Charles Sumner ended May of 1856 in a poor state. His head wound became infected, but after his doctors let the pus drain Sumner improved. Then he took a further plunge, likely courtesy of various complications from the wound and the infection. His extended convalescence threw suspicion on him from points South. Surely the Senator played for sympathy; no one suffered so badly from a few light blows which he had coming. The dismissal of Sumner’s original doctor, Cornelius Boyle, added fuel to that speculation. On the other side of the partisan divide Republicans believed that Boyle soft-pedaled Sumner’s diagnosis on purpose, citing his personal friendship with Preston Brooks.
With hindsight, we know that Sumner did continue suffering. He remained bed-ridden as the Washington summer closed in. He escaped the city for Francis P. Blair’s home at Silver Spring, Maryland. The distance and shade, he and his doctors reasoned, would help. It only did so much and Sumner suffered another relapse. On June 23 he wrote a friend
For nearly four weeks I lay twenty-two hours out of the twenty-four on my back; and I am still very feeble, but able to totter a mile round the garden, and hoping daily for strength, which comes slowly.
On the twenty-fifth, Sumner came back into Washington City to testify before the grand jury. For three days he worked at some correspondence and entertained many visitors. That took a great deal out of Sumner, who promptly retired to Blair’s again. William Henry Seward called on him there and reported
He is much changed for the worse. His elasticity and vigor are gone. He walks, and in every way moves, like a man who has not altogether recovered from a paralysis, or like a man whose sight is dimmed, and his limbs stiffened with age. His conversation, however, was like that of his season of better health. It turned altogether on what the Senate were doing, and the course of conduct, and debate therein. When he spoke of his health, he said he thought he was getting better now; but his vivacity of spirit and his impatience for study are gone. It is impossible to regard him without apprehension.
In that conversation, Sumner said he would like to get back and give another big speech before the session of Congress ended. Seward advised Sumner that if he insisted upon that, it would be his last speech “in this world.”
While this went on, the legal case against Brooks proceeded. Sumner wrote to Phillip Barton Key, the US Attorney handling case, that he couldn’t come to court because
I have suffered a relapse, by which I am enfeebled, and also admonished against exertion. Being out of town, I have not had an opportunity of consulting my attending physician; but a skillful medical friend, who has visited me here, earnestly insists that I cannot attend Court for some time without peril to my health.
Key must not have got the hint, because he wrote again and Sumner had to answer a second time explaining that he wanted “nothing to do, directly or indirectly” with the prosecution. The Senator thought he had done enough by coming in and testifying for the grand jury. He needed to tend to his recovery.
Without Sumner, the Brooks trial went on. For assaulting a Senator on the floor of the United States Senate, he received a fine of $300.
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