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