Abraham Lincoln: Conversations with the Dead

My first historical love back in the spotlight!

My love affair with history began with Abraham Lincoln. Now, you may have a mental picture in your mind of a little girl with long blonde curls sitting on the couch reading about ‘Honest Abe.’ Allow me to shatter that image.

I was never little. Well, at least not physically. I was always about half a foot taller than my schoolmates, and, thanks to my grandmother’s use of butter as a dietary staple, weighed just as much as an adult by the age of 10.

I preferred the company of books to the company of playmates; and whenever my family took me to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, I insisted on spending all my time on “Yesterday’s Main Street” – one of the few historical exhibits in the museum.

In other words: I was odd. But, then, so was Abraham Lincoln. The fact that he was tall also helped endear him to me.

There has been a lot of hype about America’s 16th president in the lead up to the release of Steven Speilberg’s movie, Lincoln. That got me thinking about ‘good old Abe’ and how I might make my first historical love a relevant subject for a website dedicated to death and dissection.

Of course, an easy way in would be to explore Lincoln’s assassination and subsequent embalming. But much has been said on this already and the last thing I want to do is waste your time (as if the longwinded intro to this entry wasn’t enough!)

William Wallace Lincoln

Instead, I’d like to talk briefly about Lincoln’s relationship with death; specifically, with his dead son, Willie.

On 20 February 1862, William Wallace Lincoln lay dying of typhoid fever in a guest bedroom of the White House. He had been wasting away for the past two weeks. Intelligent, personable, studious—Willie was said to most closely resemble his father, the president.

Unfortunately, typhoid fever was very common in Lincoln’s day—an estimated 65,000 soldiers died from it during the Civil War. Typically transmitted through food or water contaminated with Salmonella, the disease is characterised by a high fever and diarrhoea which leads to rapid dehydration and often death.

The Lincoln bed: where Willie died

At 5 pm that evening, 11-year-old Willie Lincoln took his last breath. Overcome with sorrow, the president cried: ‘My poor boy, he was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!’ Wanting to be alone in his grief, Lincoln locked himself in his office for the night.

As the president struggled with the shock of Willie’s death, preparations for the funeral commenced. Henry P. Cattell, who later would handle the president’s own body, was hired to embalm the little boy.

The Green Room, 19th century

Cattell’s firm—Brown & Alexander, Embalming Surgeons—had become very popular during the Civil War. A year earlier, it had run an advertisement offering ‘the practice of their art upon such of their fellow countrymen who may be so unfortunate as to fall by wounds or disease while struggling for freedom in the great civil war now raging.’ The ad went on to assert that, unlike other undertakers, Brown & Alexander did not use ‘arsenic or other poisonous chemicals.’ Instead, they used a ‘preparation which in a short time renders the body hard and marble-like in character.’ [1]

Cattell was a talented embalmer. A bouquet of mignonettes—chosen for their overwhelmingly sweet fragrance—was placed on the corpse’s chest to mask the smell of decay before the body was laid out in the Green Room of the White House [pictured above]. The poet, Nathaniel Parker Willis, later described the dead boy’s appearance at the funeral:

He lay with eyes closed—his brown hair parted as we had known it—pale in the slumber of death; but otherwise unchanged, for he was dressed as if for the evening, and held in one of his hands, crossed upon his breast, a bunch of exquisite flowers… [2]

According to those in attendance, the family intended ‘to send [Willie] home to the West’ so that he may ‘sleep under the sod of his own valley’ after the funeral. At the last minute, however, Lincoln decided that he couldn’t bear to be separated from his dear son’s body and thus had the boy’s remains interred in William Thomas Carroll’s family vault. [3]

William Thomas Carroll’s crypt where Willie Lincoln was kept until 1865

Both Lincoln and his wife considered it possible to communicate with the dead, so it is not surprising that the president would be hesitant to part with the boy’s earthly remains. Mary Todd reportedly told her half-sister, Emilie, that Willie ‘comes to me every night, and stands at the foot of my bed with the same sweet, adorable smile he has always had.’ [4] Lincoln himself once asked a Union soldier:  ‘Do you ever find yourself talking with the dead? Since Willie’s death, I catch myself every day involuntarily talking with him as if he were with me.’ [5]

The president purportedly visited the vault several times, and requested the coffin be reopened on at least two occasions. It is said the he could not stand to leave the boy alone in the dark, cold tomb. He would sit with Willie’s body for hours on end. While it is impossible to know what went on during Lincoln’s visits to the crypt, we can imagine that conversations arose. Conversations that Lincoln would have considered both natural and important in maintaining a spiritual connection with his departed son.

The question of Lincoln’s spiritualism is a complex one which scholars have debated for decades. It is not my intention to enter into this debate here but merely to point out one father’s continued relationship with his son after death. It is one of many reasons I continue to be fascinated with America’s 16th president.

Willie’s body finally arrived ‘home’ in 1865, when father and son made their last journey West to Springfield, Illinois.

Together.

One of few existing photos of Lincoln’s body embalmed by Cattell

1. Thomas J Craughwell, Stealing Lincoln’s Body (2007), pp. 7-8.
2. Qtd. in Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes (1868), p. 106-110. For more on the subject, see Mr. Lincoln’s White House
3. Ibid.
4. Qtd. in Katherine Helm, Mary, Wife of Lincoln (1928), p. 227
5. Qtd. in Margarita Spalding Gerry (ed.), Through Five Administrations: Reminiscences of Colonel William H. Crook (1910), pp. 69-70.

10 comments on “Abraham Lincoln: Conversations with the Dead

  1. Susan Buzin says:

    I found your post as I was looking up information on my uncle’s family. His name—Richard (Dick) Willis Bumstead. My Aunt Louise and Uncle Dick still have a picture of his relative, Nathaniel Parker Willis, in their home. I was aware of Willis’ connection to Edgar Allen Poe but had no idea he was in the company of President Abraham Lincoln during the sorrowful occasion of his beloved son Willie’s death.
    Thank you for the information. I will be sure to pass it along to my uncle. I am not sure if he is aware of Willis’ connection to Lincoln but I know he would be honored to know that his relative was in the presence of such a great man.

  2. You probably get really sick of me bringing up books all the time. But an excellent novel by Connie Willis, “Lincoln’s Dreams”, is brilliant just by itself, and also does great historical accuracy, while also being on the nature of death, bereavement and sorrow.

  3. Scott says:

    By far my favourite President. You’ve done a Magnificat job conveying history and emotion that could let one read effortlessly. Well done Doc!

  4. [...] Let’s kick this carnival off with a stimulating discussion on, of all things, the omnipresence and worth of (what we call today) pseudoscience. Rebekah Higgitt of The H Word addresses claims that pseudoscience is on the rise with a history lesson, and ThonyC of Renaissance Mathematicus goes one step further asserting that pseudoscience has sometimes been helpful to the development of science. Faye Flam of Lightning Rod writes on Michael Gordin’s recent research on pseudoscience.  Continuing with the supernatural, Lindsey Fitzharris of The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice discusses Abraham Lincoln’s conversations with the dead. [...]

  5. So beautiful. I’ve always loved Lincoln and I appreciate seeing the more human side. Thank you

  6. Fiz (Fizzie-Lou on Twitter) says:

    Early child death is. fortunately, rare today but I find accounts of it from the last century always unbearably poignant. Archbishop Tate and his wife lost their five little girls to scarlet fever in six weeks, and their only surviving son, born after their deaths, at 18 to the same cause.My great great grandmother lost four to diphtheria in a few short weeks in 1911, and my grandmother’s seven year old sister died in 1909 from bronchitis.We are so lucky but only today I heard on the BBC news that four babies have died this year from whooping cough because they had not been vaccinated against it :( When we do have such wonderful protection against disease, it is foolish not to use it. There is no proof that this vaccination causes brain damage and the doctor who propounded this view has been struck off in England.

  7. Michael Fitzharris says:

    Wow, one of my favorite posts of all time. Going to read again later.

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