actor Harry Hawk. "He was rushing towards me with a dagger & I turned and run & after I run up a flight of stairs I turned and exclaimed 'My God thats John Booth,' " Hawk said.

At the time the shot rang out, Ferguson, another audience member, said he saw the first lady "catch him [the president] around the neck," then Booth land on the stage, where he "exclaimed 'Sic Semper Tyrannis.'

"As he came across the stage facing me[,] he looked me right up in the face and it alarmed me," he recalled. ". . . He said, 'I have done it,' and shook the knife."

Tanner finished transcribing his shorthand at 6:45 a.m., then went into the room where Lincoln had only minutes to live.

The president's son Robert sobbed on the shoulder of Sen. Charles Sumner, and the gruff Secretary of War Edwin Stanton teared up as Lincoln's chest gently rose, fell, then did not rise again. Death came at 7:22 a.m.

Looking at Tanner's record of the time, Mundy said: "This is the only one of its kind and that makes it an extraordinary piece of American history."

 


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