Did you Ever Wonder...

Why are the remains of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln resting in a concrete vault ten feet below the floor of the burial chamber?

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While the life of Abraham Lincoln (12 February 1809 - 15 April 1865) - the 16th President of the United States - was tragically cut short, it was his demise that greatly influenced how its nation's most distinguished citizens were to be commemorated upon their death. After his assassination in Washington, D.C., he died the following day on 15 April 1865. "Due to increased communications technology, word spread across the country by telegraph and train allowing the country to mourn the loss of its president together"; this essentially marked "the first time the nation mourned as one." There were many other 'firsts' related to his state funeral. For example, Lincoln was the first U.S. president to be embalmed and it could be said that his death "triggered the beginning of modern day funeral service." As part of the preparations for his lying in state from 19 to 21 April, a catafalque was hastily constructed to support his casket. This raised bier of rough pine boards and covered with black cloth has since been used for all those who have 'lain in state' in the Capital Rotunda. As well, Lincoln's state funeral has often been used as a model for others to emulate. After his widow, Mary Lincoln, decided to return her husband's remains to Springfield (Illinois) for burial, Lincoln's casket was transported on a funeral train that passed 444 communities in seven states. This was the first time that a funeral train cortège was used for the national commemoration of a president's death and is known as "The Greatest Funeral in the History of the United States." Until the death of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Lincoln was said to have the distinction of having the largest funeral throughout the world with an estimated one million people who viewed his body during a period of twenty days (15 April to 4 May 1865).

Shortly after arrival at the Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, the remains of President Lincoln and his son "Willie" (1850 - 1862) were initially placed in a receiving vault from 4 May to 21 December 1865. From 21 December 1865 through 19 September 1871, the bodies of President Lincoln and his two pre-deceased sons Willie and "Eddie" (1846 - 1850) were held in a temporary above-ground tomb constructed on the site of where the current tomb now stands. As fund-raising efforts were under way to erect a fitting monument to his memory, the National Lincoln Monument Association chose the design of Larkin G. Mead Jr. as the winning entry among the 31 artists who made submissions in the 1868 design competition. The construction of the 117-foot-tall tomb which featured a classical obelisk surrounded by statuary began in September 1869 and the brick and steel monument was sheathed with Quincy granite in May 1871, just as the terrace and interior rooms were being completed. With the death of the Lincoln's fourth and youngest son "Tad" on 15 July 1871, he was the first to be interred in the unfinished structure, followed by his father and two brothers on 19 September 1871. The burial chamber contained crypts for the Lincoln family and at the centre of the original burial chamber was the Lincoln sarcophagus, made of white marble, with his name surrounded by a carved oak-leaf wreath. The Lincoln Tomb was originally dedicated on 15 October 1874 with remarks by Governor Richard Oglesby and a brief address by President Ulysses S. Grant to "immense masses of people". Although a custodian of the Lincoln Tomb had been appointed on 28 October 1874, there was an absence of rigorous security measures: there was neither a groundskeeper living on site nor a night watchman patrolling the area; lock-up consisted of a single padlock on the tomb's chamber door and the president's sarcophagus was only sealed with plaster of Paris instead of cement. This helped set the conditions for a plan made in 1876 to steal his body by a gang of Chicago Irish counterfeiters. With their master engraver sentenced to ten years in the state penitentiary and to pressure the governor to release this man, gang members were to kidnap Lincoln's body. For ransom, they would demand $200,000 in cash and a full pardon for the prisoner. The local police became aware of the plot and Robert Todd Lincoln, the President's only surviving son, who was also informed, agreed to allow the crime to take place so that the criminals could be caught in the act. The date for the grave robbery was set for 7 November 1876, a presidential election day, as they were hoping the cemetery would be deserted on that night. The gang had sawed and filed the padlock off the iron door to the burial chamber and once inside, had lifted the heavy wooden casket out of the sarcophagus. With a United States Secret Service agent placed among the conspirators, he pretended to bring the horses and wagon up to the tomb and signaled the authorities who were in hiding to rush forward, but the thieves had escaped, leaving the body behind. The conspirators were captured in Chicago ten days later and at their trial, eight months later, they were found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison. A similar event occurred in November 1878 whereby the remains of a prominent New Yorker were stolen and held for ransom. This heightened sense of fear for the security of Lincoln's remains along with the custodian of the Lincoln Tomb having received a postcard from Chicago to "Be careful - do not be alone - Particularly Thursday night Nov. 21st. C." caused for the reburial of the President's casket in a shallow grave within the tomb's interior and remained there for eight more years. It is worth noting that as a means to further deter grave robbing, the State of Illinois revised its statute on its penalty to "not less than one nor more than ten years" in the state penitentiary which became in force on 1 July 1879.

Upon the death of Mary Lincoln in 1882, she was interred alongside her husband within the tomb. Over the years, the tomb had fallen into disrepair and its care was placed in the hands of the State in 1895. With a $100,000 appropriation made by the legislature, the funds would pay for a rebuilding and restoration program in 1899-1901. Robert Lincoln did not want a repeat possibility of his father's corpse being stolen and in 1899 he notified state officials that he would provide $700 to secure his father's remains similar to that of George Pullman - the inventor of the Pullman sleeping car - who died in Chicago in 1897. Considering the extreme hostility toward Pullman and to prevent the desecration of his grave, his casket was buried within a structure of railroad ties and encased in concrete. In May 1901, as the reconstruction of the Lincoln Tomb was nearing completion, Robert Lincoln met with the Governor and construction officials to arrange for the final burial of his father. Although he requested a quietened reburial and that the casket not be opened, some people argued that the remains should be identified in order to quell continuing rumours that President Lincoln was not the body in the casket. Finally, on 26 September 1901, after opening the lead-lined casket, 23 people - among them state officials and members of the Lincoln Guard of Honor - slowly walked forward and unanimously agreed that the remains were indeed those of Abraham Lincoln. After the viewing of the body, the red cedar casket was lowered ten feet in a large cage of flat steel bars resting on 20 inches of Portland cement concrete attached to an underground boulder. Four thousand pounds of cement were then poured down covering the cage and casket so that they would be hardened forever in a solid block of rock. After being moved 17 times since his original burial, Abraham Lincoln could now rest in peace. During the 1920s, the Lincoln Tomb was again exhibiting noticeable signs of deterioration which led to a second reconstruction that began in the spring of 1930. The interior of the burial chamber was redesigned in order to better accommodate "the ever-growing stream of visitors" and to "transform the monument into a hallowed shrine". As shown in the photograph, in place of the old sarcophagus, a large red granite cenotaph marking his gravesite is flanked by the presidential flag and the flags of states in which Lincoln's ancestors and Abraham Lincoln himself resided. Adjoining crypts hold the remains of Mary, Eddie, Willie and Tad Lincoln. After the major reconstruction, it was rededicated by President Herbert Hoover on 17 June 1931 and has remained unchanged ever since. The Lincoln Tomb was designated a National Historic Landmark on 19 December 1960 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places on 15 October 1966.

On this day, 15 April 2022, we commemorate the 157th anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States and mark 121 years since he was finally laid to rest in the Lincoln Tomb.

André M. Levesque

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