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Lincoln’s funeral tokens: Mourning an American icon

April 17, 2015

Filed under Collections, Political History

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Many are familiar with the story of Abraham Lincoln and his April 14, 1865 assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. After the shooting on that (not so) Good Friday, Booth fled and Lincoln was taken across the street to the home of William Petersen where he would die of his wound early the next morning. Following Lincoln’s death, the nation went into a period of deep mourning.

The president’s body was embalmed and prepared for its journey to Springfield, Ill., Lincoln’s home town. The funeral train procession traveled a circuitous route of nearly 1700 miles, stopping in various cities along the way and arriving in Springfield on May 3rd. Only 11 of the cities in which the train stopped were permitted to host open-casket viewings of Lincoln. Among those 11 cities were Harrisburg and Philadelphia. Today marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s funeral train arriving in Harrisburg.

This week’s Pennsylvania Treasure, selected by CAP Curator Katelyn Adam, are a collection of ribbons, cockades, pins and cards in the State Museum of Pennsylvania’s Political History collection.  They are representative of the mourning items that were created to honor the fallen president. According to museum records, these artifacts were used when the Lincoln funeral train was in Harrisburg. They show the widespread grief felt not only in Pennsylvania, but the world over the death of a man who would become an American icon. The cloth is contained in an envelope that reads “Different kinds of cloth used in the drapery of the House of Representatives in honor of A. Lincoln April 20th, 1865”. Suffice it to say these fragments may have hung as part of a larger display when the Lincoln funeral train stopped in Harrisburg. The envelope also indicates that these swatches were in the possession of Conrad Thomas Humbers on December 20th, 1907, more than 40 years after Lincoln’s death. Though the origin of the other items are shrouded in mystery and it remains uncertain how they came to be part of the State Museum’s collection. However, they are nonetheless imperative in telling the story of how the nation, specifically Pennsylvania, mourned Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln’s funeral train stopped in Harrisburg on the evening of April 21. Military personnel displayed the remains in the state House of Representatives, which was decorated specially for the occasion, in time for the 9:30 p.m. public viewing. In spite of the rain that night, nearly 40,000 people from Harrisburg and neighboring cities queued to view the president. The doors were closed at midnight only to reopen again to a larger crowd at 7 a.m. the next morning. A few hours later, the train continued on to Philadelphia with former Secretary of War and Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron on board. It arrived in Philadelphia only to be greeted by a crowd of nearly 500,000 people in the late afternoon. The body would be put on display in Independence Hall until early April 24. The crowds were so massive that it took nearly three hours to move the train retinue from Independence Hall to the station where it would depart for New Jersey.

It was after the train passed through Pennsylvania that Lincoln’s body began to noticeably decompose. The entire journey would take about two weeks and embalmers were taken along to maintain the remains as much as possible. They used rouge and white chalk powders to retain color and surrounded it with potent, fragrant flowers when it was on view in order to reduce the smell. Though more than 1 million people would view Lincoln’s body by the time it reached Springfield, few knew that the train also carried the remains of his son Willie, who had died of typhoid fever, so that he could be buried next to his father.


About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.