"Harry's First Embalming" from 1861 section of Laying Lincoln Down

[This is also an excerpt of an excerpt from Hair Trigger 34 (2012).]

Keene held up a lantern and stood over Harry, who bent over the body of David Schull, ready to make an incision in the boy’s leg. While Harry had been procuring the supplies, Keene had washed the body, laid it out on the cot in the middle of the operating tent, and draped the groin, so when Harry got back all he had to do was slowly walk up to the tent, like some kind of Indian medicine man or priest bringing the sacrificing tools to a sacred yet macabre ceremony. Harry brought the scalpel to the skin on the inside of Schull’s left thigh. He paused and inhaled deeply.

“It’s all right, son. Just use a steady hand,” Keene said reassuringly.

“I know how to make an incision, thank you, Doctor,” Harry said, annoyed. He got focused again and brought the incisor back to Schull’s leg. “Could you lower the lantern some, Doctor?” He pierced the skin in the middle of the boy’s inner thigh and slowly, finely, and with his eyes just inches away, began to finesse the scalpel across, in the direction of the knee. It felt different from cutting into the one hog he had dissected at Penn. This was softer—the knife glided easier. When the cut was an inch and a half in length, Harry realized that it was twice as long as it needed to be. He stopped, then panicked. His shoulder twitched. He pulled the incisor out and set it on the ground, calmly, to show Keene that he had the procedure under control. They peered at each other. Harry hoped the doctor didn’t notice his concern. His face seemed questioning—“Why are you looking at me and not tending to the job?”—but gave no indication that he noticed or was concerned about the length of the incision.  

Harry placed his forefinger and thumb into the incision and began to probe for the large femoral artery. He felt an assortment of wet strings—veins and nerves. As he shuffled them through his two fingers to determine which was the largest, blood began to ooze out of the cut. It ran down the leg and began to soak the canvas of the cot, forming a stain that slowly spread out from itself.

“The femoral’s the biggest,” Keene said. “The rest’s just veins and nerves.”

“Yes, Doctor. I know the femoral artery.”

“Then you must grab hold of it.”

Harry strained, like reaching for something under a sofa and just needing to stretch a nudge farther.

“There,” he was relieved. “I’ve got it.” He kept hold of it but basked in his small accomplishment for several moments, and focused on the speed with which the next step needed to be conducted. Another incision had to be made in the artery itself, and the tube for pumping in the embalming solution needed to be inserted quickly to prevent too much blood from escaping. Too much already was causing drops of blood from the saturated cot to begin dripping onto the dirt on the ground underneath it. He picked the incisor up again with his free hand and brought it close to the leg. “Doctor, as soon as I make this cut, I’m going to need the rubber tube. Please have that ready to hand to me.”

The doctor picked up the tube from the laid-out supplies on the ground next to the supply bag.

“Bring the lantern back down, please.” Harry pulled on the artery gently and popped it out of the slit in the skin, so it was visible. When he did this, a quick wave of blood came out of the cut, adding to the already-established flow. Dripping from the cot, it pooled up between Schull’s legs.

“Damn it,” Harry said. “There’s too much blood coming out. The body’s not supposed to be bled for this process.”

“It’s too late,” Keene said. “He’s losing too much now. Must’ve nicked him when you twitched. You’re going to have to let him bleed out.”

“What if the solution doesn’t take?”

“Harry, you’ve got no choice. Now, here.” Keene took his lantern away for a moment, rummaged in a corner of the tent, and turned around with a shallow tin pan. He placed it under the cot and the blood drops immediately began pinging into it. He grabbed the incisor from Harry, reached under the cot, and slit it between the legs. The pool of blood gushed through and slapped into the pan, and continued a steady flow.

They sat on the ground with their legs crossed, on both sides of Schull. The bleeding man, for the most part, blocked their view of each other, so they talked through and around him. 

“How do you know how to do this, Doctor?”

“I was the undertaker in my town,” he said, “just till a couple months ago. Had been for years. When the war broke out, I figured it was time for me to get on the right side of the dying. Try to help people live.” He reached up and shook Schull’s thigh, and more blood poured from the incision.

“Hmph.” Harry laughed to himself.

“What is it there?”

“You remind me of a teacher of mine.” He stared at the pool of blood in the pan as he said this.

“I tell you I worry, Harry.” He paused. “Everyone is itching for this thing to start. But when it starts, that’s it. There’s no going back. There’ll be a lot of times when men can live, or they can die. And, I’m afraid I won’t be able to help them.”

“You’re a good doctor, Mr. Keene. You’re a good man. You’ll help them. You will.” Harry caught himself. “You’ll help . . . us.” The reality of his position struck him right then much more profoundly than it had before: his uniform, this way of life, that he might die, or have to kill. That scared him more than dying himself—being on the wrong side of the dying, the certain, inevitable dying. Keene continued saying things, but Harry didn’t listen to the words.

“He’s ready,” Keene said as he peered his head over Schull’s body.

“What?” Harry saw his head but hadn’t been listening.

“He’s bled out. You can put in the fluid.”

“Already?”

“Don’t take too awful long.”

Harry got to his knees and waddled a few paces to the side of the cot. Keene held up the lantern in one hand and the incisor in the other. Harry took it from him. Keene bent down and came up with the rubber tube.

“Are you ready, Doctor?”

Keene nodded.

Harry leaned in to look at the incision he had made a dozen minutes ago in his friend’s leg. He reached in and found the femoral artery with more ease than before. He pulled it out to be able to see it. A bit of blood covered it from the soaking before, but there was nothing left to run out. He brought the incisor and, very slowly, with his fingertips nearly gripping the blade—fingers ignoring the shaft of the incisor—he carefully cut a half-inch down the artery. A few pin point-sized drops of blood popped out of the cut. He grabbed the thin tube from Keene. He brought the end next to the vein—it was twice the diameter. He held it perpendicular to the femoral, slipped it in the slit, and began to move it up, toward the groin.

“No, no,” Keene said. “Put it in facing down, toward the feet.”

“But won’t—“

“Just do it.”

Harry did. He held the rubber tube perpendicular to the artery and slipped it downward. The artery tore, extending the incision by an inch and popping the tube out. He looked at Keene.

“Now do it through the upper part,” the doctor said.           

He slid it through the upper tip of the incision. It stretched out the artery from the inside, like a snake that had just swallowed something, but this time he massaged it through from the outside, with his other hand. An inch and a half of the tube made it in securely. Harry grabbed the bottle of solution from the ground and attached it to the opposite end of the tube. He pumped the rubber bulb on the spout and the zinc chloride began moving through the body of David Schull.