Lincoln’s Body (1901)

The casket of Abraham Lincoln being lifted from a temporary resting place in Springfield, IL 1901.

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.

Women, Angry Over Food Prices, Act Up


Food prices in the United States shot up in 1917 as a consequence of World War I, then engulfing Europe.  Agriculture had come to a halt in the theater of war, so the US had stepped up its production and export of food in response.  Our nation was shipping vast quantities of food overseas (wheat especially), both in support of the Allied war effort and to relieve famished civilian populations.  Besides leading to a collossal loss of life, the all-consuming war had disrupted everyday life in many countries, reducing many people to homelessness, hunger, and worse.

Back in the States, the price of food was skyrocketing.  Food was scarce, and ordinary wage-earners couldn’t afford enough food to feed their families.  Frustrated women, many of them immigrants, began protesting in places like Newark and New York City.   The crowd of women above “charged” New York city hall in the winter of 1917 to plead for bread.

Similarly, women in Newark slogged en masse through the snow and slush to present their mayor with a petition for food relief.  Many of the women brought their children to the demonstration.  The spectacle of the protestors, appearing in numbers with their hungry children, made the urgency of their hunger tough to ignore.  Only people with a just case would stand so patiently in bad weather, the snow falling on their umbrellas, hoping for compassion and mercy to come down, too.

Image: from this source, and this.

 

Lincoln’s Death Bed

pencil sketch of Lincoln's death bed by Union artist A. R. Waud

On this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln died of gun violence.  The previous evening, the president had attended the theater, where a Southern-born actor with rebel sympathies slipped into the private box where Lincoln was sitting and fired a bullet into the back of his head.  Stunned witnesses carried the badly injured president out of Ford’s Theater and across the street to a room at Peterson’s boarding house, where he died at 7:22 a.m. the next day.

It was a politically motivated crime, a vengeful coda to the Civil War, which had ended with the South’s surrender at Appomattox just one week before.  Even now, 156 years after Lincoln’s death, the despicable act that deprived this nation of one of its brightest lights casts doubt on whether our republican form of government, which depends on civility and a respect for the popular will, can prevail in the face of a vulgar resort to violence.

Image: from this source.

Russia and the Rights of Man

Vladimir Putin isn’t a czar. He isn’t a comrade. He isn’t a president. He’s like an old-time Pharaoh, an evil king, killing people deliberately to prove his power. Putin isn’t a westerner, a civilized person. He belongs with the tribal warlords, whose power rests on a foundation of propaganda and fear.

Putin should not be likened to Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s ideology was popular. Hitler expostulated Nazism so effectively that the whole German population fervently rallied around its aims. That rally at Nuremberg.

Far from being enthusiastically behind Putin, Russians are cowed. They are quiescent because they’ve seen activists like Navalny be jailed, beaten and poisoned. Russians have seen bad times and Putin has conditioned them to accept future suffering. They don’t want trouble. Ordinary people trust Putin’s explanations; they see his authoritarianism as a necessity. For years, the Russian population has heard only a steady diet of lies.

Putin himself is a coward, so he conscripts younger countrymen to go to Ukraine to commit war crimes for him. His people go because they are ignorant of what Putin is really doing to Russia’s “brother country,” Ukraine. Russians can’t believe their president would bomb a theater filled with Ukrainian women and children, that he would order the bombing of kindergartens and maternity hospitals, that he would murder pregnant women or shell innocent civilians running for their lives.

Putin is sending Russian soldiers to Ukraine without adequate food, fuel, or strategies. His troops are ignorant of the truth. When they encounter the gross reality of the Russian “special operation” in Ukraine, Russian soldiers are surrendering. They are deserting. They disregard orders. They leave behind their equipment. They have even reportedly shot down Russian planes from the sky.

No one has the nerve to oppose or force Putin out, so they go along with his damned course; they lick his boots and lie. Fortune reports that Russian troops positioned around Chernobyl have run roughshod over the radioactive site, raising the chance of their health being gravely impaired during their month-long occupation. The military mediocrity that such episodes reveal is astonishing.

Yet, the “free world” appears dangerously disadvantaged. It adheres to conventions. Decent democrats seem powerless in the face of Russia’s evil. Yet, for all that, the freedom that the rule of law brings is suddenly all the more precious (and empowering to Ukraine). Russia, once eager to be at the forefront of all nations, has fallen behind–economically, intellectually, and militarily. Its condition is provincial and static, because Putin’s regime depends on a closed society, where citizens have little access to news or information technology.

Having rejected the natural rights philosophy that undergirds representative governments in the West, Putin’s Russia is on a downward trajectory. Clearly not Western, it ever more nearly resembles benighted North Korea.

No wonder every decent American feels and thinks what President Biden had the guts and decency to say of Putin aloud: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

Image: from this source.


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