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Preserving the President: Abraham Lincoln, Grave Robbers, and an Excellent Embalmer

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President Lincoln's funeral train in Philidelphia near the start of its 13 day journey from Washington to Springfield. Photo courtesy of

After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, his body was taken from Washington, D.C., by train to be laid in a tomb in Springfield, Illinois. The funeral train carried the president, some 300 mourners, an honor guard, and the disinterred body of Lincoln’s son, Willie, which would be laid to rest near his father. The train made 11 stops along the way, loosely retracing the route Lincoln had taken to Washington for his first inauguration, so that his body could lay in state and the public could pay their respects.

The 1654-mile journey took 13 days, during which the body was viewed by hundreds of thousands of people. Perhaps one of the most important, and ghoulish, bits of logistics that had to be sorted out for the funeral was keeping the body preserved, and presentable, until it reached its destination. Funeral embalming was a relatively new development at that time, but had proven itself on the battlefields of the Civil War. Dr. Thomas Holmes, the "father of American embalming," claimed to have personally embalmed more than 4000 Union soldiers for shipment back home for burial, and had trained others to do the same work using his techniques.

Preservatives Added

The task of embalming Lincoln fell to Drs. Charles Brown and Harry Cattell, using a form of the arterial embalming method developed in Europe, where an artery was opened and the body flushed of blood and filled with a chemical preservative. In their variation on the procedure, Brown and Cattell drained Lincoln's blood through his jugular and then pumped in Brown’s patented embalming fluid through an incision in his thigh. They shaved Lincoln’s face, leaving only a tuft of hair on the chin, set his mouth in a slight smile, and dressed him in a suit.

Brown’s advertisements touted that the bodies he embalmed would “be kept in the most perfect and natural preservation,” a claim that would be put to the test on the funeral train. To keep the body in the condition that the embalmers had promised, Cattell even traveled with the funeral party, providing the president’s body with “touch-ups” along the way.

Protecting the President

A little more than 10 years after Lincoln was laid in the tomb, a group of counterfeiters attempted to steal his remains and hold them for ransom. As the grave robbers began to move the coffin, an undercover Secret Service agent that had infiltrated the gang called in police backup to chase them down and capture them.

This attempted theft of Lincoln’s body helped spur his son Robert’s decision to have the coffin buried in a concrete-encased vault during a renovation of the tomb in 1901. Before the burial, the question came up as to whether or not someone should open the coffin and view the remains. Rumors that the grave robbing was actually successful had circulated for years, and this would be the last chance to put them to rest.

The coffin was opened and 23 people inspected what lay in it. They all agreed it was the president and that he was in fine condition. His features were still recognizable and the wart on his cheek was still there. His chin whiskers remained and his hair was still thick (though his eyebrows had disappeared).

Brown and Cattell had more than made good on their promises. J. C. Thompson, one of the men who viewed the body 36 years after Lincoln had died, later said, “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."

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History
The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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science
Why Are Glaciers Blue?
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iStock

The bright azure blue sported by many glaciers is one of nature's most stunning hues. But how does it happen, when the snow we see is usually white? As Joe Hanson of It's Okay to Be Smart explains in the video below, the snow and ice we see mostly looks white, cloudy, or clear because all of the visible light striking its surface is reflected back to us. But glaciers have a totally different structure—their many layers of tightly compressed snow means light has to travel much further, and is scattered many times throughout the depths. As the light bounces around, the light at the red and yellow end of the spectrum gets absorbed thanks to the vibrations of the water molecules inside the ice, leaving only blue and green light behind. For the details of exactly why that happens, check out Hanson's trip to Alaska's beautiful (and endangered) Mendenhall Glacier below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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