By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
His bloodstained clothes, stovepipe hats and goatskin boots have been saved. The bed and mattress on which he died have been kept, along with the things in his pockets the night he was slain, and the dime-size bullet that killed him.
After he expired, his body was transported across the country so people could see him one last time. Then, decades later, he was exhumed, and his coffin was cut open to make sure he was really there.
As Washington prepares to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth Thursday, Abraham Lincoln is venerated as a national saint -- part man, part myth.
The remaining bits of him, locks of hair and pieces of bone among them, are sacred. Things he said or wrote are cherished. But he's still a mystery. "He's approachable and unreachable at the same time," said historian Harold Holzer. Lincoln said he detested slavery but would maintain it to save the Union. He spoke often of religion yet never joined a church. At the peak of his prestige, he was silenced by assassination.
"He compels us to learn more, but there's always something we're not going to get," Holzer said.
It is all part of the country's unique obsession with the martyred president who is perceived, historians say, as the epitome of an American: Born of the wilderness, near Hodgenville, Ky., and self-schooled by candlelight. He grew to be the savior of the Union, the foe of slavery and then was sacrificed on Good Friday night of 1865.
On Thursday, ceremonies marking Lincoln's birthday will be held at his memorial on the Mall. Ford's Theatre, where he was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, will stage a gala public reopening after a multimillion-dollar renovation. And Congress will salute him in the Capitol Rotunda, where his body once lay in state on a pine board bier, which we have also saved for 144 years. Even now, almost two centuries after his birth, physical traces of him are everywhere.
The Chicago Museum of History maintains a Lincoln Relics Registry that includes a comb, bed and the two half-dollars said to have been placed over his eyes after he died.
Louise Taper, the renowned California Lincoln collector, recently sold part of her holdings for an estimated $20 million to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, in Springfield, Ill. "I still have tons more," she said. "There's something magic about him."
"I'm obsessed," she said, noting that she once owned one of his stovepipe hats and his bloodstained gloves from Ford's Theatre. "I have a Lincoln sculpture garden. I'm totally hooked."
Such is Lincoln's grip on the country that the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission estimates that 16,000 books have been written about him since 1865.
Even President Obama has been touched: He used the Lincoln Bible at his inauguration last month and had replicated part of Lincoln's pre-inaugural train journey to Washington.
"We identify with -- and grasp at -- the story of redemptive opportunity," Holzer said. "The crystallization of the American dream is what makes it so attractive."
There are, for sure, flaws in the saga, he said. Some critics have argued that the war, and all its expense and carnage, might have been avoided. Others criticize Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which declared only a portion of the country's slaves free, and there are those who say he went too far in suppressing dissent in the North.
But all the critiques, Holzer said, "have yielded to this essential story of possibility."
Frank J. Williams, the recently retired chief justice of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island who also has a vast collection of Lincolniana, said, "We want to think that he's a reflection of ourselves and the best that we can be."
Lincoln also embodies what Williams called the American "right to rise" -- the idea that "if you wanted to be someone, you could be," he said.
Two hundred years after his birth, almost a century and half after his death and 26 presidents since his assassination, none has been his equal.
He was "absolutely" the country's greatest president, Holzer said, "and that's validated in every poll of professional historians and ordinary Americans. He had the hardest job of all and did it triumphantly."
Yet he is a curious-looking hero. He stood 6-foot-3 inches tall (or 6-4, depending on whom you ask). He had a shock of thick, dark hair, a big nose, huge ears and a cheek blemish, and he grew a beard after a little girl wrote that it might make him look better.
"There was something very unusual about him, about his physiognomy, about his body constitution," said Marc S. Micozzi, former director of the National Museum of Health and Medicine in the District, which displays pieces of Lincoln's skull, his hair and the ball fired from Booth's single-shot derringer.
In the 1990s, scientists debated the possibility of extracting DNA from Lincoln's remains to see whether he had Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that could account for his lanky physical appearance. The project faced technical, political and ethical obstacles and was shelved.
But last year, a California cardiologist, John G. Sotos, published a lengthy book suggesting that Lincoln might have had a more serious genetic disorder, MEN 2B. It might have accounted for his looks and even been killing him.
Sotos said that although "interrogating" Lincoln's DNA still remains some distance off, the concept is potentially crucial.
"If a historian found a letter that Abraham Lincoln wrote which said, by some miracle, 'I have been diagnosed by the doctor today as having MEN 2B and . . . wish this fact never to be known' . . . the historian would absolutely publish it," Sotos said. "Does it matter if that letter is written in English or in nucleic acid?"
Such curiosity is not new.
On Sept. 26, 1901, a boy named Fleetwood Lindley was summoned from school by his father to see Lincoln. The president had, of course, been dead for three decades. But his coffin had been dug up and moved multiple times over the years, more times than any other president's, according to historian Thomas J. Craughwell.
In 1876, it had nearly been stolen by grave robbers who wanted to hold it for ransom. The crooks had sawed open the massive white marble sarcophagus and dragged the 500-pound cedar and lead coffin part way out before being foiled by authorities, Craughwell said. The coffin was moved among several different hiding places around the tomb over succeeding years, at one point under a pile of lumber. After a 14-month reconstruction of the tomb, it was moved one last time.
At the behest of Lincoln's son, Robert, the president was going to be placed in a massive underground vault lined with a steel cage and encased in concrete so he could never be disturbed again.
But before this happened, the officials hesitated. Robert was not present. Partly haunted by the attempted grave-robbing and partly wanting a farewell look, the locals decided to see whether Lincoln was really in the coffin, Craughwell said.
Joseph P. Lindley, one of the tomb's unofficial guardians, sent for his 13-year-old son, who hurried from school on his bicycle.
Shortly before noon, according to an old account, two plumbers cut an oblong opening in the coffin, and Fleetwood Lindley and 22 others gazed on Abraham Lincoln's face.
All said it was unmistakably him. The shock of hair, the blemish, the whiskers. He was real.
Three days before he died in 1963, Fleetwood Lindley, then 75, recalled the moment to a reporter from Life magazine.
"I was not scared at the time," he said. "But I slept with Lincoln for the next six months."