The German artist Carl Bersch was out on his second-floor balcony that drizzly night, sketching by gaslight across the street from Ford’s Theatre.
Henry S. Safford, a young War Department supervisor, was reading a book in his apartment on 10th Street NW, next door to Bersch.
And Charles Augustus Leale, a 23-year-old doctor six weeks out of medical school, had a seat in the packed theater to see the play and the president.
It was April 14, 1865. And the three men were about to be drawn into the assassination tragedy of Abraham Lincoln, 150 years ago Tuesday.
The slaying of Lincoln, who steered the nation through the Civil War and ended slavery, is among the nation’s most heartbreaking dramas. This week Washington marks the anniversary with ceremonies, a wreath-laying and, fittingly, tributes at Ford’s.
Lincoln loved the theater and often went to Washington’s playhouses. He was especially fond of Shakespeare and could recite parts of his plays from memory.
And his assassination was, in a way, a play in three acts.
The shooting in Ford’s at about 10:15 p.m. April 14, by embittered thespian and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth, was the first act. It had stealth and treachery, as Booth sneaked up on Lincoln and shot him in the head.
Act 2 captured the agonizing moments when the mortally wounded president was carried from the theater into the muddy chaos of 10th Street and there was nowhere to take him.
In Act 3, Lincoln’s death agony played out in the boardinghouse where he was finally given refuge, and where he died the morning of April 15.
Acts 1 and 3 are hallowed moments in American history. Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House, where Lincoln died, are national landmarks, crowded with tourists every day.
Act 2 is often forgotten.
It played out between the theater and Petersen’s. The street was dark, muddy and thronged with people.
It lasted only a short time but encompassed the tortured seconds when Leale and an entourage of doctors and soldiers searched for a house where they could care for the bleeding chief executive.
“There they are, standing in the middle of the street, holding the dying body of the president, a thousand people standing by, and they don’t know what to do,” said Lincoln assassination historian James L. Swanson.
The first house they tried was locked. As the group waited amid the mob of stunned citizens, Leale paused to remove blood clots from Lincoln’s wound.
Some bystanders were not sure what had happened.
James R. Ford, the theater’s box office manager, thought the authorities were hauling out an inebriated patron. “What drunken loafer is that?” he asked, according to Thomas A. Bogar’s history of the evening.
But from his balcony, Bersch, 30, had a clear view. He understood what was happening and furiously sketched the scene below him.
“I recognized the lengthy form of the President by the flickering light of the torches, and one large gas lamp post on the sidewalk,” he wrote later.
The painting he produced is the only known work from the assassination done by an eyewitness, according to Laura Anderson, a National Park Service museum curator.
Finally, Safford, the federal employee who had been reading his book, also realized what had occurred. He emerged from William Petersen’s boardinghouse holding a candle aloft. “Bring him in here!” he called.
Charles Leale, a union medical officer with freckles and wispy mutton chops, had seen Lincoln speak a few days before. The doctor was so impressed with the president’s “divine appearance” that he wanted to see him again, he wrote later.
He had heard that Lincoln was attending a performance of the comedy “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s, and he got a seat about 40 feet from the presidential box.
The president, with his wife, Mary, and two guests, arrived late. The play was stopped, and the audience cheered, Leale wrote. Lincoln paused and bowed. Leale thought he looked “peculiarly sorrowful.”
When the group was seated, the play resumed.
Minutes later, Leale heard a gunshot and saw Booth jump from the box to the stage waving a knife.
The actor shouted and ran off. People began screaming for a doctor and yelling that the president had been shot.
Leale leapt over theater seats, got to the president’s box and announced that he was a doctor.
As he entered, he tried to compose himself. 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.
“On the carpeted floor lay prostrate the president of the United States,” he wrote. “His long, outstretched, athletic body . . . appeared unusually heroic. His bleeding head rested on my white linen handkerchief.”
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.
Across the street, Bersch had been out on his balcony for some time, sketching the revelry that was still going on in Washington since the surrender of the main Confederate army at Appomattox five days earlier.
“All Washington was celebrating, delirious with joy,” Bersch wrote to his family later, according to historian W. Emerson Reck’s account of Lincoln’s last hours.
“Houses were lighted up and hung with bunting,” Bersch wrote. “Parades marched through the streets, waving flags.”
Bersch, who had come to the U.S. from his native Germany in 1860, was about to become the Abraham Zapruder of the Lincoln assassination. Zapruder was the Dallas businessman who captured the assassination of John F. Kennedy on his home movie camera in 1963.
Bersch had been at work about an hour, when the street suddenly went quiet and a shout came from a window of the theater: “‘President Lincoln has been shot! Clear the street!”
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,” Bersch wrote.
“They stopped a few moments at the curb, hastily debating where to take the injured man to give him the best attention most quickly,” he wrote.
“The tarrying at the curb and the slow, careful manner in which he was carried across the street, gave me ample time to make an accurate sketch,” which he planned to turn into a large painting, Bersch wrote.
The painting, now in storage in the National Park Service’s Museum Resource Center, in suburban Maryland, is haunting.
It depicts in somber hues the chaos as Lincoln is carried across 10th Street, illuminated only by torchlight and gaslight.
Bystanders look out windows. Dimly seen, the president’s head appears to be bandaged, and his face framed by what looks like a white pillow, as bearers lower him over the curb and through the crowd.
In the background, someone holds an illuminated sign with garbled words from Lincoln’s second inaugural address, “With Charity Towards All . . .”
The painting “vividly depicts the panic, and sadness . . . and confusion that was happening in 10th Street,” said Swanson, the historian.
“More than many artifacts of the assassination, [it] really takes me back to the mood of that night,” he said.
But Swanson said the painting quickly became an “unwanted stepchild” of the assassination.
It was so distressing that it wasn’t displayed publicly for more than 60 years. Finally, in 1932, the artist’s daughter, Carrie L. Fischer, of Annapolis, lent it to the old Lincoln Museum in Ford’s Theatre, according to the Park Service and a news report at the time.
Later willed to the White House by Gerda Vey, Bersch’s granddaughter, it was transferred to the Park Service in 1978, according Reck, the historian.
“It’s almost as though it was a symbol of ill omen,” Swanson said. “What president would want to hang in the White House a painting of one of his predecessors after he had just been assassinated?”
The painting is titled “Lincoln Borne by Loving Hands.”
Across the street from the theater, Safford, 25, 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.
“I was soon down at the door and across the street and edging my way through the crowd,” Safford wrote later. But he could only get halfway to the theater and retreated to his elevated front steps.
He 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 7:22, Lincoln died.
Leale smoothed the contracted muscles of Lincoln’s features, placed two coins over his eyes, and pulled a sheet up over his face.
Then he returned to his military hospital on what is now the Mall.
He was exhausted, cold and sad, he recalled. His clothes were stained with blood. It was drizzling, and as he walked, rain fell on his bare head.
He had left his hat on his seat back at Ford’s Theatre.