Presidential Tombstone BluesPosted: August 11, 2011
I’ve been engrossed in this project for well over two months now. Which, by extension, means I’ve been
grudgingly excitedly telling others about this project for well over two months. The best reaction I’ve received came from an 83-year-old man last month, the father of my Cleveland host. “Tell him what you’re doing in Ohio!” Laura ordered. So I did. He stared at me over his coffee. Then he scowled.
I mumbled something vaguely coherent, presidential birthplaces interesting blah blah insight into presidents’ backgrounds blah roadtrip blah blah school history.
“You’re focusing on the footnotes.”
Still, there are some questions I can’t escape. If this blog had an FAQs page, it’d look something like this:
“Are you gonna go to Hawaii?” (No.) “So when are you going to Kenya?” (No.) Have you read Assassination Vacation? You should!” (No.) “But Lincoln was born in Illinois, right?” (No.) “Are you gonna visit presidential tombs next?” (Hrmmmph.)
I never planned on hitting up the presidential tombs. Who cares where the bones are rotting? Anyway, that project has been done before, way too many times, by men nerdier than myself. One gentleman, a “Melvin Whitlock”—self-proclaimed “lover of history, and examining the office of the President” (what?)—even created a Facebook group to that effect.
In the midwest, things changed.
* * * *
Ohio’s been called the “mother of all presidents.” More accurately, I think, it’s the tomb of all presidents. Of the eight presidents from Ohio (William Henry Harrison was born in Virginia but spent much of his life in the Buckeye State), a full four died in office, under shocking, violent, or otherwise mysterious circumstances. Add to that Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield and Zachary Taylor’s in Louisville—this is the region of the premature presidential death.
Most presidents are buried reasonably close to their birth site (you can find the exact figures yourself), and most of the ones who died in office have pretty goddamn elaborate tombs (all except JFK, really). I visited a heavy handful of presidential tombs during my midwest trip. Somewhere between the McKinley and Garfield birthplaces, my interest was piqued.
What I’ve learned, then, is simple: presidential grave sites have nothing to do with what the president accomplished or didn’t accomplish in office. They have everything to do with the time period and circumstance under which the president died—the more violent, the better. Plus, the late nineteenth century was the Age of the Rdiculously Elaborate Presidential Tomb—perfect for the midwestern presidents. (The Nixon and Reagan grave sites, which I saw last week in California, seem almost embarrassingly modest in comparison.)
Anyway. Here’s a loose guide to some of the presidential grave sites I saw in the midwest.
* * * *
* * * * *
The problem with visiting presidential graves is that I can’t help wondering, um, what’s inside. Like, what does Lincoln look like now?
In 1901, some lucky(?) Springfield residents found out.
A group of thieves had attempted in 1876 to steal Lincoln’s corpse and hold it for a ransom. In 1901, Robert Todd decided to move the coffin into a massive cage ten feet underground, encased in concrete. The coffin was chiseled open, Lincoln’s features identified to ensure it was the real thing. “A harsh, choking smell arose,” LIFE Magazine reported, and twenty-three onlookers peered down. It was him. The black whiskers and familiar wart on his cheek were enough proof. But the eyebrows were long gone.
More from LIFE:
One of the people who viewed the body was a man named J.C. Thompson. In 1928 Mr. Thompson said, “As I came up I saw that top-knot of Mr. Lincoln’s – his hair was course and thick, ‘like a horse’s,’ he used to say – and it stood up high in front. When I saw that, I knew that it was Mr. Lincoln. Anyone who had ever seen his pictures would have known it was him. His features had not decayed. He looked just like a statue of himself lying there.”
All 23 of the people who viewed the remains of Mr. Lincoln have long since passed away. The last one was Fleetwood Lindley who died on February 1, 1963. Three days before he died, Mr. Lindley was interviewed. He said, “Yes, his face was chalky white. His clothes were mildewed. And I was allowed to hold one of the leather straps as we lowered the casket for the concrete to be poured. I was not scared at the time but I slept with Lincoln for the next six months.”
Lindley, then, was likely the last living person to have seen Lincoln’s face. That, I’ll conclude, is a sight more humbling than any presidential tomb.