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Classic Article | The Man Who Last Saw Abraham Lincoln

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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One Response to Classic Article | The Man Who Last Saw Abraham Lincoln

  1. Margery Peterson February 12, 2015 at 10:02 pm #

    Fascinating article. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you.

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