After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on 14 April 1865, his body was carried by train to Springfield, Illinois, where Mary Todd Lincoln, his widow, had determined the late president would be buried. The progress of his remains by rail was sedate and lengthy, as his casket was paraded through many cities and the funeral train traveled at a top speed of 20 miles per hour. Lincoln’s journey to the grave was an unprecedented national spectacle, as tens of thousands of citizens turned out to view his cortege.
Yet, even as they mourned, conflict over Lincoln’s final destination brewed. On the one hand, the leading lights of Springfield had formed a plan to place his body in a tomb in a highly visible location that could be seen from a train. These men, acting without consulting Lincoln’s widow, raised $50,000, bought 6 acres of land, and set crews to work night and day building a vault that would be ready to receive Lincoln’s body on May 24, the date appointed for his funeral. This tomb, located on land called “the Mather Block,” was built into the hill where the Illinois statehouse stands today.
Their plans did not sit well with Mary Todd Lincoln. She recalled Abe once saying that he would like to be buried at Oak Ridge, a secluded rural cemetery two miles away. Mrs Lincoln had a terrible time convincing the prominent men who had backed the Mather Vault to commit to burying Lincoln at Oak Ridge instead. Eventually, though, she prevailed. On the day of Lincoln’s funeral, his remains were laid in Oak Ridge’s receiving vault. More funds were raised and a fit memorial to Lincoln rose. An imposing granite obelisk with a statuary group at its base declared the location of his resting place. Lincoln’s body was moved from the receiving vault to this tomb in 1874.
Two years later, a group of men taking orders from Chicago counterfeiter Big Jim Kennally tried to steal Lincoln’s body. Kennally wanted the body as ransom for $200,000 in cash and the release of his partner-in-crime, convicted engraver Benjamin Boyd, then doing time in the Illinois “pen.” When Kennally unwittingly hired a government informant to join in as a grave-robber, the plot was exposed.
The incident prompted the tomb’s custodian, John Carroll Power, to form a secret band of local men to help him guard Lincoln’s remains. Power and his men managed to move Lincoln’s heavy cedar-and-lead coffin from its proper spot to an undisclosed hiding place in Memorial’s basement. The remains of the three Lincoln boys who had predeceased their father remained in the upper burial chamber. When Mary Todd Lincoln died in 1882, her body was interred there too. Paradoxically, the secrecy surrounding the exact location of Lincoln’s coffin (hidden downstairs under a woodpile) fed doubt as to whether it still contained his corpse.
In 1899, Robert Todd Lincoln, the Lincolns’ only surviving child, visited the memorial and directed that the entire structure be razed and rebuilt. Abraham Lincoln’s coffin and those of his family members were removed from the memorial and buried nearby in a temporary grave (shown in the foreground of the picture above). In April 1901, several photographers were on hand to record the proceedings as Lincoln’s heavy coffin (said to weigh between 400 and 500 pounds) was lifted out of the grave and re-interred in the new and improved memorial. Over a hundred people and several children watched as a crane operator opened the temporary grave, removing the enormous stone slabs covering it, and revealing the Lincoln family coffins for all to see.
Yet, even after the day’s events, which restored the Lincoln family remains to the relative safety of the new vault, Robert Todd Lincoln was not entirely satisfied. He remained worried that his father’s remains could be stolen or desecrated. So, he decided to have a steel cage constructed around his parents’ coffins, deep underground. Once the coffins were placed inside the cage, several feet of concrete would be laid above it, thick enough to insure their inviolable repose.
By September 1901, a crew was ready to execute this plan. Local dignitaries were called together to witness this final transfer of Lincoln’s remains. At this point, a spontaneous impulse arose among the group to open Lincoln’s coffin and verify the presence of his corpse. Though opinion was divided, those in favor of opening the coffin prevailed. Two local workmen were called out to cut open the section of the coffin lid over Lincoln’s head. The crowd of 23 witnesses recoiled from the wave of a shockingly strong smell. Then, as one, they instinctively leaned in to see what was inside.
Lincoln’s visage was completely recognizable. Covered with a powdery white chalk (taken to be a funerary cosmetic), Lincoln’s flesh had turned a deep leathery bronze. His whiskers, hair, and mole were all intact, though his eyebrows were gone. Spidery bits of yellow mildew clung to the broadcloth suit he’d been buried in. (He had worn it a week before his murder to his second inauguration.) His gloves (which he hated to wear) had disintegrated, along with his pillow rest and a small flag that had been placed on his chest, but not his bow tie. Some theorize that the body was in a remarkably good state of preservation owing to the repeated embalming necessary to preserve it during its long journey west in 1865.
Image: Photograph by Guy R. Mathis,
“Removing Lincoln’s Body, No. 9,”
from this source.
Thank you for this great essay.