The Surgeon of the 'Montauk' Gives an Eye-Witnesses Account

Autograph Letter, Signed ("George"), to his brother, giving his eye-witness account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on the night of April 14th, 1865.

Montauk, Montauk Navy Yard, Wash D.C: written on "April 15th, 1865, 9 P.M."; with a Postscript dated "April 24"; and docketed with a later posting, "April 30"

Price: $100,000.00

About the item

4pp. 8vo. The Surgeon of the 'Montauk' Gives an Eye-Witnesses Account. Slight soiling and minor tears along old folds, otherwise in very good condition. Published (from a copy in the State Historical Library of Wisconsin) in Timothy S. Good, WE SAW LINCOLN SHOT (U. of Miss., 1995; with the mistaken date of April 30, 1865).

Item #308665

...About 10:25 P.M. a man came in and walked slowly along the side ... A remarkably clear and dramatic eyewitness account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln from a naval surgeon who was close to the President's box at Ford's theater on that fateful night of April 14, 1865. In this letter to his brother written the night after the assassination, while the details were still fresh in his memory, Dr. George B. Todd, surgeon aboard the U.S. "Montauk" at anchor in the Navy Yard that day, recounts the terrible event with a clarity of observation one might expect of his profession - a rarity among confused eyewitness accounts. The text of Todd's letter - one of only 7 eyewitness accounts written within 24 hours of the assassination - reads: "The few hours that have intervened since that most terrible tragedy of last night have served to give me a little clearer brain, and I believe I am now able to give you a clear account up to this hour. Yesterday about 3 P.M. the President and wife drove down to the navy yard and paid our ship a visit, going all over her, accompanied by us all. Both seemed very happy, and so expressed themselves, - glad that this war was over, or so near its end, and then drove back to the White House. In the evening nearly all of us went to the Ford's Theatre. I was very early and got a seat near the President's private box, as we heard he was to be there. About half past nine he came in with his wife, a Miss Harris and Major Rathburn and was cheered by every one. As soon as there was a silence the play went on, and I could see that the "pres." seemed to enjoy it very much. About 10:25 P.M. a man came in and walked slowly along the side on which the 'pres.' box was and I heard a man say "there's Booth" and I turned my head to look at him. He was still walking very slow, and was near the box door, when he stopped, took a card from his pocket, wrote something on it, and gave it to the usher, who took it to the box. In a minute the door was opened and he walked in. No sooner had the door closed, then I heard the report of a pistol and on the instant, Booth jumped out of the box onto the stage, holding in his hand a large knife, and shouted so as to be heard all over the house - 'Sic Semper Tyrannis' ("so always with tyrants") and fled behind the scenes-I attempted to get to the box but I could not and in an instant the cry was raised 'The President is Assassinated.' "Such a scene I never saw before. The cry spread to the street, only to be met by another, 'So is Mr. Seward.' Soldiers had gone. Some General handed me a note and bid me go to the nearest telegraph office and arouse the nation. I ran with all my speed and in ten minutes the sad news was all over the country. Today all the city is in mourning, nearly every house being in black and I have not seen a smile. No business and many a strong man I have seen in tears. "Some reports say Booth is a prisoner, others that he has made his escape, but from orders received here, I believe he is taken as a mob once raised now would know no end. I will not seal this until morning and I may have some more news. "April 24th. "I have had no time to write until now, as I have been a detective. We have now 7 that are implicated. Why don't you write? Love to all, George" Several important facts regarding the movements of both the President and John Wilkes Booth are recorded here: (1) This appears to be the only eyewitness account of the President's inspection of the "Montauk" earlier that afternoon. (2) Todd's account of Booth's interaction with the "usher" sitting outside the President's box ("took a card from his pocket, wrote something on it, and gave it to the usher") is especially intriguing, and reveals not only something of Todd's powers of observations, but also his proximity to the assassin immediately before the shooting. Todd alone among eyewitnesses notes that the "usher" first took the card from Booth, then went into the box, and that a short time later the door opened, and Booth went in. In fact, Good finds only 7 other eye-witness accounts of the Lincoln assassination as early as April 15 -- most of these witnesses record little or nothing regarding the events before hearing the shot itself, and none of them noticed Booth's interchange with the usher (who was, in fact, Lincoln's valet, Charles Forbes). There are three other accounts by eyewitnesses which partially corroborate Todd's observation of the Forbes and Booth interchange -- but they were written much later than Todd's. (3) Todd's observation of the time he spotted Booth moving toward the box ("about 10:25") corresponds to Good's own conclusion that Booth fired the fatal shot close to 10:30 PM. According to James Swanson (MANHUNT, p. 419) "the exact time of Booth's shot cannot be fixed ... Booth may have shot Lincoln as early as 10:13 or as late as 10:30" Todd's account - again, one of the freshest and most reliable, weighs heavily in favor of Good. (4) Todd, by his own account, played a role in alerting the nation by telegraph. (5) Although he doesn't mention it, as a surgeon of the ironclad Montauk, Todd was also probably present at the autopsy of John Wilkes Booth on Thursday, April 27 in the gun room of his ship. Indeed, in an article in the February issue of the Baltimore and Ohio Magazine, 1926, where the letter was first published and reproduced, Todd is reported to have been "one of the surgeons who performed the autopsy." That, as well as the fact that the other prisoners were being held on board the ironclad "Montauk" and "Saugus", may explain his cryptic remark near the end ("... I have been a detective ..."). Todd actually mailed the letter on April 30, 3 days after the autopsy, and may very have participated in the actual investigation of the captives aboard the "Montauk." AN EXTRAORDINARY AND UNIQUE RECORD OF ONE THE NATION'S GREAT TRAGEDIES.