WhoŐs Buried in LincolnŐs Tomb?


by Terry Hogan


Sounds like a trick question doesnŐt it?  Well, it is.  The answer is, ŇIt depends.Ó The correct answer today is Abraham Lincoln. However, that wasnŐt always true.  Abraham Lincoln had problems finding peace even after death.


Almost immediately after the death of Lincoln, on April 15, 1865, the debate began about where Lincoln should be buried.  Washington D.C advocates wanted Lincoln to be buried in Washington, perhaps under the dome in the Capital where a burial site had been made for Washington, but never occupied.  But Mary Todd Lincoln had the deciding word, and she chose Oak Ridge Cemetery outside of Springfield, Illinois.  Oak Ridge was a new cemetery that followed a recent trend to put cemeteries in rural, natural areas, away from the urban, neglected, crowded cemeteries of years past.  It was reported that Abe Lincoln had expressed his preference to Mary for a rural quiet setting for his burial site.


So SpringfieldŐs Oak Ridge Cemetery was selected by Mary, over the objections and encouragements of those who wanted Lincoln to stay in Washington.   However, the Ňmovers and shakersÓ of little Springfield had a better idea.  They did not want Lincoln buried in a rural cemetery.  Rather they wanted Lincoln to be buried in the center of Springfield on a hill where the Illinois State Capitol building now sits.  Governor Oglesby led the controversy as early as April 24, 1865 while the Lincoln burial train took its long, round about route from Washington, D.C. to Springfield.  The newly formed National Lincoln Monument Association decided that Oak Ridge wasnŐt the best place to bury Lincoln.  It was too far from the center of the city.  Instead, the Association decided that Lincoln should be buried on the so-called ŇMather BlockÓ.  The Mather Block was close to the Chicago and Alton Railroad and would draw visitors into downtown Springfield.  They immediately implemented their plans, preparing a tomb on the site to receive LincolnŐs body when it arrived at Springfield.


When Mary Lincoln heard, indirectly, of the AssociationŐs disregard for her wishes, she had Secretary of War Edwin Stanton send a letter to the Association making it clear that their action was not acceptable. Abe LincolnŐs son, Robert Lincoln, also sent a letter to Governor Oglesby demanding that his father be buried at the Oak Ridge Cemetery.   


The Association surrendered and quickly began preparing a site at Oak Ridge Cemetery.  On May 4, Lincoln was laid next to his son, Willie.  But the debate was not over.  The Association began again to stoke the fires of creating a more appropriate resting place for Lincoln at the Mather Block.  The Illinois Daily Journal endorsed the effort to move father and son into the heart of Springfield.  Mary Lincoln, the grieving widow, apparently was not contacted about the change in heart.  She found out via the newspapers as she was in Chicago at the time.


Enough was enough for the grieving widow.  She again wrote the Governor of Illinois – ŇI feel that it is due to candor and fairness that I should notify your Monument Association, that unless I receive within this next ten days an official assurance that the Monument will be erected over the Tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery, in accordance with my oft expressed wishes, I shall yield my consent, to the request of the National Monument Association in Washington & that of numerous friends in the Eastern States & have the sacred remains deposited in the vault, prepared for Washington, under the Dome of the National Capitol, at as early a period as practicable.Ó  (Quoted in Craughwell, T. 2007)


Apparently Governor Oglesby was not one to take a hint.  He decided to travel to Chicago to meet with Mary Todd Lincoln in an effort to convince her that Springfield knew best.  The governor even brought one of Abe LincolnŐs old friends along to strengthen his case.  However, word of the planned trip got to Mary before the Governor did.  Oglesby was denied entry and Robert Lincoln handed him a letter that, in part said ŇMy determination is unalterable  (Quoted in Craughwell, T. 2007)


The Monument Association gave up on its plan to relocate Lincoln and the monument was constructed at Oak Ridge Cemetery.


But all was not at peace.  On November 7, 1876, a motley group of would-be grave robbers tried to steal LincolnŐs remains.  Despite the groupŐs plans being known prior to the attempt, the authorities failed to capture the criminals in the act.  The grave robbers did break into the Memorial and open the end of the marble sarcophagus but were scared off before they could open LincolnŐs coffin. They were later captured.


The near-success of the grave robbers gave a reason for concern about the degree of security offered by the Monument.  As a result, John Carroll Powell and  John Todd Stuart decided that the only way to protect LincolnŐs remains were to secretly move them from the MonumentŐs tomb and bury Lincoln in an unmarked grave in the basement of the monument on or about November 15, 1876.  In all, five men carried the double coffin that weighed an estimated four to five hundred pounds into the basement.  Besides Powell and Stuart were Adam Johnston, Col. John Williams, and Jacob Bunn.  Bunn was Mary LincolnŐs banker. The first proposed burial site did not work out as ground water was reached and it was concluded to be unsuitable to float Lincoln in water. So for about a year, LincolnŐs resting place was in the dark basement, hidden under a pile of wood.


It was not until November 18, 1878 that LincolnŐs remains were removed from under the pile of wood and buried in a shallow grave in another area of the basement where ground water was not reached. But there were only a few inches of soil over the top of the crate that held LincolnŐs coffin.  To protect the remains and also to ensure an Ňinstitutional memoryÓ of where the remains were secretly relocated, the ŇLincoln Guard of HonorÓ was formed.  For years, the sarcophagus was on display in the Lincoln Memorial, empty of contents.


Even on the death of Mary Todd Lincoln, on July 15, 1882, her remains were secretly relocated to the basement of the Memorial and buried in a shallow grave next to Lincoln.  This act was performed by the Lincoln Guard of Honor. 


But as nearly all secrets go, it did not remain a secret.  On April 14, 1887, the remains of the ever-mobile Abe Lincoln were moved once again from the basement of the Memorial to an in-ground vault. This was the 22nd Anniversary of Lincoln being shot at FordŐs Theatre in Washington, D.C.  The vault was reported to be 5 feet wide and 7 ½ feet long and 6 feet deep. The vault actually contained both Abe and his wife, Mary.  To deter would-be grave robbers, the vault containing the two coffins was covered with concrete on the sides and the top.


However, this is still not the end of the late PresidentŐs un-restful end. The groundwater that caused problems with the first attempt to bury Lincoln in the MemorialŐs basement caused, or contributed to the cause of the deterioration of the foundation of the Lincoln Memorial. By 1900, the Memorial needed to be rebuilt on a new foundation set firmly on bedrock. To do this, Abe and Mary Lincoln had to be disturbed yet again.  As the Lincolns were like ants in amber, it took about a week to break through the cement that surrounded the burial vault.


Once extracted, Abe and Mary Lincoln and three sons and a grandson were relocated in a temporary tomb that was covered with massive slabs of stone and dirt and guarded. This was accomplished on March 10, 1900.  This remained their Ňresting placeÓ for about a year and a half while the Memorial repairs were completed.


The plan was for Abe Lincoln to be put back on display, above ground in the Marble sarcophagus that contained his remains during the nearly successful theft so many years ago.  LincolnŐs son, Robert opposed the risky proposition and insisted that his father be buried in such a manner that grave-robbing was not an option. 


Robert Lincoln won.  Abe Lincoln was deposited in a vault 10 feet deep, under the chamber at the north end of the monument.  The vault was surrounded by steel bars and was filled with Portland cement. On September 26, 1901 Abe Lincoln was buried yet again in a private burial.  A small formally-invited group of dignitaries were selected to view the burial.  Despite Robert LincolnŐs request, the Lincoln casket was cut open to show Abe LincolnŐs face to the witnesses.  This was to document that Lincoln was still around and that the coffin was not empty. After this process was completed, the coffin was repaired, lowered into the vault, and concreted was poured over it.  One of these witnesses was Moses Ocean (ŇMOÓ) Williamson. MO was the Treasurer of the State of Illinois.  He was from Galesburg and was the president of Peoples Bank and Trust Company.


For the last century, Abe LincolnŐs remains have been allowed to finally rest in peace, finding what had eluded him during his term as President. 




Craughwell, T. 2007.  Stealing LincolnŐs Body. Belknap Press.