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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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Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.


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