Thursday, February 12, 2009

Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday

Today, as you may have heard on the news, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. There have been celebrations of his life across the country - including the one in Springfield, Illinois, attended by President Barack Obama - so let me tell you a few things about his death...

The photo of Lincoln lying in an open coffin is the only one that exists. It was taken by photographer Jeremiah Gurney, Jr., on April 24, 1865, as the president's body lay in state in City Hall in New York. It was immediately confiscated by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814-1869) and was hidden away for 87 years until it was discovered in the Illinois State Historical Library in 1952, by then 15-year-old Ronald Rietveld, who was researching the papers of Lincoln's personal secretaries.

It was purported by some that President Lincoln's assassin, actor John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865), survived being killed by federal agents in Garrett's barn. Booth lived on for years, it was said by showmen drawing crowds to see several versions of the "mummy of John Wilkes Booth" (like the one to the left), as they circulated in carnival sideshows.

When Lincoln's body was deposited in this temporary tomb in Springfield's Oak Ridge Cemetery during construction of a permanent monument, thieves were caught in the act of stealing it and holding it in exchange for the release of an imprisoned counterfeiter! The story is told in the book Stealing Lincoln's Body by Thomas J. Craughwell.

When Lincoln's Tomb was renovated in 1900, the president's coffined remains were encased in more than 4,000 lbs. of concrete upon orders of his son Robert. At that time, 23 people viewed Lincoln's face and found the features totally recognizable. In 1928, Mr. J.C. Thompson described the experience: "As I came up I saw that top-knot of Mr. Lincoln's - his hair was course and thick, 'like a horse's,' he used to say - and it stood up high in front. When I saw that, I knew that it was Mr. Lincoln. Anyone who had ever seen his pictures would have known it was him. His features had not decayed. He looked just like a statue of himself lying there."

The Museum of Funeral Customs in Springfield exhibited a reproduction of Abraham Lincoln's coffin, scale models of Lincoln's railroad coach, and a ceremonial funeral arch erected for Lincoln's Chicago funeral. Most unfortunately, the museum - which I have visited and blogged about - closed as of December 31, 2008.


  1. I find mummies very interesting. I have never seen the photo of the open casket with lincon. Thank you so much for the upload.

  2. Knowing the quality of the concrete/cement manufactured in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I would highly recommend an inspection of the encasing cement for deterioration before we lose a national treasure to the elements. Thank you.


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