Mickle Street Review Header


Lincoln’s Body
by Shirley Samuels


This essay is deceptively titled “Lincoln’s Body” since I will read through the skin of his body (as though it were the flayed transparency of well-scraped parchment) the bodies of his contemporaries: those who viewed his body and those through whom his body may be viewed.  Developing a relationship among somewhat disparate texts, I will consider the historical treatments of Lincoln’s embalming and funeral train, the memorial poetry of Walt Whitman, the remembrances of Elizabeth Keckley, and the outlandish poetry of Adah Menken.  Some of the most important motifs in this progression include the fantasies aroused by photography, the attention to appropriate clothing, and lessons in mourning.  In bringing together these fantasies and lessons, I am drawn to the relation exposed by members of the press.  They reported the grim fascination spectators expressed with the rotting surface of the dead president’s skin and paid prurient attention to Mary Todd Lincoln’s attempt to sell her clothing three years later.  My lurid suggestion that Lincoln’s body might be skinned through my approach is of course intended to be metaphorical, based on such concepts as the idea that photography skins the surface of the visible world, a concept gleaned from a famous contemporary essay by Oliver Wendell Holmes:


“Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us. Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins and leave the carcasses as of little worth.”[1]


That both nature and art will slough off their skins for the spectator of the visible plays a strong role in the images of Lincoln’s death. 


I look at both carcasses and skin here.  When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, his body became subject to two operations that had become sorrowfully common during the Civil War.  First, surgeons from the Army Medical Museum conducted an autopsy, sawed off the top of his head, and removed his brain.  The assassin’s bullet fell out (and is displayed at the museum in Washington to this day).  Their work was part of a trend linked by the historian Gary Laderman to the mourning practices of hundreds of thousands of Americans who wanted to retrieve corpses during the war that had just ended.  “Like the establishment of the Army Medical Museum and the success of photography, the urgent desire to bring the dead home was linked to a deeply rooted longing to control and gaze upon the physical remains before they disappeared from sight forever.”[2]  Such control was asserted through the massively publicized display of the body of Abraham Lincoln as it was paraded through every municipality that could be reached by the railroad, in a convoluted retracing of the journey Lincoln had taken to the White House five years earlier.


After the autopsy, the embalmers moved in.  A reporter for the New York World announced the results of their work:


“There is now no blood in the body, it was drained by the jugular vein and sacredly preserved, and through a cutting on the inside of the thigh the empty blood-vessels were charged with a chemical preparation which soon hardened to the consistency of stone.  The long and bony body is now hard and stiff, so that beyond its present position it cannot be moved any more than the arms or legs of a statue.  The scalp has been removed, the brain scooped out, the chest opened and the blood emptied.  All this we see of Abraham Lincoln … is a mere shell, an effigy, a sculpture.  He lies in sleep, but it is the sleep of marble.”[3]


The entrancing combination of mythic and scientific treatment leads to the esthetic contemplation of Abraham Lincoln as a statue.  While his blood is “sacredly preserved” the brain is treated to a “scooping.”  Attention to the route traced by the surgeon whose scalpel searched for the assassin’s bullet gives way to fascinated imaging of the body as a shell. 


This empty shell had many rituals still to undergo.  In the most elaborate funeral procession ever staged in the United States, it was to spend two and half weeks on various forms of public view.  On Tuesday, April 18, 1865, a line formed more than a mile long and six or seven people wide to view this “statue.”  A week after the Good Friday assassination, on Friday, April 21, the train left Washington, D. C. on a viewing pilgrimage for crowded ceremonies in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Springfield, Illinois.  Tens of thousands lined up to see the body.  What they saw became increasingly macabre as embalmers competed with the warm weather to slow the body’s decay.  Numerous observers tracked the decomposition of the face, as it became progressively darker.  In New York, on April 25, a reporter for the New York Times noted that: “The color is leaden, almost brown; … the unnaturally thin lips shut tight and firm as if glued together.”[4]  It wasn’t until May 4, 1865, that the body reached the cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, and was touched up with white paint and rouge.  In the memorial sermon, listeners heard that “Far more eyes have gazed upon the face of the departed than ever looked upon the face of any other departed man.”  However altered the face had become through its transportation in trains and cities across the northeastern United States, this gaze produced an almost mythic shared experience:  “the deepest affections of our hearts gather around some human form, in which are incarnated the living thoughts and ideas of a passing age.”[5]  This comment somewhat astonishingly suggests that the body of Abraham Lincoln has become a simulacrum for itself, modeling an amazing synaesthesia that produces for Lincoln and others the project of national identification.  In the dead face, the living thoughts can be looked upon.  “The sleep of marble” that produces Lincoln as “a mere shell, an effigy, a sculpture” works iconographically to suggest that Lincoln’s body is being paraded as a relic of itself, at once the body and the statue of a saint. 


Beyond the extraordinary scale of this spectacle, two things stand out about the extended procession.  One is that, although the crowds were widely documented, it was forbidden to photograph the body.  This was during a time when photography had just become an immensely popular means of fixing the identity of both living and dead.  The question is thus raised: To whom does the sight of this body belong?[6]  I will return to this refusal at the end of this essay.


Another is that the body was placed on a train in a manner that made the fortune of one of the most notorious late-nineteenth-century American capitalists.  George Pullman had been trying for some time to market his invention of an extra large train car with sleeping berths.  Train trestles and overhead passages were somewhat smaller than they needed to be for the passage of his new invention.  With the attention to the funeral train of Abraham Lincoln, however, necessary clearance was given to change the right of way.  In addition, the comparative luxury of his accommodations was highlighted and the largest audience that had ever viewed any president was shown the body of that president along with the new development in train technology of George Pullman.


This same Pullman was later notorious for the Pullman strike of 1894, when he cut wages by 25% but refused to lower the rent for workers who were required to live in his company town in order to keep their jobs.  Such an apparently disconnected event becomes indirectly connected to the funeral of Abraham Lincoln for the reasons that the Pullman company drew heavily on recently freed slaves for its labor force and that the president who would succeed George Pullman when he died in 1897 was Robert Lincoln, the oldest and only surviving son of the president, who was riding on the funeral train as it left Washington, D. C. for Baltimore.[7]  In addition to marketing the train, the funeral procession encouraged the display of the skills of a number of undertakers along the route.  Some encouraged future sales by marketing images of the procession emblazoned with their own names.[8]


The most eloquent and elegiac account of this train is of course that of Walt Whitman in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.”  Whitman’s famous poem embraces synaesthetic remembering.  The rotting smell of dying flowers becomes inexorably associated with the decomposing body paraded as a fallen blossom. Whitman’s poem provides a frame for mourning, a way of taking sensory response and celebrating it through making it into language. While celebrating the sense of circumspection and limit, as in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” the word death becomes “delicious.”  Its reiteration in “Lilacs” is a reiteration at once of the song that seems to echo from “Out of the Cradle” and an incorporation of “the white skeletons of young men” that seem to become fused with that of Lincoln.[9]  In poems like the later “By Blue Ontario’s Shore,” Whitman announces that he has


Sped to the camps, and comrades found and accepted from every state …

(Upon this breast has many a dying soldier lean’d to breathe his last,

This arm, this hand, this voice have nourish’d, rais’d, restored,

To life recalling many a prostrate form;) (480)


In “Lilacs,” Whitman produces the cycle of seasons that makes return and renewal a cyclical recurrence but also a method of containing grief and weighing it with other processes such as scent.  As Whitman keens that he mourns and “shall mourn with ever-returning spring” (459), he notes that,


Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,

Night and day journeys a coffin (460)


The audience to this coffin’s procession is shown to be as representative as the wounded soldiers in the camps:


With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veiled women standing (460)


Whitman’s poem to Abraham Lincoln becomes a poem to death more generally as “the lilac with mastering odor holds me” (463).  Invoking its pleasures, he beckons, “Come lovely and soothing death” (464).  Since he has already been to a place where “I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them” (466), the power of death “Plunging his seminal muscle” (472) has become familiar and even inviting.[10]  “Out of the Cradle” and “Lilacs” follow a similar typographical pattern of roman lyrics interrupted by italic passages and similarly conflate the smell of lilacs and the song of a bird (mocking bird, thrush) and ocean waves, of phrases about delicious death: “the word final, superior to all.”  Whitman models a form of self-love that can also mourn loss of the self, can imagine a self found and lost, found when lost.  The song of the thrush that echoes from out of the rocked cradle produces the delicious word “death, death, death, death, death” (393) echoed as the moment of birth, the finding of poetry, the location of identity through oceanic embrace.


For Whitman, the war raised masculinity to delightful prominence.[11]  To find in words a means to an education that includes control over death through the juxtaposition of sense impressions raises the question of the language appropriate to the war dead as well as the gender appropriate to using the language.  And yet synaesthesia raises an ambiguous inhabiting of sense impressions as well as possibly announcing the chance to cross other boundaries, such as those of gender. 


[One classic articulation of manhood in antebellum America has become that of Frederick Douglass who commented famously in his Narrative of his “battle with Mr. Covey” that it “revived within me a sense of my own manhood” (50).[12]  In staging his acquisition of freedom and manhood together, Douglass presents a defining moment of masculinity discovered through battle.  But not all his stagings are so precise.  Another kind of synaesthesia appears in his narrative when he describes the songs he hears when a boy:  “I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs.  I was myself within the circle, so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear.… The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness.  I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them.  The mere recurrence to those songs, even now, afflicts me; and while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek” (Norton 19).  For Douglass, to hear is to produce a sight; for Whitman, to see and to smell is to produce mourning.]


Whitman’s lesson in mourning may be juxtaposed with the failure to learn exhibited by Abraham Lincoln’s widow.  Dressed for a role, Mary Todd was notoriously over fond of both décolletage and mourning.  Her indulgence marked her as excessive to the point of lunacy.  Famously committed to an asylum by her oldest son Robert, she was also in effect previously condemned for mourning too much.  In her presentation of excessive grief and hysterical mourning, she exhibited tears that had no limit.  The concept of excess and limit was curiously built into (and excised through) the funeral procession for Abraham Lincoln.  That so many people wanted to see the body while no one was permitted to photograph it suggests a fetishizing of both presence and photography. 


Mourning in nineteenth-century America involved attention to surface – elaborately engaged systems of ritual and performance through lithographs of weeping willow trees, bracelets made of the dead person’s hair.[13]  It also meant attention to the spirit world through mechanisms such as seances and table rapping to find some means to communicate with those who had “crossed over.”  Mary Todd Lincoln was a devotee of both kinds of rituals.  Like much else in nineteenth-century century America, such attention to death tended to be racially segregated.  Rituals of mourning for white women included a mandated change of clothing for two years.  Following this direction to excess (as was her wont), Mary Todd Lincoln was to wear mourning for the rest of her life.  Her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, wrote an account of her own life after her efforts to sell the more elaborate parts of Mary Todd Lincoln’s never to be worn again wardrobe had miserably failed.


In addition to stories about dressing, Keckley’s story repeatedly engages with scenes of instruction.[14]  Several of these scenes are about instruction in grief, in the proper mechanisms of it as taught to slaves and as emphatically not learned by Mary Todd Lincoln.  Such scenes include the poignant aftermath of her father’s forced separation from her mother[15] and a scene involving a woman whose son has been weighed on a scale and sold away in his Sunday best. 


“Morning came, but little Joe did not return to his mother. Morning after morning passed, and the mother went down to the grave without ever seeing her child again. One day she was whipped for grieving for her lost boy. Colonel Burwell never liked to see one of his slaves wear a sorrowful face, and those who offended in this particular way were always punished.” (30)


In contrast, Mary Todd Lincoln’s grief over the early death of young Willie Lincoln is felt to be excessive even by her husband.  “Mrs. Lincoln’s grief was inconsolable. The pale face of her dead boy threw her into convulsions. … In one of her paroxysms of grief the President kindly bent over his wife, took her by the arm, and gently led her to the windows. With a stately, solemn gesture, he pointed to the lunatic asylum.  “Mother, do you see that large white building on the hill yonder? Try and control your grief, or it will drive you mad, and we may have to send you there.  (105-6).  This anecdote about irremediable grief serves several purposes for the reader who knows, as Keckley could not, that Mary Todd Lincoln will later be confined to such an institution by her sole remaining son, Robert Todd Lincoln.  It also prefigures the grief that follows on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  After the death of her husband, as well as that of her son, “Mrs. Lincoln was so completely overwhelmed with sorrow that she did not attend the funeral” (106). 


At the same time, discussing Willie Lincoln’s death provides Keckley with two instructive scenes of appropriate grief.  For Abraham Lincoln, this much-loved son causes an admirable pain: “I never saw a man so bowed down with grief… Great sobs choked his utterance. He buried his head in his hands, and his tall frame was convulsed with emotion. I stood at the foot of the bed, my eyes full of tears, looking at the man in silent, awe-stricken wonder. His grief unnerved him, and made him a weak, passive child. I did not dream that his rugged nature could be so moved.” (105).  Standing at the foot of the bed, her own eyes full of tears that she does not seem to have let fall, Keckley shares the weeping of the president in a way denied to his excessively grieving wife.  To see masculinity brought to tears enhances its value as “rugged nature.”  Within a page, Keckley provides further context: “Previous to this I had lost my son.”  As she tells us, he has gone “to the battle-field with the three months troops, and was killed in Missouri.”  She comments almost laconically that “It was a sad blow to me” and returns to the story of the mourning for Willie Lincoln.                   


For Keckley to tell this story at all is to risk the kind of exposure first noted in detail by the historian Mary Kelley in Private Woman, Public Stage.  To appear in public as a published author in mid-nineteenth-century America was to expose oneself to comment and to suggest other forms of visibility that the author’s body promotes.  Hawthorne is most famous for commenting on the “damned mob of scribbling women” that competed with his writing enterprises.  What he less famously noted was that such public women seemed to him naked: there is “a sort of impropriety in the display of woman’s naked mind to the gaze of the world, with indications by which its inmost secrets may be searched out.[16]  Using very Hawthornian language, Keckley defends her project to tell the story of Mary Todd Lincoln, a story that involves both clothing and publicity: “The veil of mystery must be drawn aside; the origin of a fact must be brought to light with the naked fact itself” (xv).  She comments on not only her own exposure but also that of Mary Todd Lincoln, whose private letters are appended.  Keckley proposes “to lay her secret history bare” and after she has “exposed her faults” she hopes that both will be judged differently, since their very intimacy has connected them: “My own character, as well as the character of Mrs. Lincoln, is at stake, since I have been intimately associated with that lady (xiv).  In any case, Keckley argues, “Mrs. Lincoln, by her own acts, forced herself into notoriety. She stepped beyond the formal lines which hedge about a private life, and invited public criticism.”  By inserting herself in the public gaze, Mary Todd Lincoln has already crossed the line that allows for privacy.  And she has paid for it: “The people have judged her harshly, and no woman was ever more traduced in the public prints of the country” (xiv).  Such judgments mean that “I have written nothing that can place Mrs. Lincoln in a worse light before the world than the light in which she now stands” (xv).  Proposing that her own staging of Mrs. Lincoln’s body will be an appropriate exposure, Keckley repeats: “why should I not be permitted to lay her secret history bare?” (xvi).


To suggest that the secret history of the wife of the assassinated president is one of notoriety in which she has been traduced is to suggest that sexual exposure has already occurred and indeed the biographies of Mary Todd Lincoln make it clear that she liked to have male confidants more than female ones and that she was rather well known for her fondness, through low cut dresses, of exposing her breasts.  The newspaper accounts of the notorious clothes incident, the incident that spurred the writing of Keckley’s biography, call attention to this tendency in dress in terms that suggest both the scandal of the sale of the first lady’s clothes and the disreputable body that inhabited them.  A reporter for the New York Express remarked of the dresses tumbled about in a downtown store that “Some of them, if not worn long, have been worn much, they are jagged under the arms and at the bottom of the skirt, stains are on the lining, and other objections present themselves to those who oscillate between the dresses and dollars, notwithstanding they have been worn by ‘Madam Lincoln,’ as a lady who looked from behind a pair of gold spectacles remarked.… The peculiarity of the dresses is that the most of them are cut low-necked – a taste which some ladies attribute to Mrs. Lincoln’s appreciation of her own bust.” (305-6).  The notice given here emphasizes the marks of her body on the dresses sewn by Elizabeth Keckley.  To note how they appear under the arms – to look at stains – suggests a feminine body but also suggests that it’s her body as female (laboring and leaking) that’s significant, a concept enhanced by the closing comment about her “bust.”


Again this scene of exposure may be placed in contrast to an earlier scene in which Keckley represents her own humiliation at being forcibly exposed as a teenager to a man bent on whipping her.  After her body is revealed for beatings, Keckley asserts that she’s ready to die rather than be conquered.  Several brutal beatings follow.  “The following Thursday Mr. Bingham again tried to conquer me, but in vain.  We struggled, and he struck me many savage blows. As I stood bleeding before him, nearly exhausted with his efforts, he burst into tears, and declared that it would be a sin to beat me any more.  My suffering at last subdued his hard heart; he asked my forgiveness, and afterwards was an altered man.  He was never known to strike one of his servants from that day forward.” Having altered the first of her tormentors, Keckley still has to face another:  “One morning he went to the wood-pile, took an oak broom, cut the handle off, and with this heavy handle attempted to conquer me.  I fought… He resolved to make another attempt to subdue my proud, rebellious spirit–made the attempt and again failed, when he told me, with an air of penitence, that he should never strike me another blow; and faithfully he kept his word. These revolting scenes created a great sensation at the time, were the talk of the town and neighborhood, and I flatter myself that the actions of those who had conspired against me were not viewed in a light to reflect much credit upon them” (37-39).  Unlike the ignoble exposures of Mary Todd Lincoln, which result in nothing except publicity, the pain and humiliation suffered by Keckley serve to convert those around her to new conceptions of their roles.[17]


Keckley exposes her own humiliation in the service of a victory over slavery’s brutality.  She exposes Mary Todd Lincoln’s humiliation in some respects as vindication, in other respects as complicated revenge.  To address the exposed female body is also to suggest racial markings as the famous scene where Sojourner Truth bared her breasts to prove her sex suggests.  One of the most notorious exposed female bodies of the Civil War period was that of the much-discussed Adah Menken. Adah Menken passed the time of the Civil War passing for both white and male, at least on stage, where she notoriously appeared semi-nude on horseback in the play Mazeppa (based on a poem by Byron).  Inspired by Whitman to write confessional free verse that shadows her own race controversies, Menken produced poetry of undeniable excess.  For example, she begins her poem to America by envisioning how “God’s armies spread white arms to a standard of light.”  The internal rhyme of “arms” and “armies” furthers the sense that this army is white.  And yet they will be “Turned red in the blood of the armies of Heaven” (91). 


When she gave her first press conference after taking on the role of Mazeppa, Adah Menken was revealed to be lounging on a tiger skin, sipping champagne, and smoking a cigarette.  In her first appearance as Mazeppa in San Francisco on August 24, 1863, “So thrilling was the performance that it was said that on the opening night the leading man, Junius Booth–brother of Edwin–stood in the wings and completely forgot his lines.”  According to this report, “the two favorite topics of conversation in San Francisco–topics of equal importance–were the progress of the Civil War and the success of Adah Isaacs Menken.”[18]  The thrilled and thrilling emphasis in accounting for Menken is looking at a body that’s transgressing by cross-dressing and also by its near-nakedness.  This relation between dress and nakedness is carried out through and emphasized in her cartes-des-visites: “Known to be conscious and controlling of her star image, Menken was exacting in her approach to the carte de visite and its representation of her image, as was recalled by American photographer Napoleon Sarony, who first photographed the actress in 1865 in a variety of “street dresses” and costumes. As a condition of his commission, Sarony had to agree with the actress’s demand for control over her own poses, and she instructed her agents to make available for sale at every city she played only the photos of her choosing.”[19]


Menken’s poetry in “Infelicia” includes an address to America in 1861.  This poem was distributed at her performances during the Civil War to counteract accusations of Confederate sympathies (which she definitely had).  Continuing her attention to blood, Menken asks,


Would ye splash, in your madness, the blood of the children,

With merciless blows, in the poor mother’s face? (95)


In “Judith” she cites Revelations ii.16, “the sword of the mouth is unsealed,” to announce that she “will fight thee with the sword of my mouth.”  The violent desire for voice issues from a woman whose most famous roles were as a woman dressed as a man.  The violence of the battle she envisions is more than underlined:


I am Judith!

I wait for the head of my Holofernes!

… the great mouth

opened in search of voice, and the strong throat all hot

and reeking with blood, that will thrill me with wild

unspeakable joy as it courses down my bare body and

dabbles my cold feet!

My sensuous soul will quake with the burden of so much bliss.

Oh, what wild passionate kisses will I draw up from that bleeding mouth!

I will strangle this pallid throat of mine on the sweet blood!

I will revel in my passion.


I am starving for this feast.

Oh forget not that I am Judith!

And I know where sleeps Holofernes. (23-4)


The poem exhibits revenge through gender and race alike: as the question of miscegenation that dogged Menken became deflected through the odd possibility that her identity might merge with that of a horse, so crucially her cross-dressing makes racial passing subservient to dressing as a man while emphasizing voluptuous curves.  The threat of Judith is to enter an enemy camp and slay a general who’s been seduced by the sight of her body.  This implied relation to assassination and to Confederate sympathies merges sexually transgressive acting with staging an assassination.  (Although she acted with his brother, I’ve found no evidence that Adah Menken knew John Wilkes Booth, a fellow Confederate sympathizer.) 


Her poetic invocation of political assassination nonetheless proposes that the burden of bliss that Menken indulges is a burden of blood.  The blood that repeatedly “courses” into her poetry is at once the bloodshed of the Civil War and the telltale blood of race.  Menken’s publicly raced identification was with the Jewish faith into which she first married (of four or five husbands).  She’s on a website of Jewish American writers.  Her 1868 book of poems was republished in 1971 by the Black Heritage Library Collection.  In other words, her mixed race heritage, a form of New Orleans creolite, was passed off as Jewishness.  This is not to question her faith, but rather to notice how cross-dressing and passing call attention to the surface of the skin.  The pallid throat that will strangle on blood proposes at once ecstasy and mourning, indeed a kind of ecstatic mourning.  Its mourning reminds us that the focus of mourning rituals focus on clothing and skin at once exposes and conceals the body and, hence, the body is not as significant as its surface.  What finally intrigues me here is how surface becomes fetish.


A competition about the surface of Lincoln’s body was proposed at the beginning of this paper.  That his body’s decay was warded off through embalming and paint seems at odds with the refusal to allow it to be photographed.  Countless engravings circulated to commemorate the dead president and perhaps the most majestic embodiment of all, the Lincoln Memorial, was later erected to turn the remembrance into stone.  The refusal to document through photography suggests an anxiety that has been compared to the classic formulation of the King’s Two Bodies to refuse the authorization in photography of the death of a man whose body has been identified as the body of the republic.  But its progressive discoloration can uncomfortably suggest another cause.   If the body of the republic is of mixed race, how to anatomize, describe, and photograph it?  How to mourn for it in an appropriate way (Whitman) and how to manage the mania that comes to be associated with inappropriate mourning (Mary Todd Lincoln)?  Pain and witnessing are inexorably circumscribed by race and gender. 


In Freud’s account of successful mourning, the self detaches its libido from a lost object in order to attach it elsewhere.  The presence of multiple consumer objects associated with mourning rituals suggests that this produces an appetite: what to consume.  It also proposes a relation between visual consumption and the processes of mourning: the need to see the body, to take in the sight, becomes a form of spectatorial hunger.  In Whitman, grief operates as part of memory, seeing as a form of touching and consuming a somehow cannibalized dead national body.  In the talk on the death of Abraham Lincoln that Whitman delivered on April 14, 1880 and 1881 and 1882 and off and on until the year of his own death, he examines his pleasure that “The final use of the greatest men of a Nation is, after all, not with reference to their deeds [but] its indirect filtering into the nation and the race” (1046).  Earlier, in Specimen Days, Whitman had noted that “so much of a race depends on how it faces death” (778).  Now, finding “the cement of a death identified thoroughly with that people,” Whitman asserts, “I repeat it – the grand deaths of the race … are its most important inheritance value”  (1046).  What is inherited in such deaths is a process of grief and mourning.


Abraham Lincoln did not exactly rest in peace.  The coffin was opened five times: in 1865, 1871, 1874, 1887, and finally in 1901.  In 1876 thieves were just barely foiled in an attempt to steal the corpse and hold it for ransom.  In 1901, after the monument at Abraham Lincoln’s tomb was completely rebuilt, Lincoln’s body was moved to its new resting-place.  A month later, Robert Lincoln visited the tomb and decided that both the cage and the coffin should be hardened forever in a solid block of rock.  Robert’s idea for this had come from the burial procedure employed for his unpopular former employer, George M. Pullman, to whose job as company president he had recently succeeded. 


Because of the permanency of this burial, a discussion arose about whether the coffin should be opened.  Some argued that the remains should be identified due to rumors that Lincoln’s body was not inside.  Others feared a violation of privacy.  In the end, two plumbers chiseled out the top of the lead-lined coffin, just over Lincoln’s head and shoulders.  23 people peered in.  According to contemporary accounts, Lincoln’s features were totally recognizable. His face had a melancholy expression.  After the viewing of the body the oblong piece was soldered back into place, the coffin was lowered, and 4,000 pounds of cement were poured down.[20]


To cement Lincoln’s body suggests a continuing anxiety about its place, connecting mourning and embodiment.  After her son Willie died, Mary Todd Lincoln developed an intense commitment to the afterlife and hired spiritualists to keep in touch with him.   Her desire for continued intimacy with the represented body of the beloved may be viewed through the spirit photograph she had taken years after the death of her husband.  This may be considered the only authorized, at least by his widow, posthumous photograph.  What challenge does such a photograph present to concepts of identity and commodified mourning?  It’s at once fixed as particular and made into a product that can be treated in all the modes of a commodity: reproducible, purchasable, etc.  “Skinning the surface of the visible world” (Oliver Wendell Holmes’s words) becomes a comment about a world made visible (real insofar as visible) and a world made of skin (tone, color, at once inexorable and detachable).  


In this essay’s treatment of mourning, there has been a repeated juxtaposition of gender and race.  I want to close by briefly focusing on two recent treatments of mourning and melancholia, the foray Freud makes into grief as alternately working through and acting out attachment to loss.  In The Psychic Life of Power, Judith Butler asserts that “melancholy, the unfinished process of grieving, is central to the formation of the identifications that form the ego” and further that “identifications formed from unfinished grief are the modes in which the lost object is incorporated and phantasmatically preserved in and as the ego”; thus, it’s not, as in “Mourning and Melancholia,” that object cathexis is replaced by identification.  Rather, in Freud’s words in The Ego and the Id, “there quite often ensues an alteration of his ego which can only be described as a setting up of the object inside the ego, as it occurs in melancholia.”[21]  Butler comments on the “incorporation of the attachment [to the lost object] as identification”; hence the lost object continues to haunt and inhabit the ego as one of its constitutive identifications” (134).  This suggests, inexorably, the image of Mary Todd Lincoln spending her last days rummaging through the 64 trunks of her old dresses she kept in a darkened room next to where she slept.  It also suggests what Anne Cheng in The Melancholy of Race has recently proposed, also drawing on “Mourning and Melancholia,” about the melancholic embrace of white masculinity as way of staving off race questions in America: “Dominant white ideology in America operates melancholically – as an elaborate identificatory system based on psychical and social consumption-and-denial.”[22]  The ongoing consumption of Abraham Lincoln’s body has meant the denial of the body of Mary Todd Lincoln, with all its appetites for grief and loss.  Further, the refutation of the excesses staged by bodies such as those of Elizabeth Keckley and Adah Menken has left only Lincoln’s body to inhabit the imagination of America.  I want to propose that appropriate mourning for Lincoln means the melancholic remembering of other bodies.

[1] The Atlantic Monthly 3 (June 1859), p. 747.

[2] Gary Laderman, The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes toward Death, 1779-1883 (Yale UP, 1986), p. 151.  In his treatment of embalming Lincoln’s body, Laderman notes that attitudes to embalming changed because of the Civil War.  Increasingly families wanted to preserve corpses and bring them “home” for burial. A primary source used by Laderman for the Army Medical Museum is Dr. John Brinton, Personal Memoirs of John H. Brinton: Civil War Surgeon, 1861-1865 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1996).  Brinton collected specimens for the Army Medical Museum, sometimes digging up newly buried corpses and persuading surgeons on the battlefield to save body parts for display.  He also looked for “photographic representations of extraordinary injuries” (qtd. p. 147).  Brinton notes that “The public came to see the bones” when the museum opened (ibid.), including soldiers in search of missing limbs, come to pay them a visit.  The surgeon who held Lincoln’s brain spoke of the “vital spark” that made it alive “whose absence or presence makes all the immeasurable difference, between an inert mass of matter [and] a living brain, by whose silent and subtle machinery, a world may be ruled” (quoted in Philip and Peter Kunhardt’s Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography [New York: Knopf, 1992]). 

During the war, Laderman notes, “Washington became the nation’s embalming capital.”  Advertisers made claims like the following: “Bodies Embalmed by Us NEVER TURN BLACK!  But retain their natural color and appearance… and so as to admit of contemplation of the person Embalmed, with the countenance of one asleep.”  In order to stay close to the source of bodies, embalmers began to travel with the troops, and so soldiers could and did march by signs advertising their services (p. 114-15).

[3] Pittsburgh Daily Post, April 22, 1865, p. 2.  Qtd. In Laderman, pp. 158-9.

[4] New York Times, April 25, 1865, p. 1.

[5] Laderman quotes the memorial sermon (p. 161). 

[6] That is not to say that there were no visual memorials.  For a selection, see the Library of Congress web site, e.g., http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/alhtml/alrb/stbdsd/00801200/001.html.  It was at the time quite common to photograph the dead.  See, for instance, the photographs in Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America compiled by Stanley B. Burns (Altadena, Calif.: Twelvetrees Press, 1990).

[7] For an image of the Pullman car, see http://www.chicagohs.org/wetwithblood/return/remains6.htm. 

[8] For an example of this, see Martha Pike and Janice Armstrong, A Time to Mourn: Expressions of Grief in 19th Century America (Museums at Stony Brook, 1980), p. 185, plate 228.

[9] All citations to Whitman are from the Complete Poetry and Selected Prose (Library of America, 1982) hereafter cited parenthetically.

[10] For the style of mourning poetry more common in the age, see the ballads in the Library of Congress ephemera collection, especially http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/alhtml/alrb/stbdsd/00800800/001.html and http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/alhtml/alrb/stbdsd/00501700/001.html.  

[11] Among others, see David Reynolds’ Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Knopf, 1995) for an articulation of Whitman’s pleasure in the war as an access to masculine energies and desires.

[12]  See also Deborah McDowell, “In the First Place: Frederick Douglass and the Afro-American Narrative Tradition,” in William Andrews, ed., Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991), pp. 195-208, and Jenny Franchot’s essay on whipping in Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays edited by Eric J. Sundquist (New York: Cambridge UP, 1990).

[13] Neal Tolchin, Mourning, Gender, and Creativity in the Art of Herman Melville (New Haven: Yale UP, 1988)

[14] According to Elizabeth Young: “On the one hand, then, black women writers faced a racial discourse whose language for power, as in the culture as a whole, was that of masculinity, on the other hand, they confronted a feminized model of nationhood aligned with whiteness.  In this dichotomy, Civil War rhetoric presented another version of the familiar refrain, ‘All the men are black and all the women are white’” (Disarming the Nation: Women's Writing and the American Civil War [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999]), pp 110-11.

[15] Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (New York: G. W. Carleton & Co., Publishers, 1868).  The complete text is available on-line at http://docsouth.unc.edu/keckley/menu.html.  Rafia Zafar in We Wear the Mask (New York: Columbia UP, 1997), reminds us that Keckley’s son is passing and enlists in the Civil War as white.

[16] Heath Anthology of American Literature, p. 2273.

[17] In Douglass’s battle with Covey, he famously becomes a man.  For readers to see him, he bares his back and draws readers simultaneously to the surface of his skin and the surface of the page through the famous passage of laying the pen within the gash of the cracked surface of his own foot.  Keckley’s battle does not make her a woman (she describes herself at 18 as already fully developed), but it perhaps makes her a man (she supports 17 people by the labor of her needle, supplemented now by the labor of her pen).  For commentary on the Douglass whipping scene, see Lori Merish, Sentimental Materialism: Gender, Commodity Culture, and Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Durham: Duke UP, 2000), pp. 244-45.

[18] See Faye Dudden’s mention of Menken in Women in the American Theatre: Actresses and Audiences, 1790-1870 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1994).  See also Allen Lesser, Enchanting Rebel: The Secret of Adah Isaacs Menken (New York: Beechhurst Press, 1947); Paul Lewis, Queen of the Plaza: A Biography of Ada Isaacs Menken (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1964); Wolf Mankowitz, Mazeppa: The Lives, Loves, and Legends of Adah Isaacs Menken (New York: Stein and Day, 1982).

[19] Ben Bassham, The Theatrical Photographs of Napoleon Sarony (Kent State UP, 1978), p. 11.  From Maria-Elena Buszek, “Representing "Awarishness": Burlesque, Feminist Transgression, and the 19th-Century Pin-up” in The Drama Review 43.4 (1999), pp. 141-162.  For a stimulating article by Kari Weil that partly treats the relation between Adah Menken and fantasies of inter-species transracialism, see “Purebreds and Amazons: Saying Things with Horses in Late-Nineteenth-Century France” in Differences 11.1 (1999) available on-line at http://calliope.jhu.edu/journals/differences/v011/11.1weil.html.

[20] From an article by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt in the February 15, 1963, edition of Life magazine.  It seems rather astonishing to propose that remembering Lincoln could become a theatrical event in the aftermath of his murder in a theater, but evidence remains that it did.  See, for instance, the handbill at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/alhtml/alrb/stbdsd/00501800/001.html. 

[21] Freud, p. 29; quoted in The Psychic Life of Power on “Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification,” pp. 132-3.

[22] Anne Cheng, The Melancholy of Race (Berkeley: U of California P, 2001), p. 11.