Presidential Tombstone Blues

I've seen a fairly ridiculous number of William Henry Harrison-related sites, considering he was only president for 31 days. Pictured here is his tomb in the tiny Ohio village of North Bend. Photo by Rachel Pincus.

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.

“Why?”

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.”

“Right.”

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.

* * * *

James A. Garfield was president just 200 days, during which time he accomplished literally nothing. So it makes sense that he gets one of the most magnificent presidential tombs in the country—a massive structure in Lake View Cemetery that more accurately resembles a medieval European church, complete with a Christ-like Garfield statue and an observation deck overlooking downtown Cleveland. (It's the least Garfield deserved, after dealing with clueless doctors poking infected fingers into his wound for two gruesome months.) The more humbling Garfield memorial, however, consists of an eerie "Memory Room" in his house in Mentor, where his wife Lucretia archived the president's lifetime of books and letters.

This isn't actually a presidential tomb. It's the National McKinley Birthplace Memorial, a few blocks down from the president's birthplace home in Niles, OH. Close enough. It's pretty excellent—as is the collection of busts belonging to members of the 25th president's cabinet (not pictured). Fellow Ohio native William Howard Taft's first act as president was to authorize congressional funding for this memorial. I didn't make it to McKinley's actual tomb in Canton. If you have, good for you.

Harding: yet another Ohio president who died in office under unpredictable (and unpredicted) circumstances. Doctors at the time called it a stroke, brought on by the stress and rigors of a nationwide speaking tour. Today, a heart attack seems the more likely culprit. Harding had reportedly requested a "simple burial under a clear sky." They gave him this—a massive white marble tomb structure in a memorial park a few miles from the president's modest home in Marion, OH. Harding's was the last of the elaborate presidential tombs. Go figure. Given the damage that Teapot Dome and other scandals brought to Harding's reputation, the tomb wasn't dedicated until 1931. Whoops.

Yet another shot of William Henry Harrison's resting place, in North Bend, OH, a village of 600 somewhere outside Cincinnati. About a mile from here lies the site of Benjamin Harrison's birthplace, which is also, incidentally, the site of William Henry Harrison's farm. (Nothing of that home is still standing.) This tomb is also the resting place of congressman John Scott Harrison, who holds the fascinating distinction of being the only person in U.S. history who was both a father and a son of a U.S. president.

The Rutherford B. Hayes grave lies on the grounds of Spiegel Grove, the president's estate in Fremont, OH. We stopped through on the drive back from Chicago to Cleveland. Hayes was originally buried at Oakwood Cemetery but reinterred here in 1915. Can you imagine moving a president's body? Hayes' horse Old Whitey, a war horse during the Civil War, is buried here as well. Can you imagine moving a president's horse's body?

Denise, a family friend's mother, hosted us for a night in Louisville, KY, and took us to Zachary Taylor's tomb. In return, we helped her clean the shattered glass remains of a bowl from her kitchen floor. Thanks, Denise!

Herbert Hoover is buried next to his wife, Lou, on a gorgeous hilltop site just past his birthplace in West Branch, IA. (In fact, a site line connects the two sites; the birthplace cottage is fully visible from the burial site, and vice versa, as Hoover had requested.) The modest grave site is a jarring change from the elaborate tombs I saw on this trip. Such was the norm by the time Hoover died in 1964. (Hoover, by the way, currently holds the record for the longest post-presidency: he lived a startling 31 years after leaving office, though Jimmy Carter may well beat that record if he lives past September 7, 2012. Go, Jimmy, Go.)

Here's a group of smiley tourists posing with a Civil War reenactor in front of the Lincoln tomb, in Springfield, IL. (We attended a flag-lowering ceremony by the 114th Infantry Regiment Illinois Volunteers Reactivated. You can read about that experience here.) Lincoln and most of his children rest in a crypt within the massive monument, though there have been complications. Scroll below...

* * * * *

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.

(Read more about the Continuing Saga of the Lincoln Coffin here and here.)

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