From the Petersen House, The Official Notification to the American People of the Death of Abraham Lincoln

“Abraham Lincoln died this morning at 22 minutes after seven.”

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Written from the home where Lincoln died, the original telegram that announced the devastating event to the world, written for Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, in the hand of Lincoln’s friend, chief telegrapher Thomas Eckert, who was present at the President’s deathbed

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From the Petersen House, The Official Notification to the American People of the Death of Abraham Lincoln

“Abraham Lincoln died this morning at 22 minutes after seven.”

Written from the home where Lincoln died, the original telegram that announced the devastating event to the world, written for Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, in the hand of Lincoln’s friend, chief telegrapher Thomas Eckert, who was present at the President’s deathbed

One of the most important historical documents offered for sale

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln is the most impactful tragedy in American history, and its legacy remains very much with us today


Abraham Lincoln continues to stand as America’s most beloved President. Of our nation’s historical icons, Lincoln is the quintessential embodiment of American possibility in his mythic-like rise from rail-splitter to Chief Executive and Emancipator of the oppressed. The admiration felt by Americans for Lincoln’s humble integrity, his performance in office, his noble statesmanship, and his keen sense of justice, is enduring.

Lincoln is not given the highest marks just for character, but for the transformation of the nation that he left behind. All our great presidents set the country upon a new course at a time when the old direction no longer inspired confidence among citizens and voters. Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt—all fulfilled this necessity of presidential greatness; all defined the country anew by fashioning fresh political idioms that pulled together new political coalitions, thus allowing the country to move forward into new eras. But the Lincoln transformation was the most profound and most long-lasting.

Polls of historians generally show their belief that Lincoln faced the hardest job of any president. He had to define the issues, inspire the people, be steadfast in the face of loses, win the Civil War, free the slaves, and lay the groundwork to reunite the nation. All that in the face of determined opposition. He accomplished all this in four years, but then was assassinated on April 14, 1865, and his death left him unable to finish the job, a job that quite likely he was the only one with a chance to get completed in a way that would bring the nation together.

The end of the Civil War left the nation with two overwhelming questions: what to do with, and do for, the millions of freed slaves; and how to reintegrate the South into the Union. On the first point, President Abraham Lincoln was focused on African American access to land, economic prosperity and legal rights, and had just approved Gen. William T. Sherman’s order distributing parcels of former slave plantations to the slaves themselves. Lincoln wanted black Union veterans to have the right to vote, which was a step to ultimately embracing full suffrage for African American males. In what proved to be his final speech three evenings before his death, Lincoln had become the first president ever to support black voting. And Lincoln also lacked the fear of African American empowerment that was a motivating concern of Southerners. Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, was a Southerner uninterested in fair treatment of the liberated slaves. He opposed plans designed to guarantee the civil rights of black Americans, cancelled Sherman’s order granting land to slaves, and feared their empowerment. Johnson accepted the draconian post-Civil War Black Codes which limited the rights and liberties of African-Americans, something Lincoln would never have done.

On the second point, the readmission of the Southern states, Johnson felt that once Southern states returned their loyalty to the national government, they could manage their own affairs. This meant they could pass any Jim Crow laws they liked. He opposed the Republican plan for Reconstruction of the South, including provisions designed to guarantee the civil rights of black Americans.The Republican Congress had no rapport with Johnson, and the initial four years era of Reconstruction, which was a disaster to the nation, was essentially a bitter battle between a North and South that remained locked in contention, presided over by a weak President Johnson and a Congress at loggerheads with him. Lincoln had enormous power and influence, some of which extended into the South. He saw the end of the war as an opportunity to not simply celebrate victory, but an opportunity to move the country forward. Johnson had no such feeling. Lincoln would have been much better placed to direct, moderate and ease the contentions of Reconstruction.


John Wilkes Booth was a member of a famous acting family. Many considered Booth’s father, Junius Brutus Booth, the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation, and Booth’s older brother Edwin is commonly named among the greatest American actors of all time. John Wilkes enjoyed a phenomenally successful stage career during the Civil War: by 1864, he earned $20,000 a year, at a time when the average Northern family earned around $300 annually. A Marylander by birth, Booth was an open Confederate sympathizer during the war. A supporter of slavery, Booth believed that Lincoln was determined to overthrow the Constitution and to destroy his beloved South. After Lincoln’s reelection in November 1864, Booth devised a plan to kidnap the president and spirit him to Richmond, where he could be ransomed for some of the Confederate prisoners languishing in northern jails. That winter, Booth and his conspirators plotted a pair of elaborate plans to kidnap the president; the first involved capturing Lincoln in his box at Ford’s Theater and lowering the president to the stage with ropes. Booth ultimately gave up acting to focus on these schemes, and spent more than $10,000 to buy supplies to outfit his band of kidnappers. Neither of the kidnapping plans bore fruit. On the evening of April 11, the President stood on the White House balcony and delivered a speech to a small group gathered on the lawn. Two days earlier, Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, and after four long years of struggle it had become clear that the Union cause would emerge from the war victorious. Lincoln’s speech that evening outlined some of his ideas about reconstructing the nation and bringing the defeated Confederate states back into the Union. Lincoln also indicated a wish to extend the franchise to some African-Americans—at the very least, those who had fought in the Union ranks during the war—and expressed a desire that the southern states would extend the vote to literate blacks, as well. Booth stood in the audience for the speech, and this notion seems to have amplified his rage at Lincoln. “That means nigger citizenship,” he told Lewis Powell, one of his band of conspirators. “Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”

Three days later Booth made good on his promise. Upon learning that Lincoln and his wife intended to see the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater, Booth used his actor’s connections there to gain access to the President’s box. He shot Lincoln at about 10 pm on April 14, 1865.

Dr. Charles Leale was in the audience. Leale leapt over theater seats, got to the president’s box and announced that he was a doctor. As he entered, the president was sitting in a chair with his eyes closed and head slumped. He already looked dead, Leale recalled. He felt Lincoln’s right arm for a pulse but couldn’t find one. He and some others eased Lincoln to the floor, and Leale began searching for the wound. “I quickly passed the separated fingers of both hands through his blood-matted hair…and I discovered his mortal wound,” Leale recalled. “The president had been shot in the back part of the head, behind the left ear.” Leale stuck the little finger of his left hand into the hole in Lincoln’s skull. “I then knew it was fatal and told the bystanders,” he wrote later. He removed a blood clot from the wound and, straddling the President’s body, began to administer a crude form of artificial respiration, which he said revived Lincoln.

Leale knew he had to get Lincoln out of the theater to treat him. But he believed a carriage ride back to the White House would kill him. He and several other men lifted the president, and with Leale holding Lincoln’s head, they began to maneuver him outside. “Guards, clear the passage!” Leale yelled. But as he and the others carried Lincoln feet first onto 10th Street, he was not sure where to go. Minutes later, “Out of the north door of the theater appeared a group of men, carrying the prostrate form of an injured man on an improvised stretcher,” a bystander wrote. Across the street from the theater, Henry Safford put down his book and opened the window. He had a second-floor front room in the 11-room boardinghouse of the German immigrant tailor William Petersen, 48, his wife and seven children. Someone shouted from the street that Lincoln had been shot. Safford held a candle and watched the group with the President make its way across the street, and hesitate. Someone called, “Where can we take him?” “As there was no response from any other house,” Safford remembered, “I cried out: ‘Bring him in here!’ ”

Leale spotted Safford with his candle and headed for the Peter­sen house. Lincoln was carried to a small back room, stripped of his clothes and covered with blankets. His 6-foot-4-inch frame had to be placed diagonally to fit on the bed. Leale ordered the window opened, and the wait began. A parade of anguished government officials and family members came and went. Leale asked a more senior doctor to take over, but he stayed and held Lincoln’s right hand for most of the night. The President sank steadily, his breathing labored and his pulse nearly undetectable. A gray dawn came around 6:30 a.m.

At 6:40 a.m., Dr. Leale wrote, “His pulse could not be counted, it being very intermittent, two or three pulsations being felt and followed by an intermission, when not the slightest movement of the artery could be felt. The inspirations now became very short, and the expirations very prolonged and labored accompanied by a guttural sound.” At 6:50 a.m., Leale again recorded what he observed: “The respirations cease for some time and all eagerly look at their watches until the profound silence is disturbed by a prolonged inspiration, which was soon followed by a sonorous expiration. The Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes now held his finger to the carotid artery, Col. Charles Crane held his head, Dr. Robert Stone (the Lincoln’s family physician) who was sitting on the bed, held his left pulse, and his right pulse was held by myself.

At 7:22 a.m. on April 15, President Lincoln breathed his last. Leale smoothed the contracted muscles of Lincoln’s features, placed two coins over his eyes, and pulled a sheet up over his face. Famously, Secretary of War Stanton saluted the fallen President and uttered, “Now, he belongs to the ages.” Stanton further eulogized Lincoln with the apt observation, “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen.”

Notification to the public:

Major Thomas Eckert was head of the War Department telegraph office and the confidential telegrapher to both Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in the ending three years of the war. In 1866 he would become Assistant Secretary of War. Stanton said to Eckert, “You are my confidential assistant, and in my absence you were empowered to act in all telegraph matters as if you were the Secretary of War.” It was Eckert who notified President Lincoln of his nomination by the Union convention in 1864. Eckert’s friendship with President Lincoln led to an invitation to accompany the President to Ford’s Theater the night of the assassination. Lincoln visited the War Department before he went to the theater. He had been unable to prevail on either Edwin Stanton or Ulysses S. Grant to go to Ford’s Theater; and Stanton forbade Eckert from attending, perhaps saving his life.

A War Department telegrapher, Thomas Laird, was at Ford’s Theater that night and witnessed the shooting. As recounted in “A. Lincoln, His Last 24 Hours” by Waldo Emerson Reck, “Laird at once ran to the home of Major Thomas T. Eckert on Thirteenth Street to alert [him], then to the War Department to carry out Eckert’s command that David Homer Bates, manager of the telegraph office, summon for duty every available operator and see that every wire was manned.” Eckert himself went to the Petersen house, to stand at Lincoln’s side. As Reck states in his authoritative book, “The assembled telegraphers spent the night sending out reports and orders as supplied by a relay of messengers established between Eckert at Petersen’s and the War Department. Stanton dictated messages relating to Lincoln’s condition, mainly to Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, but also, as we have established, to Eckert himself, all of which went to Gen. John Dix in New York, who distributed the news to the press and other government officials. So the flow of information was Stanton by dictation to Dana and Eckert, then to Eckert as conduit to the telegraph office, to runners, to the telegraphers, to Dix and then the press.

Stanton and Eckert arrived at the Petersen house at about 11 pm. Stanton made a few announcements about Lincoln and his condition during the night of April 14, using his standard procedure.

Then came the end. Eckert’s diary for April 15 records it: “7 o’clock 22 minutes. Our beloved President, Abraham Lincoln, breathed his last. I have been on duty at his bedside all night with the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. My heart is too sad for expression.”

Upon President Lincoln’s death, Stanton and Eckert drafted a brief but momentous telegram and Eckert wrote it down. He then gave it to a runner to take to the War Department telegraphers. It read: “Abraham Lincoln died this morning at 22 minutes after seven.” This is the original of that telegram, completely in the hand of Eckert, then sent on to Dix. This document is how the nation learned of the death of Lincoln and its text is famous. The original, offered here, was for well over a century in the hands of a Union general and his descendants and has never been offered for sale before.

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