Things You Didn't Know About Abraham Lincoln's Funeral

Iconic in life, President Abraham Lincoln proved just as interesting in death

President Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Memorial
Iconic in life, President Abraham Lincoln proved just as interesting in death. Photo © Pgiam/E+/Getty Images

Given the 150th anniversary of the assassination and burial of President Abraham Lincoln this year (on April 14 and May 4, 1865, respectively), here are five facts about Abraham Lincoln's funeral and burial you probably don't know.

1. Lincoln Rode His Official Presidential Train Just Once
While we associate presidential travels these days with the state-of-the-art airplane designated Air Force One, President Abraham Lincoln had to settle for slower methods, such as horses and horse-drawn carriages.

In February 1865, however -- a mere two months before his assassination -- the government completed construction of President Lincoln's official railway train, named the United States.

Replete with "elaborately painted and gilded wood and etched glass, and wheels designed to accommodate tracks of varying gauges" (because railway gauges, i.e., the width between tracks, weren't yet standardized), the United States was intended to serve as Lincoln's speedy office on wheels. Unfortunately, President Lincoln never rode in this train while living; instead, it only served as his funeral coach during the long journey from Washington, DC, to Springfield, Illinois.

2. Lincoln's Body was Embalmed Numerous Times
The process of using chemicals to temporarily preserve corpses gained significant national attention during the American Civil War when Thomas Holmes made a name for himself as a New York coroner's physician who was investigating the embalming process.

In fact, Mary Lincoln, the president's wife, viewed the body of Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth -- the first person of rank killed during the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln's friend -- in the White House in 1861 after Holmes embalmed Ellsworth. Newspapers in Washington, DC, widely reported "favorable" results of this embalming afterward, and demand for Holmes and his preservative process grew.

Perhaps because of Holmes' direct connection to the Lincolns and the notoriety of his embalming prowess generally, President Lincoln's body was embalmed as a preservation measure before his 13-day, 2,662 kilometer (1,654 mile) train journey from Washington, DC, to Springfield, Illinois. During the many stops made, Lincoln's body was frequently re-embalmed -- to the point that even when his corpse was examined 36 years later, "Mr. Lincoln's features were totally recognizable." (See below for more on Lincoln exhumations.) Nobody is quite sure how many embalmings the president received.

3. Blacks Were Banned From Lincoln's Funeral Procession
The U.S. Civil War arose, primarily, from the divide caused by the abomination of human slavery practiced in the United States. Despite President Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation" on January 1, 1863, which freed slaves in states in rebellion against the United States and authorized black men to serve in the Union Army and Union Navy; despite the abolition of slavery by the U.S. Congress less than three months before his assassination, via the 13th Amendment; and despite a bloody, protracted war between the states that probably cost more than 750,000 American lives, the concept of freedom for all still failed to take hold.

In fact, municipal authorities in New York banned African-Americans from participating in President Lincoln's funeral procession in anticipation of the funeral train stopping there on April 24, 1865. Outraged upon learning of this, Lincoln's secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, countermanded this ban but it was too late: instead of more than 5,000 blacks marching in sympathy for the slain president, only a "couple of hundred African Americans brought up the very rear."

4. Criminals Tried to Kidnap Lincoln's Corpse
Roughly 18 months after the burial of President Lincoln in the Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, a criminal named Terrence Mullins concocted a scheme to kidnap the president's body and ransom it for $200,000. After enlisting the help of Jack Hughes and Lewis Swegles, the trio hid in the cemetery the night of November 7, 1866, and awaited their chance.

Unfortunately for them, just about everything that could go wrong did so. First, none of the three could pick the lock on the iron gate separating them from Lincoln's marble sarcophagus, so Mullins attempted to saw through the padlock using a hacksaw. In his haste, he broke the blade and therefore had to use a file, which took much longer. After gaining entrance, the men struggled to remove the heavy lid of the Lincoln sarcophagus, further delaying them. And even after exposing the ornate black-and-silver coffin housing the president's remains, the third and most significant flaw in their body-snatching attempt surfaced: Gang-member Swegles was actually an agent of the U.S. Secret Service assigned to keep an eye on Hughes. (In fact, agents were on site in Oak Ridge Cemetery that night in anticipation of the kidnapping attempt.)

Nevertheless, Mullins and Hughes managed to escape but were eventually arrested and sent to jail for their body-snatching attempt.

5. Lincoln's Corpse was Viewed 5 Times After His Burial
In part due to the unsuccessful body-snatching attempt described above, and because of repairs necessitated over time due to the decay of Lincoln's tomb in the Oak Ridge Cemetery, the president's surviving son, Robert, decided in 1901 that a more permanent method of protecting his father's mortal remains was required to both thwart future kidnapping efforts and to better honor the president. Thus, workers constructed a new tomb for President Lincoln's remains that included enclosing his coffin in a metal cage buried 10-feet deep before pouring tons of concrete into the hole, forever sealing Abraham Lincoln's corpse.

Because of the forever nature of this method and fears that Lincoln's body had in fact already been stolen, however, authorities decided to open Lincoln's coffin and view the remains. Therefore, on September 26, 1901, two men "chiseled an oblong piece out of the top of the lead-lined coffin," exposing the remains. More than 20 people viewed Abraham Lincoln's remains, which, despite his burial 36 years earlier, still wore "a melancholy expression, but his black chin whiskers hadn't changed at all." The "wart" on Lincoln's cheek remained, and all 23 people agreed that the remains in the coffin were, in fact, those of President Lincoln.

While this was the last time anyone viewed Lincoln's corpse, the president's remains were probably viewed earlier on four other occasions after his death (not including the multiple embalmings he received, described above) -- including the first viewing on December 21, 1865, just seven months after Lincoln's burial.

Related Articles of Interest:
Abraham Lincoln's Eulogy
President Lincoln's Final Words
Recreating Lincoln's Funeral 150 Years Later

Sources:
"How Abraham Lincoln's Funeral Train Journey Made History" by Adam Goodheart, April 18, 2015. National Geographic. Retrieved April 24, 2015. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/04/150418-abraham-lincoln-funeral-train-railroad-civil-war-history

The History of American Funeral Directing by Robert Habenstein and William Lamers, 8th ed., 2014, National Funeral Directors Association of the United States, Inc.

"Abraham Lincoln's Body Exhumed and Viewed in 1901." http://rogerjnorton.com. Retrieved April 24, 2015. http://rogerjnorton.com/Lincoln13.html

"Recounting the Dead" by J. David Hacker, September 20, 2011. The New York Times. Retrieved April 25, 2015. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/20/recounting-the-dead/#more-105317

"Lincoln's Funeral Train" by Adam Goodheart, April 2015. National Geographic. Retrieved April 25, 2015. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/04/lincoln-funeral-train/goodheart-text

"The Attempted Abduction of Abraham Lincoln's Body" by George Cashman, May 1, 1965. Illinois State Register. Retrieved April 27, 2015. http://genealogytrails.com/ill/stealinglincoln.htm

"Abraham Lincoln's Body Exhumed and Viewed in 1901. Abraham Lincoln's Assassination. Retrieved April 28, 2015. http://rogerjnorton.com/Lincoln13.html

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