Fifth Edition - The Journey of Lincoln's Body

February 15, 2022
HLAS Newsletter

My dearest goblin children:


I don’t have Cemetery Part III ready because I’ve been spending all of my time completing my mandatory continuing legal education hours. If you don’t know, lawyers in California have to do 25 hours every two years. Since I made the very reasonable choice to hang up the law license and write ghost stories, I thought I’d maybe just go inactive with the Bar this time around.

AND THEN a bunch of QAnon lunatics tried to effect a coup and kill members of Congress and I felt like lol, maybe I should hang on to that license. Just in case. So I’ve been streaming classes about all kinds of actually pretty interesting legal shit all day instead of ghost or cemetery shit and here we are, my first missed deadline of 2021! I’m sure there will be plenty more.

In honor of the Inauguration (YAY!!!), I decided to do something different and write a mini-post for you guys. Nothing says celebration like corpse capers, so I wrote a little summary about the travails of Abraham Lincoln’s. That's right, his corpse.

Did you know his body was (a) a traveling attraction (b) that had to be embalmed so many times that it became mummified (c) almost stolen and (d) moved 17 times? I’m guessing you did not so THAT’S WHY I WROTE THIS POST. Enjoy!

I’m looking forward to seeing you all on the flip side of this long national nightmare, at which time I will return to bitching about the government a normal amount.


Lincoln's Body

Lincoln's funeral procession through Buffalo, New York on April 27th 1865

I love a good corpse story, and Lincoln’s earthly remains went on a whole JOURNEY. They were not finally, officially laid to rest until 1901 -  thirty six fucking years after his death. His body toured the country, then played musical graves in Springfield until the cemetery finally got its shit together and buried him for good. He was one of the most consequential presidents in the nation, but post Civil War America was a complete mess and the story of his burial is an apt metaphor for the chaos.

After John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, the U.S. went into mourning. His body lay in state in Washington D.C., but the shocking end to such an important man seemed to warrant more, so it was also sent on a train journey across the United States. The “Lincoln Express” traveled 1700 miles and made 180 stops, where his body was brought out to huge crowds of mourners. Lincoln’s son Willie, who died of typhoid in 1862, was disinterred and brought along with his father. The train’s journey ended in Springfield, IL, where Lincoln was to be buried.

I’m sure you’re wondering how the fuck a body made it across country in a train in 1865 without dissolving into a total zombie mess. Well, embalming came into popular use around this time because Americans wanted to bring their dead home for burial during the Civil War. It was still pretty crude and new, but it did the job for the time. President Lincoln was embalmed, and the embalmer traveled with him on the train, pumping him full of chemicals as needed. Which sort of preserved him.

The bigger problem was refrigeration - which had NOT been invented. Lincoln was killed in April and it took a month to get him to IL. The heat and exposure was *not great* for his appearance. Mourners reported that the body looked like Lincoln, but it also looked pretty gross: “the one face the mourners had waited so long to see was faded and decayed, powdered and worked over. By the time the funeral train got to New York, the discoloration was evident, with viewers describing it either as ‘wan and shrunken’ or ‘shrunken and dark.'” The New York Times warned that they couldn’t show him much longer: “It will not be possible, despite the effection of the embalming, to continue much longer the exhibition, as the constant shaking of the body aided by the exposure to the air, and the increasing of dust, has already undone much of the…workmanship, and it is doubtful if it will be decreed wise to tempt dissolution much further.”

Lincoln's funeral procession through Buffalo, New York on April 27th 1865

When Lincoln’s body arrived in Springfield, a complicated coffin shuffling process began. See if you can keep up:   Abe and Willie went first into a general receiving vault, then into a temporary vault. Then they were moved to the Lincoln Tomb, which was only partially completed. His son Tad was added to the crypt after he died (Poor Mrs. Lincoln - no wonder she was so crazy). Once the tomb was completed, Abe was transferred to a new sarcophagus and reburied.

AND THEN, IN 1876, criminals tried to steal his body. A comically incompetent gang of counterfeiters from Chicago, led by one Big Jim Kennally, decided to steal the corpse and ransom it back to the state. They were completely, hilariously incapable of pulling this off. First of all, these idiots had no experience with grave robbing, so they hired someone that they thought was a body snatcher. HE WAS ACTUALLY A SECRET SERVICE INFORMANT. Because when you blab about your batshit criminal conspiracy and put the word out that you need a fucking GRAVE ROBBER and one magically appears on your doorstep HE’S OBVIOUSLY A NARC. Second, they had no plan to move a FIVE HUNDRED POUND SARCOPHAGUS out of a cemetery at night with just, like, 3 guys. What the fuck did he think the President of the United States would be buried in?? A lil’ pine box with backpack straps on it? LOL, these dum-dums were caught and put in prison.

The attempted theft, however,  triggered a rash of grave paranoia. Now the Lincoln family were seriously worried - even though the scheme was hare-brained and doomed to fail. They moved Lincoln’s coffin  into the basement of the tomb (TOMBS HAVE BASEMENTS?) and covered up with a pile of wood (SAFE). A while later they transferred to a secret shallow grave. In 1887, it was finally moved back into the tomb, and Mary Todd Lincoln was added. Finally, in 1900, they removed his body yet again to repair the tomb. Almost every time they moved Lincoln, they opened the coffin to make sure it was him. Can you imagine that? His coffin was reportedly opened 5 times, but it seems like it may actually have been more than that.

Lincoln's tomb, Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois

In 1901, Lincoln’s body was FINALLY laid to rest in a permanent location. While the tomb was being repaired, Lincoln was stored next to it in a pine sarcophagus. Robert Lincoln, his oldest son, demanded an impenetrable tomb so he could stop worrying about his dad’s corpse being stolen. To accomplish this, they built a steel cage and sunk it into a concrete vault 10 feet underground. But before they could rebury him, they had to – wait for it – OPEN THE COFFIN AGAIN AND MAKE SURE IT WAS HIM. This time, 20+ people were on hand to check out the moldering corpse of one of the nation’s greatest leaders. Life Magazine described it like this:

“When the casket was opened, a harsh, choking smell arose. 23 people slowly walked forward and peered down. Mr. Lincoln's features were totally recognizable. His face had a melancholy expression, but his black chin whiskers hadn't changed at all. The wart on his cheek and the coarse black hair were obvious characteristics of Mr. Lincoln's. The biggest change was that the eyebrows had vanished. The president was wearing the same suit he wore at his second inauguration, but it was covered with yellow mold. Additionally there were some bits of red fabric (possibly the remnants of an American flag buried with Mr. Lincoln). All 23 people were unanimous in their agreement that the remains were indeed those of Abraham Lincoln.”

And with that, they put him in the vault and poured 4,000 pounds of cement over it. Now that the grave is Hulk-proof, the President can finally stay in one place. I hope to visit some day so that I can scare the other tourists by telling this story to whoever will listen.


Ghostess with the Mostess

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