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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."

Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

Feeling Down? Lifting Weights Can Lift Your Mood, Too

There’s plenty of research that suggests that exercise can be an effective treatment for depression. In some cases of depression, in fact—particularly less-severe ones—scientists have found that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants, which don’t work for everyone and can come with some annoying side effects. Previous studies have largely concentrated on aerobic exercise, like running, but new research shows that weight lifting can be a useful depression treatment, too.

The study in JAMA Psychiatry, led by sports scientists at the University of Limerick in Ireland, examined the results of 33 previous clinical trials that analyzed a total of 1877 participants. It found that resistance training—lifting weights, using resistance bands, doing push ups, and any other exercises targeted at strengthening muscles rather than increasing heart rate—significantly reduced symptoms of depression.

This held true regardless of how healthy people were overall, how much of the exercises they were assigned to do, or how much stronger they got as a result. While the effect wasn’t as strong in blinded trials—where the assessors don’t know who is in the control group and who isn’t, as is the case in higher-quality studies—it was still notable. According to first author Brett Gordon, these trials showed a medium effect, while others showed a large effect, but both were statistically significant.

The studies in the paper all looked at the effects of these training regimes on people with mild to moderate depression, and the results might not translate to people with severe depression. Unfortunately, many of the studies analyzed didn’t include information on whether or not the patients were taking antidepressants, so the researchers weren’t able to determine what role medications might play in this. However, Gordon tells Mental Floss in an email that “the available evidence supports that [resistance training] may be an effective alternative and/or adjuvant therapy for depressive symptoms that could be prescribed on its own and/or in conjunction with other depression treatments,” like therapy or medication.

There haven’t been a lot of studies yet comparing whether aerobic exercise or resistance training might be better at alleviating depressive symptoms, and future research might tackle that question. Even if one does turn out to be better than the other, though, it seems that just getting to the gym can make a big difference.


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