By: Andrea M. Patawaran-Hickman and Rachael Wintering
Historically, post-mortem photography began as a tradition that would elicit positive feelings for families and overall good attitudes toward the subject. Often post-mortem photographs were staged after the death of a human as a remembrance of life and as a way to capture the living spirit of the deceased. As unusual as it may seem to us today, post-mortem photography used to have strong sentimental value to living relatives. For some people, the deceased photograph of the individual may have been the only photograph ever taken. The photograph may have been one of the few tangible objects in which the family members could memorialize the life of the deceased. Sometimes families would request to photograph the dead as living. Children may have been staged with their favorite toys or with other living relatives.
In some cases, the tradition became a way to capitalize and introduce new scientific advancements. For example, Livingston Undertakers advertised the new technologies of life preservation, the embalming process, as evidence that post-mortem photography could be completed years after death as in the popular advertisement of John O’Connor (right). As photography becomes more accessible to the people and as technologies advance, the tradition dissolves and the general perception of post-mortem photographs changes into a less favorable light (see also Safety in Numbers: Dietmar Otte’s Motorcycle Helmet Impact Diagram).
Photography as an invention that changed the way the world perceives. In Photography and Literature, Francois Brunet states: “In the first decades of its existence, photography was dubbed ‘sun painting’, a phrase often intended to be derisive, and one which epitomized the seemingly inescapable confrontation of photography’s mechanical character to the painter’s artistic freedom” (7). In the early years of photography, portraits became a phenomenon. Individuals did not have to pay a lot to have a portrait taken; they could pay the growing industry of photographers to develop a daguerreotype quickly and at a moderate cost. In 1840, “Edgar Allan Poe exclaimed that the daguerreotype ‘must undoubtedly be regarded as the most important, and perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of modern science'”(Brunet 67). The invention of photography opened its doors to every social hierarchy. Individuals did not have to be upper class to have a photograph made. Daguerreotypes could be purchased by any class because of the supply and demand of photographers.
The positive feelings elicited by post-mortem photographs and the tradition diminish by the time of President Lincoln’s death. The general increase in photographic accessibility and his presidential status meant that there were numerous photographs taken of the president while living. In fact, most Americans today have a particular image of the president stored into their memory. He is the president who wore black top hats and a beard. He is known from childhood as “Honest Abe.” Most Americans today would not recognize him without these specific character attributes (see photograph on right).
Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809 in Hardin County, Kentucky to an undistinguished family. Later in his life his family moved to New Salem, Illinois. He married Mary Todd on November 4, 1842. The couple had four sons: Robert Todd (1843-1926), Edward Baker (1846-50), William Wallace (1850-62), and Thomas “Tad” (1853-71). Lincoln began his presidency in 1860 and is “perhaps the nation’s quintessential self-made man” (Winkle 1). Lincoln’s ability to portray upward mobility is one of his most recognized and celebrated victories as Winkle notes it is “his remarkable struggle to overcome humble beginnings and achieve the pinnacle of success remains one of the most cherished themes within the Lincoln legend and, indeed, within all of American history” (1). As the nation neared the third year of the bloody Civil War, President Lincoln issued the historic Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, declaring slaves free within the confederacy (Freidel & Sidey 1). Lincoln was reelected in 1864, during the civil war.
There is not popular interest in Mary Lincoln’s intellectual ability because she wrote no books and no state documents are attributed to her. Her name will go down in history as that of a wife. “There would be no popular interest in her as a wife except that she was the wife of Abraham Lincoln, the most studied and the most frequently portrayed man—in American public affairs at least” (Evans 287). She was talked about among society till her death for the peculiarities of her behavior that resulted from emotions rather than her thinking, “her conduct was determined by an insanity of her emotions, rather than her mind” (Evans 287).
Emotionalism is a major part of the study of Mary Lincoln. Mary Lincoln has been blamed be jealous of attention that other women received from Abraham after he was elected. A few illustrations were given by General Badeau, one of which was partially confirmed by other witnesses to the occurrence.
General Badeau writes of a fit of violent temper in which Mrs. Lincoln indulged on March 26, 1865, when she was visiting the army at the front with the President. This outbreak he ascribed to her jealousy over her husband’s attentions to a Mrs. Griffin. She stopped the vehicle in which she and Mrs. Grant were riding, and tried to get out…‘She was absolutely jealous of poor ugly Abraham Lincoln,’ wrote General Badeau (Evans 297).
General Badeau continues to recall numerous other outbreaks. Her personality became destructive after she and Abraham moved to Washington.
Mary Lincoln’s years in the White House mingled Misery with Triumph. “While the Civil War dragged on, Southerners scorned her as a traitor to her birth, and citizens loyal to the Union Suspected her of treason. When she entertained, critics accused her of unpatriotic extravagance” (Black 1). Lincoln’s assassination shattered Mary Lincoln; she had lost her husband and three of her four sons. East Room funerals became a part of the Lincoln presidency. Three were held in the East Room during the war. The first, in 1861, memorialized a friend of the family, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, who was assassinated in Alexandria, V.A. The second, a year later, in 1862, was “particularly heart-breaking service” in honor of the president’s 11 year-old son, Willie. By the third and final funeral, Mary Lincoln refrained from attendance, too upset to attend the funeral or any other tribute to her husband (abrahamlincolnonline.org 1). Although a sketch printed in Harper’s Weekly on May 6,1865 erroneously depicts her beside the coffin in the East Room (1). She died in 1882 as a misunderstood figure at the same home in Springfield, IL where she married Abraham Lincoln, 40 years before.
On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC by John Wilkes Booth. Many speculations and controversies over Abraham Lincoln’s death are continuing to be made today. In memorial of Abraham Lincoln’s death, a funeral train traveled through 180 towns and cities, of which only 11 were allowed to host open-casket viewings. These cities were: Baltimore, MD; Harrisburg, PA; Philadelphia, PA; New York, NY; Albany, NY; Buffalo, NY; Cleveland, OH; Indianapolis, IN; Chicago, IL; and Springfield, IL. The memorial train was a 1,654 mile, 13 day trek from Washington, DC to Springfield, Illinois. Over one million people were present during the stops of the train.
Unseen pictures of the president are a constant run of the mill on web forums. Many people make claims that they have found a post-mortem photograph of the President Lincoln; however, upon further examination; they are revealed as fake or just another picture of a man with similar facial attributes. While Lincoln’s body was being prepared for public viewing in the rotunda of New York’s City Hall on Monday, April 24, 1865 several still photographs were taken by daguerreotypist Jeremiah Gurney. The photograph, below, is the only authentic photograph of the deceased president and is considered to be “The ‘Lost’ Lincoln Photograph.”
Jeremiah Gurney, daguerreotypist like many other individuals made a profession of photography after its creation in the 1830s. “Photography wasn’t invented in the usual sense of the word. No technical break through, patent, or person can be singled out as the invention or inventor of photography. The process of photography becoming photography was more an emergence, a layering of cultural happenstance, commercial pressure, political power, and individual curiosity” (Wilder 7). After owning a succession of galleries in Brooklyn, Gurney settled into a gallery in Manhattan, where he remained for more than a dozen years. Gurney’s Daguerreian Gallery was a celebrated success, featuring “reception saloons,” or galleries, with portraits of “Distinguished Persons of the Age” that had been photographed at the studio. To stay a successful professional photographer, Gurney had to keep up with the new developments in photography. In 1851, he exhibited at the international exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London. Around 1853, Gurney began using paper developing processes over tin and glass (Getty Museum 1).
Gurney and Sons studio was “granted exclusive rights” to photograph the cataflague in New York City Hall by local military officials (Lincolniana 252). The staging for the photograph started as the “embalmer opened the casket and put everything in order” which was followed by Charles E. Strong of New York, escorted by General Ambrose E. Burnside who arranged flowers on the coffin “in the form of a shield” and Master George W. I. Wellington Bishop, a N.Y. cadet, who continued by placing immortelles in the initials of “A.L.” (252). The entire process, staging and the photograph, consumed “more than a half hour while 20,000 people waited outside” to enter into City Hall (253). Surprised and irate by the photographs appearance in the N.Y. papers, Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton demands the return of all of the plates in a telegraph exchange to Edward D. Townsend, the Assistant Adjutant General, who was in charge of the funeral train:
I see by the New York papers this evening that a photograph of the corpse…was allowed to be taken yesterday in New York. I cannot sufficiently express my surprise and disapproval of such an act while the body was in your charge. You will report what officers of the funeral escort were or ought to have been on duty at the time this was done, and immediately relieve them…. You will also direct the provost-marshall to go to the photographer, seize and destroy the plates and any pictures or engravings that may have been made, and consider yourself responsible if the offense is repeated (Kunhardt 374).
General Dix, Commander of the Department of East argues on behalf of Mr. Gurney exclaiming “Mr. Gurney is very desirous that the plate should be preserved, and thinks Mr. Lincoln’s family, when they see the proof, will be willing to have it returned to him” (Lincolniana 256). The photograph that remains today is the only photographed evidence of the event. It is accurate beyond measure as referenced earlier, Poe notes the daguerreotype was ‘infinitely more accurate in its representation than any painting by human hands’ (Brunet 67). Edward D. Townsend explains:
no one else was in view. The effect of the picture would be general taking in the whole scene, but not giving the features of the corpse (Kunhardt 374).
From the telegraphic exchange between the two officials, modern viewers can assume that one the problems with the photograph is the viewer’s ability to identify with the “whole scene.” The features of the corpse were not the intention of the photograph, but rather the photograph was taken to document the first national mourning of a fallen leader. Townsend felt “the picture would be gratifying, a grand view of what thousands saw and thousands could not see” (Lincolniana 225). Yet, Stanton was furious because “in Washington, photographers had been excluded at the request of Mrs. Lincoln” (255). Stanton adds: “I am apprehensive that her feelings and the feelings of the her family will be greatly wounded” (255).
Gurney and Sons appeal Stanton’s decision to destroy the plates and prints to Charles A Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, but ultimately, the Lincoln family decides against it. The original glass plates were destroyed under the orders of Robert Lincoln and unassumingly Mary Lincoln on May 1, 1865 (256). Ironically, this is the same date that William Waud, an English free lance artists, one of two members,who accompanied reporters in the press section of the presidential funeral train published a sketch of the same reference in Harper’s Weekly.
Creator: William Waud Date: May 1, 1865 Medium: 1 drawing on pink-tan paper: pencil, Chinese, and black ink wash; 25.5 x 34.5 cm
Reproduction Number: LC-USzC4-8107 (color film copy transparency) Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540
The Gurney photograph had the potential to dominate the narrative of Lincoln’s presidency to the public. If released, it could have been the primary recorder of an American tragedy. Certainly, the photograph is not intended to over shine the legacy of one of America’s greatest presidents, but if it had been published across the nation, it could have had the power to do so. Wilder notes: “Photographic archives have been conceived not only to tell concrete narratives like histories of art or political regimes or geographical areas, but sometimes to explain such intangibles as the science of civilization and the function of memory” (81). Simply stated the post-mortem photograph is not the image of Abraham Lincoln that the American government or the immediate family of the president wanted the public to store into memory. The sketches would have been the only visual to recreate the scene in the mind of the public. The sketches published by Waud convey a message that the photographs could not do without aid. The sketches portray Lincoln’s death as that of “republican martyr.” The plates and proofs accurately recorded the tragic events that the public witnessed in the mourning of then 9 day old dead president. Whereas, the sketches allowed the artist to amplify or underscore details that may or may have not be present during the event. In the Waud sketch, the public viewers are depicted as interested, concerned, grieving spectators who gathered to honor the life of the president whereas the Gurney photograph starkly contrast the overall image with military guards. The presence of the military official sets a more realistic tone of paranoia and fear that would have surrounded the assassination of the president. As an artist, Waud crafts his sketches with care for the audience in a way that the camera cannot do.
Abraham Lincoln’s death was the first time the country had experienced such a tragedy as a whole society (US Embassy 1). Technological advancements in the train and the telegraph made his death available to the masses. The president was the first to lie in state in rotunda of the U.S. capitol and the first public figure to show the effects of embalming on the human body (US Embassy 1). The national ceremonial funeral would have consisted of all 5 branches of the armed forces. The pallbearers would have held a member of each branch, the 21 gun salute is not adopted until 1895, but a military chaplain would have been available for the immediate family, and the flag should have been carefully draped over the casket with the blue field placed at the head of the casket and over the left shoulder (U.S. Embassy 1). The American flag, the national icon, is not draped over Lincoln’s coffin as it is traditionally done in public ceremony. Therefore, it can be easily assumed by today’s standards that the photograph feels unAmerican. The traditions of the Lincoln funeral seem much more European. The heavy drapes used to hide the grandeur of the white house and state capitol buildings, widespread mourning cloths, and the rich embellishment of the catafalque overshadow Lincoln. Unfortunately, all that is American, is typically cropped out of Gurney’s photograph to zoom in on the resting figure.
The most interesting aspect of Gurney’s photograph is the secrecy and banishment from the public. In an intimate family setting, the photograph may been something that could have had private value if the death of the president had been expected, but in the case of national tragedy, the circumstances and paranoia could not had lead to feelings of euphoria or even appreciation. Stanton kept the single proof hidden in his papers for fear of rebuke by Mary Lincoln. In 1887, Stanton’s son Lewis, discovered it and sent it to John Nicolay believing that he, and John Hay, Lincoln’s former secretaries, would use it in their 10-volume life of Lincoln. They did not. It remained out of the public eye until July 20, 1952 when a fourteen-year old boy named Ronald Rietveld, found it amongst Nicolay papers at the Illinois State Historical Library. Today, the 11 cm x 9.5 cm photograph is still kept out of the public eye at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.
Lincoln’s legacy continues as other presidential leaders return to his words when they face adversity and uncertainty. Wartime, embattled, and unpopular leaders view Lincoln as their patron saint. The life of an extraordinary man is paradoxically a simple one that depicts a truly American story of success and personal growth. Lincoln’s influence on American culture is as timeless as the generations who continue to study for themselves how one man’s story became a celebration for all of the ages and a nation. The “Lost Lincoln photograph” reminds students that sometimes it is favorable to place imagination over the real. In death, in retrospect, we paint the images of the man we want to keep as permanent records in our minds. Lastly, we prefer to store into our memories all that was decent, noble, and whole to uplift and honor a life that was unexpectedly taken too soon.
The 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination will take place in 2015. There are numerous organizations such as the 2015 Lincoln Funeral Coalition and the 2015 Lincoln Funeral train that will commemorate the historic anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination and funeral with an historic recreation of his final trip from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, IL. The 2015 Lincoln Funeral Train will follow the same dates from start to finish, starting in Washington, D.C. on April 21, 2015 and ending in Springfield, IL on May 2, 2015. The goal of these organizations is to educate and promote an accurate and dignified reenactment of the historical anniversary.
Black, Allida. “Mary Todd Lincoln.” The White House. The White House, 2009. Web. 08 Mar. 2014. <http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/first-ladies/marylincoln>.
Brunet, Francois. Photography and Literature. London: Reaktion, 2009. Print.
Evans, W A. Mrs. Abraham Lincoln: A Study of Her Personality and Her Influence on Lincoln. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010. Internet resource.
Freidel, Frank, and Hugh Sidey. “Abraham Lincoln.” The White House. White House Historical Association, 2006. Web. 08 Mar. 2014. <http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/abrahamlincoln>.
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Lincolniana. “Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society” (1908-1984). Vol. 45, No.3. Autumn, 1952. pp 252-256.
Waud, William. Lincoln’s Coffin in the City Hall, Chicago. Engraving. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington D.C.
Wilder, Kelley. Photography and Science. London: Reaktion, 2009. Print.
Winkle, Kenneth J. “Abraham Lincoln: Self-Made Man.” 21.2 (2000): 1-22. Web. 10 Mar. 2014. <quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0021.203/–abraham-lincoln-self-made- man?rgn=main;view=fulltext>.