Classic Article | The Man Who Last Saw Abraham Lincoln
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?