The Last Person To See Abraham Lincoln
Welcome to the April 2014 edition of “Jud’s New England Journal,” the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, the Editor-in-Chief of Yankee Magazine, published since 1935 in Dublin, NH.
The Last Person To See Abraham Lincoln
He didn’t pass away until almost a hundred years after Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865.
The name of the man who last saw Lincoln was Fleetwood Lindlay and, not surprisingly, he was from Lincoln’s hometown, Springfield, Illinois. Following the assassination and the long train trip from Washington, Lincoln was buried there, in the Oak Ridge Cemetery. However, over the following 36 years, for various reasons to do with security, construction of new vaults and so forth, Lincoln’s coffin was moved no fewer than ten times. In 1876, for instance, three men almost got away with stealing the coffin and holding Lincoln’s corpse for ransom.
So, in 1886, six prominent Springfield citizens were chosen to form what they called the Lincoln Guard of Honor, the purpose of which was to devise ways to protect the body of the late President.
Well, Fleetwood Lindlay’s father, Joseph, was one of those six.
A year later, in 1887, before burying the coffin in yet another location in the Oak Ridge Cemetery, the Lincoln Guard of Honor opened it to be sure Lincoln was still in there. He was. And Fleetwood Lindlay remembered his father describing Lincoln’s face as being “the color on an old saddle.”
Now we skip ahead fourteen years to 1901. Because of continued body-snatching rumors, Lincoln’s son, Robert, and others continued to be concerned about the security of the gravesite, so it was decided to dig a tremendous pit, lower Lincoln’s casket into a steel cage at the bottom of it and then fill the hole with tons and tons of cement.
Thus it was that the final event in the saga of Abraham Lincoln’s corpse occurred on Thursday morning, September 26, 1901, in a large tomb known as Memorial Hall, in the presence of some twenty very prominent people and, of course, The Lincoln Guard of Honor, including Fleetwood’s father, Joseph. And thirteen-year-old Fleetwood was also present. Joseph had more or less snuck his boy in so he could witness history being made that morning.
Minutes prior to lowering the casket into the pit, some of those present suggested one last look inside the coffin—just to be absolutely sure. So a small group of workmen were summoned to remove the cover.
Here, in the April 1980 issue of Yankee Magazine, is how writer Charles E. Fitzgerald described what happened next…
“All at once the room grew quiet… Voices were muffled to church tones. The chief workman laid 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 had seen a good picture of Lincoln could identify him.’ The headrest has 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.”
After everyone, including young Fleetwood, gazed for several minutes at the face of Abraham Lincoln for the very last time, the casket was closed and lowered into its final—truly final—resting place.
Why, you might wonder, was Lincoln’s face “alabaster white” when back in 1887 it had been the color of “an old saddle?” According to the Illinois State Journal, that was due to a white mold that had covered the entire face during the intervening fourteen years.
As to Fleetwood Lindlay, he went on to live out a full life, passing on in 1963 at the age of 75. By then, of course, he really was the last person to have gazed upon the face of Abraham Lincoln.