Classic Article | The Man Who Last Saw Abraham Lincoln
The 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.