Classic Article | The Man Who Last Saw Abraham Lincoln

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The Man Who Last Saw Abraham LincolnThe assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater occurred on April 15, 1865. This somewhat gruesome though historically important story concerns the final chapter in the tragedy — 36 years later.

The last time Fleetwood Lindley went to Oak Ridge Cemetery, he stayed. The funeral procession filed out of Springfield, in through the cemetery gates, and halted at the family plot. Lindley’s coffin was lowered into its simple grave close to his father’s. Not far away the towering monument of Abraham Lincoln’s tomb dominated the Illinois plain. There, beneath the winter-tempered soil, Fleetwood and the “Great Emancipator” were rejoined for the first time since facing each other over a half century earlier. For with the death of Fleetwood Lindley on February 1, 1963 the world lost the last person to look upon Abraham Lincoln’s face.

Almost a century had passed since Lincoln’s own funeral made its way to Oak Ridge Cemetery. On that May 4 in 1865 the long journey back from Washington ended for the martyred president. His body’s travels, however were not over. Had officiating Bishop Matthew Simpson foreseen the chronic shuffling that would befall Lincoln’s corpse, he might never have uttered, “Rest in peace.” Over the next 36 years the coffin of Abraham Lincoln would be moved no less than ten times.

The simple act of getting the president’s body interred was marred by heated conflict. Immediately on hearing of the assassination, the city council of Springfield purchased a block in the heart of the city and workmen were hastily assigned to construct a vault to receive the body. On the morning of May 4, shortly before services were to begin, Mary Lincoln telegraphed Springfield stating unequivocally that her husband’s remains were to be buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery or she would have his body returned to Washington and interred in an unused crypt in the National Capitol originally prepared for George Washington. Acceding to her wishes, the body was taken to Oak Ridge Cemetery. There in the public receiving vault, Mr. Lincoln was laid to rest — for the first time.

Later that year the cemetery was to need the public vault, and so the president’s coffin was moved to a temporary chamber close by on December 21, 1865.

Soon after Lincoln’s assassination, an association was formed to raise funds for an appropriate tomb within the cemetery to guard his remains. Ground was broken in 1869. In September of 1871, construction had progressed to a point where the coffin was able to be moved to a crypt in the tomb. After the entire structure was completed and dedicated in 1874, the president’s coffin was taken from the crypt and placed in a white marble sarcophagus on October 15. At last, after three moves, the slain Lincoln lay in a fitting and supposedly final resting place.

At this same time a master engraver, Ben Boyd, was serving a ten-year sentence in Joliet Prison — his reward for faithful service to a large counterfeit ring. His associates had not forgotten him, however; mainly because of their inability to find another of his artistic accomplishment. They had a plan to get Ben out from behind bars. They would steal the corpse of Lincoln, precious to Illinois, and hold it for ransom; the ransom was to be Ben Boyd’s freedom. They selected the night of election day, November 7, 1876, as perfect for their purpose, theorizing that the people of Springfield would be too distracted with a new president to worry over a dead one. At eight o’clock three men broke into the tomb. Quickly they pried open the sarcophagus and began to pull out the coffin. With success seemingly at hand, one of the men was sent to get their hidden wagon. When he failed to return quickly, the two remaining plotters went out to investigate and saved themselves immediate capture. Their fellow body snatcher was actually Louis Swegles, a detective who had gone to fetch waiting Secret Service men rather than the wagon. Although they escaped that  night, the two grave robbers were arrested ten days later in Chicago. But they had raised doubts for the safety of Lincoln’s remains in the minds of the group of men who cared for the tomb.

These men, the National Lincoln Monument Association, took action: they hid the body. On the night of November 15, 1876, three members of the association hauled the coffin deep into the tomb’s interior. Quickly they dug a shallow grave, and just as quickly it filled with water. Not knowing what to do next, they rested the coffin on planks discarded by workmen and covered it with debris. For over two years this ” temporary” mausoleum housed the body. While Abraham Lincoln lay in the midst of refuse, thousands passed close by paying homage to a lovely but empty marble sarcophagus. Then on the night of November 18, 1878, six association members successfully scooped out a shallow grave to hide the coffin.

These six, joined by three associates, met on Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1886, to form the Lincoln Guard of Honor; their purpose was to protect the body of the late president. One of these men was Joseph P. Lindley.

The establishment of the Guard did not end worry for the body’s safety or the uneasiness prompted by such an undignified burial. Still, nothing was done until April 15, 1887, the anniversary of the assassination. Then the coffin was lifted from its hidden grave for transfer to a brick vault beneath the tomb’s floor, built to ensure the safety of the body. Rumors that Lincoln’s corpse had actually been stolen had circulated ever since the aborted theft. The Guard of Honor decided to settle any questions and to make sure their precautions were not for the wrong corpse. The casket was cut open to expose the face of Lincoln. The Guard members were satisfied and signed affidavits attesting that the coffin indeed contained the remains of Abraham Lincoln. With that, the coffin was resealed and inhumed. This time Lincoln would rest undisturbed for 13 years.

When the Lincoln Tomb was built, the base had not been dug deep enough and each year it became more unsafe. By 1899 the structure was so dangerous it had to be completely dismantled in order to be rebuilt. A vault was excavated near the tomb to house Lincoln’s remains during construction, and on March 10, 1900, he was moved there.

About 200 people gathered at the reconstructed tomb on April 24, 1901, to witness the unearthing of Lincoln’s coffin for removal back to the tomb. The nine tons or more of brick and stone that had been heaped on the temporary grave to disguise it had to be lifted by steam derrick, and it was late in the day when Lincoln’s coffin was finally reached. The setting sun slanted an orange light as the workmen opened the protective outer crate and when it colored the cedar coffin, heads were spontaneously bared in reverence. Six workers then carried the coffin into the tomb to be placed in the same marble sarcophagus that received it in 1874. But even this interment was not to be the last.

About a month after the tomb was reopened, Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert, came to inspect it. Robert Lincoln had become an important man in his own right — one whose wishes were not lightly regarded. He had been anxious for the security of his father’s body and what he found did not assuage his concern. The coffin lay in the same sarcophagus that thieves had easily violated previously. He returned to Chicago and studiously devised a new burial arrangement that he outlined in a letter of June 21, 1901, to Illinois Governor Yates saying, “I feel compelled to say that only by adoption of such a plan as this would I be satisfied that all danger of desecration be avoided.” Governor Yates quickly contacted Colonel J. S. Culver, who had just rebuilt the tomb, with instructions to break through the floor of the catacomb and to dig an opening ten feet below the surface. The plan further stipulated that the body would lie in an east and west direction. A cage of flat steel bars resting in cement would enclose the coffin and over the whole of this would be poured enough cement to seal the contents forever in stone.

On the morning of Thursday, September 26, 1901, it was decided to go ahead with the interment. Plans to wait for Governor Yates to return from a trip before proceeding were scrapped for fear the delay would only draw curiosity seekers.

For 13-year-old Fleetwood Lindley, the day that would be a great part of his life began as usual. He and the sun were up together. He dressed for school and went into the kitchen for breakfast. There his father’s demeanor charged the house with excitement and mystery. Joseph P. Lindley was a prominent citizen of Springfield, employed by the railroad and a member of the select Lincoln Guard of Honor. Fleetwood knew from hearing him talk that the country was then passing through a frightening period. President McKinley had been recently murdered and that very day his convicted assassin was to be sentenced. For whatever reason, his father now spoke to him in a tone more grave than he could recall. ” I want you to take your bicycle to school today. I may send for you this morning, and if I do, don’t stop for anything but pedal as fast as you can to Oak Ridge Cemetery. The Guard will be in the Lincoln Tomb and you come right there.”

Twenty people, including Acting Governor John J. Brenholt, other state officials, and the Lincoln Guard of Honor, assembled at the monument by 11:30. An argument quickly broke out over the advisability of opening the casket to view the body. Those against such action cited Robert Lincoln’s express wish that the coffin remain sealed, and since it had not been tampered with since it was opened in 1887, they questioned what purpose would be served. On the other side, it was argued that rumors still circulated that Lincoln was not in the coffin and that a continuous record of identification was needed. Only after peppery debate was it decided to view the body.

Two plumbers, Leon P. Hopkins and his nephew, Charles L. Wiley, had cut open the lead lining and cedar coffin of Lincoln’s casket in 1887. They were sent for to do their grim work again. Joseph Lindley seized this opportunity to send word back to Springfield for Fleetwood to come quickly. ” Fleet” lived up to his nickname, tearing the two miles under his wheels from school to cemetery.

Six laborers, preparing the bed of cement for the coffin, were hastily summoned to carry the wooden box containing the casket to the south room of the tomb known as Memorial Hall. One of the six, John P. Thompson, had assisted in transferring the coffin five times. At 11:45 they rested their load on two sawhorses and then were abruptly discharged from the hall. Soon Hopkins and Wiley arrived, followed shortly by young Fleetwood. Chest heaving, he rolled his bicycle into Memorial Hall and leaned it against the wall. His father motioned him to slip behind the room’s only door. Newspapers had been fixed over its glass, so that when the door was closed it would block the view of the reporters and others banished outside.

The plumbers unpacked their tools and set to work. Fleetwood now knew what he was going to see and his heartbeat again quickened. The door was locked and the only light available beamed from two skylights, glimmering on the plumber’s chisel as it divided the soft lead. Fleetwood made his way to the side of his father, who was in brisk conversation with fellow Guard members. When the coffin was opened 14 years earlier, Joseph Lindley had been present, and Fleetwood remembered his father’s description of Lincoln’s face as the color of an old saddle. What would it look like now?

All at once the room grew quiet. Voices used for speech-making were muffled to church tones. Chief plumber Hopkins lay his chisel aside and carefully gripped the incised rectangle of lead over Lincoln’s head and tenderly drew it away. The fetid odor that escaped momentarily checked the viewers’ curiosity, fixing them in place. Then quietly they converged to ring the coffin and look in.

The face of Lincoln was now alabaster white. “The features looked exceedingly white to me,” said Judge B. D. Monroe. “Not a natural white but immaculate as a shirt bosom. Anyone who has seen a good picture of Lincoln could identify them.” The headrest had disintegrated, allowing the head to fall back, and thrusting the chin forward, drawing first attention to the familiar whiskers. Though the eyebrows had vanished, there could be no mistaking the mole on the cheek and the thick black hair

Except for small tendrils of mold covering the black suit originally worn at the second inauguration, his clothes had preserved well. Adjutant General J. N. Reece had viewed the remains in 1887, and “particularly remembered the beautiful black stock that surrounded the President’s neck. That was in a perfect state of preservation.”

But what of the chalk-white coloring of the face that 14 years earlier was close to black? It was recalled that on the funeral train’s trek westward in 1865, the features had suddenly darkened, and a Philadelphia undertaker had covered Lincoln’s face with powder so that the body could continue to be exhibited. That could not explain it, however, since the coating of powder could not disappear 14 years earlier and reappear in 1901. J. S. McCullough said, “Yes, the sight was somewhat gruesome. The white on the face was due to a mold that covered it.” The next day the Illinois State Journal would say, “Fourteen years ago when the remains were opened the face was very dark, almost black, and the change to an immaculate white is not understood unless the suggestion that a mold has overspread the features is correct.”

The viewers looked up to corroborate silently what there could be no doubt of — the face framed by the rectangle of jagged metal was Lincoln’s. The assembly pulled back from the coffin to allow it to be resealed by the plumbers. Joseph Lindley drew his son in front of him and Fleetwood concentrated on the face of Lincoln as it disappeared under the covering for all time.

The workmen were recalled to carry out Robert Lincoln’s plan of burial. These final pallbearers bore the casket back to the catacomb followed by the 23 witnesses. Fleetwood edged close to the deep, square chasm. Quickly leather straps were thrown across the opening and the coffin was inched out over the waiting cage of stout steel. Men grasped the straps and Fleetwood instinctively bent to seize the end of the one at his feet. Sliding hand over hand, straining his young arms, he watched with the others as the casket descended into the cage at the chamber’s floor. There was a muted thump and the strap went limp in Fleetwood’s grip. Reluctantly he dropped the leather, feeling the loss of a last physical connection to something very important in his life. Then wave after wave of fluid cement cascaded over the bars, inundating the compartment and discharging Robert Lincoln’s instructions. Abraham Lincoln has rested undisturbed beneath the rock-hard mixture to this day.

Millions visit the Lincoln Tomb each year while nearby only family and a few remaining friends stop to remember Fleetwood Lindley, but together they shared a moment when Abraham Lincoln at last found peaceful rest, helped a little by a young boy with a fast bicycle.

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