Abraham Lincoln was a president of many firsts. He was the first president to deal with a national war. He was the only president to emancipate the slaves. Lincoln also was the first assassinated president. The firsts got even stranger in the president’s death. Lincoln was the only president whose body grave robbers attempted to steal and use as ransom. He was the first embalmed president and he had the longest funeral procession ever in the history of the United States. With all that said, what could you add to that to make things any more complicated? I know… a photo scandal.
With extensive travel back to Springfield and having eleven open casket funerals, the elements were going to affect Lincoln’s body despite the embalming. They had embalmers that traveled on the train making sure the president looked his best, but that still did not change the fact Lincoln’s body would decay. By the time Abe made it to New York, the elements started to take a toll on his body; his lips were thinning and the trauma to his head started to have some effects as well.
Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton declared it “illegal” to take a photo of the president because of how his body was starting to look. He made that fact very clear, but you know that someone would try and smuggle their equipment in. They did just that in New York City. A man smuggled his equipment in, got to the top of the rotunda, where he snapped a bunch of photos of the president in his coffin. He was the only man that managed to get these photos over the eleven funeral stops.
When Stanton heard about this, he went to the residence of the photographer and ordered the plates and all copies destroyed. From that day on, all photo records of the journey were lost, despite the importance they played to the American people.
In 1952, a young teen by the name of Dr. Ronald Rietveld was searching through old documents in the town’s library records. To his surprise, he found a letter from Stanton and unfolded another piece of paper that was with it. A small photograph fell out, which actually was a saved print of Lincoln lying in state at the New York City funeral stop.
In the photo you can clearly see the deceased president’s face, and two guards standing watch over the corpse. It was actually a beautiful photo that went years without anyone ever knowing it existed. This photo was destroyed by Stanton and his men. However, Stanton didn’t have the heart to destroy all the photos, as he kept one. This one landed in the hands of the teenage Rietveld. He said it served the American people with history, but should not be displayed in public.
That has since been forgotten and now the photo appears on web sites, including this one and all over the world. It’s an amazing treasure of America’s past during one of its most horrific times.
Morbid in a way, but in another, it is therapeutic. It gives the younger generation a physical document that allows them to see and feel the reality of a tragic event, and brings it to life better than any document could ever accomplish. That’s the importance of photography.