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Charles A. Leale, 1842-1932

Dr. Charles Augustus Leale, M.D. (March 26, 1842 – June 13, 1932), image courtesy of Wikipedia

Not a resident of Yonkers, but married to a Yonkers woman, a daughter of local industrialist John Copcutt, Charles Augustus Leale was born on March 26, 1842.

On the evening of April 14, 1865, he was a 23-year-old Army surgeon who happened to be in the audience at Ford’s Theater when President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth.

Rushing to the presidential box within minutes of the pistol shot, Leale examined the stricken Lincoln and soon afterwards, according to an account he gave many years later, pronounced the fatal prognosis: “His wound is mortal; it is impossible for him to recover.” 

Charles Leale remained with the president through the remainder of the night and into the next morning, holding his hand in the hope of communicating to the dying man that in his suffering he was not alone.

Leale was advised by a colleague, some time later, to cast the night’s incidents out of his mind, and for many years he never spoke publicly about the event which had thrown the newly victorious nation into mourning. In February 1909, however, at a meeting in New York City of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Commandery of the State of New York, Charles Leale broke his silence.

Although a regularly-scheduled meeting of the Loyal Legion, the February 1909 meeting was held in observance of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, and Charles Leale delivered on that occasion an address called Lincoln’s Last Hours. In his address to the Loyal Legion, Leale described what happened on that historic night, beginning at the theater and culminating across the street in the house owned by a man named Petersen, where the wounded president died.

With the compliments of the Estate of Charles A. Leale, Lincoln’s Last Hours was made available in late 2007 as an eBook on Project Gutenberg, free to be read and downloaded by anyone at no cost. It is lucid, brief, and intensely interesting.

In 1867, Leale provided to the committee of the House of Representatives that was investigating the Lincoln assassination an account of the fateful night, which he characterized as based upon a report that he had written “a few hours after leaving [President Lincoln’s] death bed.” That April 15, 1865 report went missing for almost 150 years, until a copy of it was discovered in 2012 in the National Archives, among the records of the Office of the Surgeon General, by Helena Iles Papaioannou, a researcher with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. That report, along with an account of Ms. Papaioannou’s work, has been posted online and may be read here.

Charles A. Leale left the Army in 1866. He married Rebecca Medwin Copcutt in Yonkers, in the historic Copcutt mansion (now the rectory of St. Casimir’s Church), on September 3, 1867.

After his discharge from the Army, he lived the rest of his life mostly in New York City, where he died on June 13, 1932, at the age of ninety.

Charles A. Leale is buried in the Copcutt family plot in Oakland Cemetery.