The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The weird history of Abraham Lincoln’s casket photos takes another twist

On Dec. 27, workers recovered a box believed to be the 1887 time capsule that was put under Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's statue pedestal in Richmond. Crews wrapping up the removal of the giant pedestal that once held a statue of Lee found what appeared to be a second and long-sought-after time capsule, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said. (Eva Russo/AP)
4 min

A second time capsule found underneath the now-dismantled Richmond statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was opened by Virginia state officials Tuesday. The 36-pound copper box included Minie balls (Civil War bullets), buttons, letters and books.

The time capsule was also rumored to include a rare photo of a deceased President Abraham Lincoln in his casket, based on newspaper accounts at the time of the capsule’s 1887 dedication.

But when officials opened the capsule, they instead found what appears to be a Harper’s Weekly image of a figure grieving over Lincoln’s grave, according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources staff who opened the box on a YouTube live stream.

It will take time for experts to analyze all of the contents of the box, but it appears likely that the only known image of Lincoln after his death, rediscovered in 1952, will remain so.

After Lincoln died, his body was embalmed and sent on a 400-stop train tour before its interment in Springfield, Ill. Tour stops included Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and Indiana. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton overrode the widowed first lady, Mary Lincoln, who wanted her husband’s remains sent directly to Illinois, but he complied with one of her wishes: Photography was strictly forbidden.

Second time capsule found under Lee monument in Richmond

But in New York, where 120,000 people walked by his open casket laid out in the rotunda of City Hall, an exception was made. Shortly before the casket was opened to the public, Union Gen. Edward E. Townsend allowed a photographer, Jeremiah Gurney Jr., to set up and make two identical images of a wide shot showing the entire scene where he lay in state, guarded by Townsend and Rear Adm. Charles H. Davis. Lincoln’s face in the resulting photos is blurry.

When Stanton found out about the photo, he was outraged, historian Stefan Lorant recounted in Life magazine in 1952. He ordered the plates and all known copies of the image seized and destroyed. But one was spared and sent to Stanton. Townsend and Gurney urged Stanton to preserve it for history’s sake. Stanton presented the image to Lincoln’s son Robert, who was not interested in its preservation.

He was close by for three presidential assassinations. Including his dad’s.

But the secretary of war apparently had a change of heart, for he secretly kept that single copy in his own papers for the rest of his life. His son passed it on to Lincoln’s secretary in 1887 — the same year the time capsule was installed — who also kept it a secret, according to Lorant. It was accidentally rediscovered in 1952 by a teenage boy rummaging through the secretary’s papers.

Then there’s a photo that surfaced in 2020 that the Discovery Channel has claimed shows Lincoln shortly after he died, while his body still lay in a bed across the street from Ford’s Theatre, where he was shot. In a documentary, Whitny Braun, a professor at Loma Linda University and self-proclaimed “professional authenticator,” investigated the image and concluded she was “99 percent” certain it was authentic. Others who accept the photo’s authenticity point to a scar near the man’s lip that matches one Lincoln had and theorize that a professional photographer who lived in the boardinghouse where Lincoln died may have taken it in secret.

The war secretary who barricaded himself in his office during an impeachment trial

The Illinois dentist who has the photo told Braun it was passed down by relatives of Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks, until it was sold to a Civil War buff in 1986. That man claimed his ex-wife stole it and sold it to the dentist.

Historian Harold Holzer, who has published more than three dozen books about Lincoln, including “The Lincoln Image: Abraham Lincoln and the Popular Print,” which examines all 130 known images of the Great Emancipator, doesn’t buy it, telling the Associated Press that the man in the picture has longer facial hair than Lincoln was known to have at his time of death. He also questions the studio-quality lighting in the image and the fact that the man in the picture is wearing a shirt; accounts of Lincoln’s final hours say his shirt was removed to look for wounds.

“Not every man with a beard photographed after 1861 was Abraham Lincoln. It’s going to take a lot more for me to take this seriously. It doesn’t scan,” he said after the documentary was released.

The night Lincoln was assassinated, his new bodyguard went missing

The image is tied up in legal disputes and cannot be published by The Washington Post, but there are screenshots of it on Reddit.

Other alleged posthumous shots of Lincoln have likewise not been authenticated, according to Holzer, including a close-up popular on the Internet that’s heavy on sepia tone and depth of field, and other images of supposedly deceased men who are clearly not the 16th president.

This article has been updated.