Grave Sightings: Abraham Lincoln
For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.
One hundred and forty-nine years ago today, Abraham Lincoln breathed his last on a bed in William Petersen’s boarding house, across the street from Ford’s Theater.
But you already know that story. This isn’t the story of Lincoln’s life, or even of his death—it’s the story of Lincoln’s earthly remains, which went on quite a journey after Abe died on April 15, 1865.
In addition to Washington, D.C., of course, Lincoln’s funeral procession via train spanned six states, with stops in 13 cities. He was joined on the train by another coffin—that of his son, Willie, who had died of typhoid fever in 1862 at the age of 11. Once the Lincolns finally reached their final destination of Springfield, Ill., their caskets were taken to then-rural Oak Ridge Cemetery at Mary Todd’s insistence. Her decision annoyed city officials, who wanted Abe to be placed in the middle of town to promote Springfield in death as he had in life. When they pushed back, Mary threatened to have him buried in D.C. instead. They relented.
The Oak Ridge site wasn’t ready for the Lincoln burials, so they were interred at the cemetery’s receiving vault to await relocation to what would eventually be a massive monument. But even the temporary housing was only temporary.
On December 21, 1865, Abe and Willie were relocated to another temporary vault near the construction of the Lincoln Tomb. This move reunited them with another family member—Abe and Mary’s second son, Eddie, who died in 1850 just before his fourth birthday. The Lincolns were still living in Springfield at the time of Eddie’s death, so his coffin just had to be brought over from another cemetery in town.
The three Lincolns remained undisturbed until 1871, when they were finally moved to the tomb structure, though it was still under construction. In 1874, they were moved to a white marble sarcophagus in the tomb, just in time for the public opening of the monument on October 15. But Abe’s travels weren’t over just yet.
In 1876, an Irish crime boss decided that stealing Lincoln’s body and holding it for ransom was the best way to secure the release of one of the members of his counterfeiting ring. As the presidential elections of 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes vs Samuel Tilden) were taking place on November 7, members of Big Jim Kennally’s gang, including a hired graverobber, crept into the cemetery, made their way into the unguarded tomb with no trouble at all, and then opened up the sarcophagus by cutting the padlock off with a file. The one thing they weren’t counting on: the 500-pound cedar coffin. They sent the graverobber to fetch a wagon, but instead, the man—really an informant for the Secret Service—alerted the police. Each of the men involved eventually received a one-year prison sentence for their ghastly attempt at graverobbing.
Though the attempt failed, the tomb’s caretaker was alarmed that such an amateur operation could come so close to succeeding. Custodian John Carroll Power had Lincoln's body moved or examined at least six times after that, either in response to grave robbery threats or due to renovations.
Finally, in 1901, the final crypt inside of the Lincoln Tomb was ready. To make sure none of the grave robbery threats had actually succeeded, the coffin was opened so the body could be positively identified. A total of 23 people viewed the corpse and unanimously agreed that it was, indeed, the president. Though his eyebrows were gone, the rest of Lincoln's features were easily recognizable, including the wart on his cheek and his coarse, black hair. His suit was covered with yellow mold, and pieces of red fabric, believed to be a decayed American flag, were also in the coffin. Though Abe had been dead for more than 35 years at the time, experts believe that his body was embalmed and “refreshed” so many times on his funeral tour that it may have stunted the process of decay.
After seeing the president with their own eyes, groundskeepers prepared to lay Lincoln to rest one last time. Under instructions from Robert Lincoln—the only surviving member of the immediate Lincoln family—the president’s coffin was encased in a steel cage, then buried 10 feet underground and covered with concrete. That's where he remains to this day. Mary Todd and three of his sons are buried there as well. (Robert, the only son to survive to adulthood, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.)
See the other entries in our Grave Sightings series here.