For more than a decade after his death in 1885, Ulysses S. Grant’s body lay in a small brick tomb in Manhattan’s Riverside Park. When, in 1897, the general’s remains were moved to the big marble tomb they occupy today, the tomb was torn down, and one of the bricks went to an ex-slave named William R. Davis, who built for it the elaborate and engaging reliquary below.
We know next to nothing about Davis. “I tried to research him,” writes William F. Robinson of Guilford, Connecticut, who sent us these photographs, “but came up with a blank.” Davis was born in North Carolina and possibly served in the Union army—he is referred to as “Lieut. Davis” on the back of one of the pictures—and the ornate wooden shrine he built for the brick is something more than mere homage.
Davis planned to go on the lecture circuit, talking about Grant, and these cabinet photos were almost certainly meant to be sold as souvenirs. The back of one of them is densely printed with encomiums. The “mechanical ingenuity,” writes the reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “shown … in the arrangement of the ‘Brick’ from Grant’s Tomb, is really remarkable. The patience shown in the details of his work is wonderful.” Those details—cut from magazines—include, at the left, scenes of Grant in the Wilderness and, on the right, views of his two tombs.