Classic Article | The Man Who Last Saw Abraham Lincoln
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.