Instruments used in President Abraham Lincoln's autopsy, April 15, 1865
Autopsy kit used in President Abraham Lincoln's autopsy, April 15, 1865
Instruments used in President Abraham Lincoln's autopsy, April 15, 1865
Instruments used in President Abraham Lincoln's autopsy, April 15, 1865
From top to bottom: metacarpal saw, double-ended probe, tongue tie, artery forceps.
National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution
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The autopsy of President Abraham Lincoln

On April 14, 1865, the assassin John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln during a performance at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC. After the President passed away on the following morning, his body was placed in a temporary coffin covered with an American flag, and returned by hearse to the White House, accompanied by a cavalry escort. At the White House, an autopsy was performed by Army Surgeons Edward Curtis and Joseph Janvier Woodward. Also in attendance were Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes and a few military officers, medical men and friends. During the autopsy Mary Todd Lincoln sent a messenger to request a lock of hair; a tuft was clipped from the head for her.

Dr. Curtis described the autopsy in a letter to his mother:

"The room…contained but little furniture: a large, heavily curtained bed, a sofa or two, bureau, wardrobe, and chairs….Seated around the room were several general officers and some civilians, silent or conversing in whispers, and to one side, stretched upon a rough framework of boards and covered only with sheets and towels, lay—cold and immovable—what but a few hours before was the soul of a great nation. The Surgeon General was walking up and down the room when I arrived and detailed me the history of the case. He said that the President showed most wonderful tenacity of life, and, had not his wound been necessarily mortal, might have survived an injury to which most men would succumb….Dr. Woodward and I proceeded to open the head and remove the brain down to the track of the ball. The latter had entered a little to the left of the median line at the back of the head, had passed almost directly forwards through the center of the brain and lodged. Not finding it readily, we proceeded to remove the entire brain, when, as I was lifting the latter from the cavity of the skull, suddenly the bullet dropped out through my fingers and fell, breaking the solemn silence of the room with its clatter, into an empty basin that was standing beneath. There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger—dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world's history as we may perhaps never realize.…[S]ilently, in one corner of the room, I prepared the brain for weighing. As I looked at the mass of soft gray and white substance that I was carefully washing, it was impossible to realize that it was that mere clay upon whose workings, but the day before, rested the hopes of the nation. I felt more profoundly impressed than ever with the mystery of that unknown something which may be named 'vital spark' as well as anything else, whose absence or presence makes all the immeasurable difference between an inert mass of matter owning obedience to no laws but those covering the physical and chemical forces of the universe, and on the other hand, a living brain by whose silent, subtle machinery a world may be ruled.

"The weighing of the brain…gave approximate results only, since there had been some loss of brain substance, in consequence of the wound, during the hours of life after the shooting. But the figures, as they were, seemed to show that the brain weight was not above the ordinary for a man of Lincoln's size."

Dr. J.J. Woodward's autopsy report, April 15, 1865

[A]ided by Assistant Surgeon E. Curtis, U.S.A., I made…this morning an autopsy on the body of President Abraham Lincoln, with the following results:

The eyelids and surrounding parts of the face were greatly ecchymosed and the eyes somewhat protuberant from effusion of blood into the orbits.

There was a gunshot wound of the head around which the scalp was greatly thickened by hemorrhage into its tissue. The ball entered through the occipital bone about one inch to the left of the median line and just above the left lateral sinus, which it opened. It then penetrated the dura matter, passed through the left posterior lobe of the cerebrum, entered the left lateral ventricle and lodged in the white matter of the cerebrum just above the anterior portion of the left corpus striatum, where it was found.

The wound in the occipital bone was quite smooth, circular in shape, with bevelled edges. The opening through the internal table being larger than that through the external table. The track of the ball was full of clotted blood and contained several little fragments of bone with small pieces of the ball near its external orifice. The brain around the track was pultaceous and livid from capillary hemorrhage into its substance. The ventricles of the brain were full of clotted blood. A thick clot beneath the dura matter coated the right cerebral lobe.

There was a smaller clot under the dura matter [sic] of the left side. But little blood was found at the base of the brain. Both the orbital plates of the frontal bone were fractured and the fragments pushed upwards toward the brain. The dura matter [sic] over these fractures was uninjured. The orbits were gorged with blood….