A painting, The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln by Alonzo Chappel, 1868. Depicts Lincoln in bed attended by Mary, and all the people reported to have visited Lincoln throughout the night and early morning as if they had come at the same time

You know I love a good corpse story, and Lincoln’s earthly remains went on a JOURNEY. They were not finally, officially laid to rest until 1901 – thirty six fucking years after his death. His body toured the country, then played musical graves in Springfield until the cemetery finally got its shit together and buried him for good. He was one of the most consequential presidents of our time, but post Civil War America was a complete mess and the story of his burial is an apt metaphor for the chaos.

Abe Lincoln’s Farewell Tour

After John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, the nation went into mourning. His body lay in state in Washington D.C., but the shocking end to such an important man seemed to warrant more, so it was also sent on a train journey across the United States. The “Lincoln Express” traveled 1700 miles and made 180 stops, where his body was brought out to huge crowds of mourners. Lincoln’s son Willie, who died of typhoid in 1862, was disinterred and brought along with his father. The train’s journey ended in Springfield, IL, where Lincoln was to be buried.

I’m sure you’re wondering how the fuck a body made it across country in a train in 1865 without dissolving into a zombie mess. Embalming came into popular use around this time, because Americans wanted to bring their dead home for burial during the Civil War. It was still pretty crude and new, but it did the job well enough for the time. An embalmer traveled with Lincoln on the train, pumping it full of chemicals as needed.

A promotional photo of a train engine, there is a portrait of Lincoln affixed to the front of the engine. Men are posed around it. It is titled The Old Nashville: The engine that drew Lincoln's funeral Train from Washington to Springfield, IL.
A map of the North Eastern and Midwest United States, showing the path Lincoln's train took from DC, the north and midwest until it arrived in Springfield, IL

The Lincoln Express made 180 stops along this route

The bigger problem was refrigeration – which had NOT been invented. Lincoln was killed in April and the train tour took a month. The heat and exposure was *not great* for his appearance. Mourners reported that the body looked like Lincoln, but it also looked pretty gross: “the one face the mourners had waited so long to see was faded and decayed, powdered and worked over. By the time the funeral train got to New York, the discoloration was evident, with viewers describing it either as ‘wan and shrunken’ or ‘shrunken and dark.’” The New York Times warned that they couldn’t show him much longer: “It will not be possible, despite the effection of the embalming, to continue much longer the exhibition, as the constant shaking of the body aided by the exposure to the air, and the increasing of dust, has already undone much of the…workmanship, and it is doubtful if it will be decreed wise to tempt dissolution much further.” 

Also what was happening with Willie’s body? Had it also been embalmed? I don’t know! He’d been dead for three years at this point so he was probably pretty well decomposed. Also they weren’t *showing him* so the coffin presumably remained sealed.

Who’s (Buried) on First?

When Lincoln’s body arrived in Springfield, a complicated coffin shuffling process began. See if you can keep up! Abe and Willie went first into a general receiving vault, then into a temporary vault. Then they were moved to the Lincoln Tomb, which was only partially completed. His son Tad was added to the crypt after he died (Poor Mrs. Lincoln – no wonder she was so crazy). Once the tomb was completed, Abe was transferred to a new sarcophagus then reburied.

AND THEN, IN 1876, criminals tried to steal his body. A comically incompetent gang of counterfeiters from Chicago, led by one “Big Jim” Kennally, decided to steal the corpse and ransom it back to the state. They were completely, hilariously incapable of pulling this off. First of all, these idiots had no experience with grave robbing, so they hired someone that they thought was a body snatcher. HE WAS A SECRET SERVICE INFORMER.

The procession of Lincoln's body in a horse drawn carriage down a street thronged with onlookers and attendants

Buffalo, New York – April 27, 1865

Because, when you blab about your insane criminal conspiracy and put the word out that you need a fucking GRAVE ROBBER and one magically appears on your doorstep HE’S OBVIOUSLY A NARC. Second, they had no plan to move a FIVE HUNDRED POUND SARCOPHAGUS out of a cemetery at night with just, like, 3 guys. What the fuck did he think the President of the United States would be buried in?? A lil pine box with backpack straps on it? LOL, listen, these dum-dums were caught and put in prison.

But the theft triggered a long line of reactionary grave intrigue. Now the Lincoln family were paranoid – even though this was an ill considered hare-brained scheme that would never have succeeded. So Lincoln’s coffin was moved into the basement of the tomb (TOMBS HAVE BASEMENTS?) and covered up with a pile of wood. Then it was transferred to a secret shallow grave. In 1887, it was finally moved back into the tomb, and Mary Todd Lincoln was added. Finally, in 1900, they removed his body yet again to repair the tomb. Almost every time they move Lincoln, they opened the coffin to make sure it was him. It’s all very disturbing and weird. 

We Can’t Keep Meeting like this

Abraham Lincoln's tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, IL
Abraham Lincoln’s tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, IL

In 1901, Lincoln’s body was FINALLY laid to rest in a permanent location. While the tomb was being repaired, Lincoln was stored next to it in a pine sarcophagus. Robert Lincoln, his oldest son, demanded an impenetrable tomb, so he could stop worrying about his dad’s corpse being stolen. To accomplish this, they built a steel cage and sunk it in a concrete vault 10 feet underground. But before they could rebury him, they had to – wait for it – OPEN THE COFFIN AGAIN AND MAKE SURE IT WAS HIM. This time, 20+ people were on hand to check out the moldering corpse of one of the nation’s greatest leaders. Life Magazine described it like this: 

“When the casket was opened, a harsh, choking smell arose. 23 people slowly walked forward and peered down. Mr. Lincoln’s features were totally recognizable. His face had a melancholy expression, but his black chin whiskers hadn’t changed at all. The wart on his cheek and the coarse black hair were obvious characteristics of Mr. Lincoln’s. The biggest change was that the eyebrows had vanished. The president was wearing the same suit he wore at his second inauguration, but it was covered with yellow mold. Additionally there were some bits of red fabric (possibly the remnants of an American flag buried with Mr. Lincoln). All 23 people were unanimous in their agreement that the remains were indeed those of Abraham Lincoln.”

And with that, they put him in the vault and poured 4,000 pounds of cement over it. Now that the grave is Hulk-proof, the President can finally stay in one place.