- Historic Sites
Had there been a Warren Commission exactly a century ago, when Abraham Lincoln was shot, its report might have read like the somber, moving, and impressively researched book from which the following narrative is taken
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
“Don’t cry so, Mama, or you will make me cry too,” said Tad. That was the only thing that stopped Mrs. Lincoln’s hysterics: she could not bear to see little Tad cry.
No one could be hardhearted enough not to feel sorry for Mary Lincoln now. Her desolation was complete because she did not have the character to meet her grief with any dignity and fortitude. She had hidden herself away to rail against her fate, while the country prepared to bury her husband. All during the war years it had been a kind of sport to make fun of the President’s wife from the West and let her read in print that she was a dumpy woman with no taste who wore overgorgeous, too-low-necked dresses, that she carried whole flower gardens on her head, that she didn’t know any better than to wear her rings over her gloves. Now that kind of criticism was silenced, but pity could not bring liking.
The news that President Lincoln was dead spread like a prairie fire across the nation. The people heard the news and were stunned, and each in his own heart suffered alone and in his own way. The mantle of grief was like a bond, so that all of a sudden friends felt a terrible closeness and strangers passing in the street knew what was in each other’s eyes and hearts and were brothers.
The business of saying good-by to the President was to take the city of Washington almost a full week. The plan was for Lincoln to be carried downstairs to the East Room in his huge coffin on Monday night; there, starting Tuesday morning, he would be on view to the public and there, on Wednesday, his official funeral would be held. Afterward his body was to be taken in procession from the White House to the Capitol, where he would lie in state in the Rotunda until Friday morning. Finally, a special train would take him slowly north, then west through a country of sorrow toward Springfield, on almost the same route he had taken east four years before.
George A. Harrington, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, was put in charge of the funeral preparations, and now he issued orders for the building of a catafalque in the East Room. Upstairs in her room Mrs. Lincoln was wracked day and night by the sound of nails being hammered as carpenters worked on the huge structure. She cowered and put her fingers to her ears, saying every blow sounded like a pistol shot. She sent a request to Secretary Harrington, begging him not to dismantle the catafalque until she had moved out of the White House, which meant it would stand there—the “Temple of Death” it came to be called—for five whole weeks, while souvenir-hunting citizens snipped away at it.
On Tuesday, Lincoln belonged to the people. Early that morning the line began forming outside the White House and was soon a mile long, six and seven abreast. Promptly at nine-thirty the west driveway gate was opened, and the crowds silently filed in through the heavily draped south portico. In the center of the East Room stood the catafalque. Since it reached up as high as eleven feet from the floor, the middle one of the three enormous, low-hanging crystal chandeliers had had to be removed and its gas pipe capped: the other two were completely shrouded in black bags, like giant bunches of grapes. The eight tall mirrors over the eight marble mantelpieces were swathed from top to bottom with black cloth over their frames and white cloth stretching the length of their glasses. From all the room’s cornices hung black streamers, but it had been impossible to cover the blood red and gold velvet wallpaper which Mrs. Lincoln had so extravagantly sent to France for—had actually dispatched a decorator on an ocean steamer to bring home.
The catafalque which bore Abraham Lincoln’s coffin had been built at top speed and with no regard for economy. It had been designed by Benjamin R. French, Commissioner of Public Buildings, who was in charge of everything in the funeral that had directly to do with Lincoln’s body. From the tops of four seven-foot-high posts rose an arched canopy to the height of eleven feet from the floor. Its upper side was made of black alpaca and the finest black velvet, which, in turn, was decorated with swooping festoons of black crape. The underside of the canopy was white fluted satin which caught and reflected a little of what light there was in the room down on the face below.
The $1,500 coffin had been ready since late Sunday afternoon, after marathon work by the undertaker for more than twenty-four hours. It was the last glorious word in funeral trappings. The wood was walnut, but not an inch of it showed, for it was entirely covered with the finest black broadcloth. It was six feet six inches long on the outside and must have been a tight fit on the inside for its six-foot, four-inch tenant, for the white satin lining was quilted and lavishly stuffed to make the resting place a soft one.
Inside the walnut case was an extra heavy lining of lead. On each side were four massive silver handles, and on the center of the lid there was a shield outlined in silver tacks in the center of which was a silver plate with the inscription