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.

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.

Lincoln and the Broken Politics of His Time

On this day in 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born.  He was born into an American heyday, when the new United States (having fended off the British in the War of 1812) were mushrooming.  In 1809, the nation consisted of seventeen states, the westernmost being Ohio, along with a vast territory that pioneers were flooding into, appropriating from natives, and organizing.  Lincoln was born to one such pioneer family and grew up in Illinois, which became a state when he was nine.

By the time Lincoln became president, the number of states had doubled.  The nation stretched to the Pacific.  His milieu was morphing as quickly as he was, a reckless proliferation the politicians could barely control.  The gargantuan Lincoln, with his terrible grooming, was a perfect embodiment of this rough hasty time. Continue reading

Inside the Wigwam

The Wigwam, GOP convention 1860 Chicago(Courtesy of Library of Congress)
Nominating conventions came into being in the 1830s, after Andrew Jackson and his ilk turned party politics into a more egalitarian affair.  The elite caucuses that had once chosen presidential candidates gave way to more inclusive mass gatherings where delegates styled themselves as representatives of the people.  By the time the Republican Party formed in the 1850s, nominating conventions had become significant political events in the life of the country.  Journalists, artists, and photographers documented the appearance and actions of the delegates and the spirit and style of the gatherings.

This particular artist’s drawing shows the meeting of the Republican Party in Chicago in 1860, when the young anti-slavery party nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency.  The Republicans went to the trouble to build a special hall for the convention, a vast domed wooden structure that they called the Wigwam.  (It stood at the corner of Lake and Wacker and was reportedly destroyed by fire in the late 1860s.)   Notably, the illustration shows a mainly female audience crowding the galleries to follow the proceedings.  (Women would not gain the right to vote until 1920.)

Faced with the likelihood that the federal government would sanction the spread of slavery into the West and strengthen its legal underpinnings everywhere in the US, those participating in the Republican convention believed it to be an event ‘on which the most momentous results are depending.’  ‘No body of men of equal number,’ the convention chair proclaimed, ‘was ever clothed with greater responsibility than those now within the hearing of my voice.’

The Republicans, though only a northern regional party, were intent on dislodging the dominant Democratic Party, which they did that November, against all odds.

Image from this source.

 

Thomas Nast’s ‘Central Park in Winter’

Two scenes, showing skating and sleighing in Central Park. The top panel includes drawings of James Gordon Bennett Sr and Horace Greeley
For the January 30, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast drew a many-paneled illustration of Central Park in winter.  Like many of his works, this one featured a large central drawing, surrounded by smaller vignettes in round and elliptical frames.  The main drawing shows New Yorkers ice-skating on Central Park’s Pond.  (The Park was then only a few years old.)  Below that is a rather wild sleighing scene, in which genteel New Yorkers ride through a desolate terrain, as urchins throw snowballs or rocks at them.

The opening of Central Park coincided with ice-skating’s growing popularity, which took hold in earnest in the 1850s.  The Park was most heavily visited in winter, when its pond became crowded with thousands of skaters, whose activities Nast captures here in wonderful detail.  (Note the woman in the skating chair.)

Perhaps inevitably, Nast’s wonderland contains some politics, too.  Two months earlier, President Lincoln had been reelected as an inconclusive Civil War dragged on, inflicting terrible casualties.  New York, being a commercial center, had always viewed the war with ambivalence.  The conflict was contrary to the city’s interests, disrupting a lucrative trade with the South on which New York’s economy relied.  While many New Yorkers were ardent Unionists and Republicans, the city also had a large Democratic constituency, including a politically active immigrant population, which resented the war, the federal government, and the fuss about slaves.  Many, wishing a return to peace, had lately voted for Lincoln’s challenger, Democrat George McClellan.

Anger over the federal government’s war policies had boiled into violence the previous July.  New York became the scene of bloody draft riots, in which rioters lynched at least 11 blacks and 120 people were killed in street fighting between protesters and the police.  Poor whites were inflamed against a draft bill that Congress had recently passed: while ostensibly requiring all fit men to serve in the Union military, it contained a loophole that wealthier Northerners would use to evade the draft: arranging for a replacement by paying a bounty.

In the foreground of his skating scene, Nast (who ardently supported Lincoln and the war) highlights several figures, including a military man at the far left wearing a kepi—a reminder of high-minded Northerners voluntarily leading the Union effort as officers.  At right are two prominent New York newspaper editors, James Gordon Bennett Sr and Horace Greeley, who have run into trouble on proverbially thin ice.  Greeley is teetering, while Bennett has fallen, both near a hole signifying treachery.  Bennett had been an outspoken critic of Lincoln and proponent of McClellan, whereas Greeley, while fitfully supportive of the war, had recently embarrassed the Lincoln administration by engaging in bogus ‘peace negotiations’ with some Confederate representatives who turned out to be fakes.

Both editors, though overwhelmingly influential, earned Nast’s scorn because they were feckless peace-mongers.  To have ended the Civil War through a settlement at that juncture would have rendered the suffering of the soldiers in vain.

Their presence heightens the allegorical meaning of the left side of the tableau, where three figures guard the safety of the family and society.  Besides the Union officer, who holds a small boy in his arms, Nast’s own editor Fletcher Harper (with mutton-chop whiskers) stands over a young girl protectively, while a third man (unidentified, but probably a prominent editor, too) deferentially greets a woman standing at the edge of the ice.  Nast depicts these figures as both benevolent and patriotic.  Harper gave Nast a venue for his pro-Union and radically egalitarian views.

So what at first glance passes for an innocuous pleasure scene is a comment on specific editors, and a paean to the value of virtuous editors in a conflict-ridden time.

Image from this source.