Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States and often praised as one of the most important presidents in the history of the nation. He led the U.S. through the Civil War, he abolished slavery, and he strengthened the economic system.
Sadly, he also became one of the four U.S. presidents assassinated while in office: On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was mortally wounded by John Wilkes Booth, a stage actor and Confederate spy who was infuriated by the president’s abolition of slavery. At the time Lincoln was casually enjoying the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.
Lincoln died nine hours later at the house across the street from the theater. Grief devastated his wife, Mary: on the day he died, she retired to their bedroom at the White House and remained there for five weeks of mournful isolation.
She wanted the government officials to organize a private family funeral for her husband at Oak Ridge Cemetery near Springfield in Illinois, the state where he began his political career and lived from 1830 until he was elected president in 1861. Her wish was eventually fulfilled, but Lincoln’s body was first taken on a two-week funeral tour during which it appeared in five states and was visited by hundreds of thousands of citizens.
The funeral tour was organized against Mary Lincoln’s wishes by Edwin M. Stanton, the president’s Secretary of War and close friend. Stanton realized that the death of Lincoln, who was affectionately nicknamed “Father Abraham” by the soldiers of the Union, caused many people across the U.S. to feel as if they lost a member of their own family.
He wanted to provide the president’s numerous supporters with an opportunity to publicly bid farewell to his remains. Although many people across the U.S. supported Stanton’s decision to send the presidential corpse on a funeral tour, it turned into a grim spectacle which was visited not only by those who wished to honor Lincoln but also by those who only wanted to satisfy their morbid curiosity.
An embalmer named Charles Brown prepared Lincoln’s remains for public display and assured Stanton that the president’s dead body had been so thoroughly prepared that it could remain in pristine condition for months. A Union train carried the body across Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois: in Pennsylvania, some 200,000 spectators marveled at the dead president’s lifelike appearance and the calm look on his face.
However, it soon became apparent that the embalming techniques of the time weren’t enough to prepare corpses for lengthy public exhibitions and open exposure to various kinds of weather conditions. After it was displayed in the open air for 23 hours in New York, Lincoln’s body began showing signs of deterioration: many people who came to honor their beloved president noticed that his face grew darker and looked as if he were suffering from some horrible illness. His lifelike appearance began fading into a grim display of death’s unstoppable power.
Despite that, the tour continued and the body was displayed in three more states where many people started noticing the rapid deterioration. Several newspapers even attacked Stanton and accused him of organizing a blatantly disrespectful funeral tour that turned into a public desecration of the beloved president’s body.
In the end, the private funeral ceremony for the members of the president’s family took place on May 4, 1965, 19 days after Lincoln died. The funeral was initially supposed to take place on May 6, but the deterioration caused by the funeral tour became rather severe and Stanton had to abruptly stop the tour in order to prevent the body from decomposing in public. The two-week funeral tour, which was supposed to be a noble farewell procession, had turned into a somber and somewhat grisly spectacle.