Here is a footnote written in the books of history not very well discussed or well known. It is the tale of Abraham Lincoln’s corpse, after he was assassinated on April 14,1865 at the pinnacle of victory of four long years of Civil War that tore this nation literally apart, brother against brother.It is a macabre tale the likes of which no other dead United States president ever had to endure after death. This is the story of the journeys taken by Lincoln’s corpse over the decades before 1901, when at last it came to rest in a 10-foot block made of cement and steel.
After the assassination, Lincoln’s remains went through an extensive embalming process before embarking on a two-week, 1,600-mile tour via train, starting on April 21,1865. Lincoln did not make the tour alone; he was accompanied by the body of his son William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln, who died of typhoid fever at the age of 11 in the White House and was buried in the Washington D.C. area in 1862.
The tour gave a country a final chance to mourn one of its most beloved and martyred presidents, with the train making a snake-like tour winding through over 400 train stations along the way, including stops in Philadelphia and New York City, before arriving at the Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois on May 3, 1865.
An extensive schedule of public viewings coincided with the train journey with Lincoln’s body on display for 10 to 12 hours during most days of the railroad journey. This method allowed hundreds of thousands to mourn the fallen Lincoln during the two-week traveling funeral. Lincoln’s body, kept in a specially built funeral car, began to decay by the time of the New York City stop, concerning many viewers due to a significant change in skin tone.
Lincoln’s body was placed in a tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, the decision of his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, but it did not rest in peace.
On Nov. 7, 1876, a busy election night, a band of counterfeiters attempted to exhume the corpse of Lincoln to hold it for ransom in return for $200,000 (a little over $4 million today) and the release of Benjamin Boyd, a crafty, but imprisoned, engraver of counterfeiting plates.
The group of counterfeiters-turned grave robbers entered Lincoln’s tomb and removed the marble lid covering the coffin, but did not succeed in moving the coffin more than a few feet out of the marble enclosure before a U.S. Secret Service member entrenched in the grave robber’s party warned local law enforcement. Interestingly, Lincoln created the Secret Service in 186S to only combat counterfeiting, with the organization’s range extended to presidential security in 1901 after the assassination of President William McKinley.
Several of the grave robbers escaped the cemetery in the dark, but once captured, they received modest one-year sentences in Joliet State Prison.
Lincoln’s coffin traveled to a number of secret locations in the tomb in the following years, with the coffin opened twice to confirm that Lincoln’s body remained inside.
In all, the coffin was reopened five times: Dec. 21, 1865, Sept. 19, 1871, Oct. 9, 1874, April 14, 1887 and the very last time on Sept. 26, 1901.
The grave robbing attempt, along with the decay of Lincoln’s tomb, led Lincoln’s remains to be removed to a temporary site with Lincoln and his wife interred in a newly constructed tomb in 1901. Lincoln’s eldest son Robert Todd Lincoln, was furious his father had not yet had a proper and permanent burial spot within the tomb, met with officials and suggested surrounding his father’s lead lined coffin in a 10-foot steel cage and lowering the cage with the coffin enclosed 10 feet down and lastly covering the coffin in cement in order to permanently seal and prevent anyone from moving it and reopening it in the future.
Robert Todd Lincoln used this technique when he oversaw the burial of George Pullman. Robert Todd feared very deeply the railroad tycoon’s body could become a target for desecration in future labor disputes.
After final preparations, the reburial ceremony was held on Sept. 26, 1901. Thirty-six years after President Lincoln’s death, 23 old friends and associates gathered, betraying Robert Todd’s wish that the coffin itself never be reopened ever again out of sincere respect for his late father. His wishes were denied, after much conversation, to see if in fact Lincoln was still in the coffin.
A pipe welder came into the burial chamber and started his grim task yet once again. He torched the lead lined lid covering Lincoln from his head to his shoulders and chiseled open the lid. After his task of chiseling, a horrific mildewed odor suddenly filled the chamber. Many covered their noses with handkerchiefs and suddenly backed away for only a few moments.
Then again moving forward removing their hats out of respect, they all looked down once again viewing the shoulders and head of Lincoln. The black hair, beard and famous wart were still very recognizable; the only thing missing on his face was his eyebrows. His head had fallen back in the coffin because the long-rotted pillow his head had rested on had gone flat.
Remains of a U.S. flag covered his chest. The kid gloves covering his hands had also rotted away. His face was white and was covered in mold. The suit he wore to his second inauguration was splotched with many patches of yellow mold.
After all in attendance viewed the remains for the final time, they all agreed that the remains were those of Lincoln, and the welder replaced the lid and soldered it shut. Men then lifted the wood crate covered casket and brought it around to the newly reconstructed burial chamber.
There, a 10-foot-deep hole awaited. With long ropes entwined under and over the crate it was finally lowered into the steel cage at the bottom.
When the men heard the crate touch the bottom in a faint sound, they all loosed the ropes, and then tons of cement was sloshed downward, completely filling the hole, forever ending the extensive travels of the long-dead president.
Lincoln’s body, along with his wife and three youngest sons, now lies in the Lincoln Tomb, a grandiose structure named one of the first of the United States’ National Historic Landmarks in 1960. A 1930 renovation of the tomb created more room for visitors, as the tomb became one of the first historic tourist attractions.
Roger Knapp lives in Napa and is an avid reader and chronicler of presidential history.