Today’s subject matter is a bit on the macabre side, and may not be for everyone. On the other hand, it’s compelling, so if anyone is into unusual history, well, you’ve come to the right place…
On this day in 1865, at 7:22 AM, President Abraham Lincoln died of a gunshot wound in a house across the street from Ford’s Theatre. The circumstances of Lincoln’s death are fairly well-known, but less familiar is what happened after Lincoln was supposedly laid to rest in Springfield, Illinois. The strange odyssey of his earthly remains is explored in the 2009 History Channel documentary, Stealing Lincoln’s Body. It doesn’t break any new ground in terms of production value; no one was looking to one-up Ken Burns with this one. However, the novelty factor is off the charts.
The film gives a brief overview of the assassination and Lincoln’s death. John Wilkes Booth sneaked into the Presidential box during the evening performance of Our American Cousin and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. A doctor at the scene relieved pressure on Lincoln’s brain by pulling a blood clot out of the bullet hole, which temporarily restored Lincoln’s breathing. He determined right away that Lincoln’s wound was mortal, and the dying President was carried across the street to the Petersen house, where he died in a downstairs bedroom.
Lincoln was embalmed by Henry Cattell, who, ironically enough, had embalmed Lincoln’s son, Willie, three years earlier. Here’s where it gets a bit icky again, although it should be no big deal to the non-squeamish: Cattell drained Lincoln’s blood through the corotid artery, which is in the neck, and injected a zinc chloride solution into the femeral artery, which is in the thigh. This caused Lincoln’s corpse to basically look like an alabaster statue.
There was a long, winding road ahead for Lincoln’s body between embalming and burial. After lying in state in the Rotundra at the Capitol building, it was ushered on a tour from Washington D.C. to Springfield, where it was put on display for anyone who wanted to come look at it. People knew when the body would come to their town, and made a special effort to be by the railroad tracks when the train passed, or by the road for the procession to their local city center. Cattell was taken along to touch up Lincoln’s corpse as need be, if not with more chemicals, then with rouge.
The tour would have lasted indefinitely, except that Lincoln’s body began to mummify, which even death-familiar Victorians found creepy. Therefore, it was necessary to cut everything short and get the body to Springfield, where it laid in state at the Illinois State Legislature before being buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery.
One would think that would be the end of the road for Lincoln’s body, right? Burial, and then resting in peace, right?
In 1876, a plot was hatched by counterfeiters, Terrence Mullen and John Hughes, to steal the President’s body and hold it for ransom. Grave robbing was surprisingly common in the Victorian era, and it wasn’t exactly illegal. Laws of the time prosecuted looters for stealing valuables from graves, but as for actual bodies, not so much. There was a bounty for human cadavers, and medical schools were among those who would pay. Whose corpse would bring in more money than the slain President’s? There was also a revenge angle to their scheme–Mullen and Hughes’ engraver, Ben Boyd had just been sentenced to ten years in prison.
Unfortunately for the plot, two Secret Service agents had infiltrated the group. We might know the Secret Service as the personal bodyguards of the President, but they were originally founded by Lincoln to catch counterfeiters. As part of the sting, one of the plants, Lewis Swegles, helped open the tomb and the other, Billy Brown, drove the getaway wagon.
On November 7, 1876, the thieves broke into Lincoln’s tomb, which at that time was an open-air crypt sealed only by a padlock. Mullen and Hughes dealt with the padlock easily enough, but removing Lincoln’s coffin from its marble sarcophagus was a different story. They didn’t have the foggiest idea how to get in there, and ended up breaking through the front panel. Then they found the coffin was too heavy to slide out. These guys might have been crack counterfeiters, but they were sucky grave robbers.
The Secret Service, assisted by detective Patrick Tyrell and several borrowed Pinkerton Detective Agency operatives, crept up on the group. Unfortunately, one of them got nervous and accidentally fired his gun, which confused the good guys into shooting at each other. On the upside, it scared Mullen and Hughes away, but on the downside, they had to be caught later. Soon after, Illinois revised its grave-robbing laws, making grave-robbing a felony punishable by up to ten years in prison.
Even after the plot had been foiled, Lincoln’s body still wasn’t laid to rest. The cemetery workers were understandably paranoid that someone else would try to steal the corpse, so they put it in the basement of the tomb. At one point it was buried in a shallow grave, and at another it was sitting in the dirt covered by random pieces of lumber. One older gentleman in particular kept a close eye on Lincoln’s coffin so nothing else would happen to it.
Another factor that prevented Lincoln’s re-burial was plain old logistics. The tomb sits on an area of land with a high water table, and had to be rebuilt because it was literally falling apart, so either way, Lincoln, and by then also the body of his wife, Mary, had to be kept in the basement.
Lincoln’s coffin was opened several times over the years, starting in 1876. The last opening was in 1901. Many people thought Lincoln’s body really had been stolen, and Robert Lincoln wanted to dispel the rumors once and for all.
The cemetery workers pried away the coffin lid and saw Lincoln’s body, perfectly preserved. Cattell used so much embalming fluid that it didn’t decay, although the American flag someone had put in Lincoln’s hands was gone, as were his eyebrows. His features were bronzed due to the unhealed bruise from his gunshot wound, but other than that, Lincoln was still recognizable. The men who viewed the body removed their hats in awe. A fourteen-year old boy, Fleetwood Lindley happened to be present as well, and he would remember that day for the rest of his life.
Robert Lincoln took steps to ensure his father’s remains would stay entombed. He ordered a ten-foot deep vault dug inside the Lincoln crypt, and the coffin placed in a wire cage. After that, concrete was poured on top and the vault sealed. It’s a pretty safe bet Lincoln’s body isn’t going anywhere until Judgement Day.
Stealing Lincoln’s Body is a fascinating documentary. The bulk of the footage is dramatic re-enactments, but it doesn’t stick to that. What I like best is when it zooms in on daguerreotypes, including the face of a very young Teddy Roosevelt peeking out of his parlor window during Lincoln’s funeral procession. In our world of HD and 4K, it’s amazing to see how much detail can be found in these old photos.
The film also has sepia-toned animations of Abraham Lincoln walking and moving based on the historical record. Some may find a little freaky but I think it’s oddly intriguing. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what else is in the film, because it deserves to be discovered in all its quirky glory.
Another Reading Rarity is on the way. Thanks for reading, all, and see you tomorrow…