Saturday, February 1, 2014
The last man alive to see Lincoln in his coffin
When I was a young reporter working for United Press International, I found this story among the yellowing teletype files of the Milwaukee Bureau.
It was an interview with John Bowlus of Milwaukee, who may have been the last man alive to see the body of Abraham Lincoln in his coffin. It occurred during a little known event almost four decades after Lincoln died, and Bowlus recounted the story 90 years after the "Illinois Railsplitter" had been assassinated. The story was written in 1955. Bowlus was 68 at the time and died shortly thereafter.
Bowlus was present at Springfield, Illinois when the remains of Lincoln were unearthed for the last time before being permanently interred in steel and concrete at the base of the Lincoln Monument in Oak Ridge Cemetery at Springfield.
Bowlus said it was a cool evening that night of September 20, 1902, when a neighbor, a "Mr. Freeman," who was Illinois Superintendent of Education, asked him to drive "somewhere."
Lincoln's body had been moved several times to protect it from souvenir hunters who had raided his tomb. Bowlus said he drove through the gathering dusk to Oak Ridge where he and Mr. Freeman were met by a small group of Illinois officials. There he learned the body was to be uncovered for the last time and taken for permanent burial after the tamper-proof crypt had been made ready.
The party descended into the dark catacomb under a mausoleum where the remains of Lincoln lay hidden under a pile of loose board. In silence, Bowlus helped remove the top of three lids on the coffin.
"I can see his face as if it were yesterday," Bowlus recalled. "Even in death he was an awe-inspiring figure." A boy of 14 at the time, Bowlus said he had stood on tiptoe and gazed, awestruck, on the majestic features of Lincoln, almost too afraid to peer into the glass-topped casket. "The body was almost perfectly preserved," Bowlus remembered. "The face was darker... he lay with his head and shoulders and tips of his hands visible where they were crossed on his chest." It was awe-inspiring, almost frightening," he said. "The beard appeared to have grown longer, but the dignity of the great man could almost be felt through the air-tight casket which had preserved his body," Bowlus said.
A short while later, the body was sealed in the monument to rest undisturbed forever.