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Cornerstone Contributions: A “Picture” of Reconciliation

An engraving from the April 29, 1865, issue of Harper’s Weekly that was placed by Pattie Leake inside the Lee statue time capsule in Richmond in 1887. Photo: DHR.

When plans to build a pedestal for the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond were underway in 1887, the Richmond Dispatch reported on October 26 that a “corner-stone” box was to be inserted in the structure. The newspaper listed the contents of the copper box along with the names of those contributing various items and memorabilia, including “Miss Pattie Leake,” who donated a “picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin.”[1]

 

Pattie Callis Leake was the daughter of Samuel D. and Fannie Kean Leake. She was born 1841 in Ashland in Hanover County, and died in Wytheville in Wythe County on July 9, 1922. Her body was returned to Ashland, where she was buried. She never married. The reason which prompted her to donate the “picture” to the cornerstone box is not known, though given the subject one could suspect she was an ardent Confederate supporter who was gloating over Lincoln’s demise.[2]

 

In December 2021, as the pedestal was disassembled a little more than 134 years after its construction, there was considerable speculation about the contents of the box and whether they would be in salvageable condition. Questions concerning the “picture” came up as well.

 

Was it a photograph of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in his casket, as many assumed, or something else? Did someone really take such a photo of Lincoln? The answer to that questions is yes. But first, what was the “picture” in the box?

 

When the copper box was opened on December 28, 2021, the “picture” proved to be neither a photograph nor an image drawn from a photograph, but an imaginative engraving published in the April 29, 1865, issue of Harper’s Weekly magazine.

 

In the 19th century, Harper’s was printed in a format that resembled a modern tabloid newspaper. It ran several articles on various subjects and featured a greater number of large (sometimes full-page) illustrations than were in a typical newspaper of that time. One of the most popular of several such magazines, its principal rival was Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

 

During the Civil War, both magazines shifted their focus to the conflict—its battles, the commanders, and other related topics. Taking photographs to document events required long exposure times, and movement could not be captured. Instead, the magazines sent dozens of artists to the theaters of war: Leslie’s foremost combat artist was Edwin Forbes, while Harper’s boasted Alfred R. Waud, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Nast. The combat artist illustrated the action of a battle through direct observation or by using his imagination or others’ descriptions. Since the technology for mass-printing photographs in newspapers had not yet been developed, drawings were turned into engravings and published.

 

Thomas Nast, newspaper artist, 1896. Photo: Library of Congress.

The “picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin” was confirmed to be an untitled engraving by Nast. In the image, a female figure in antique clothing, representative of the nation in mourning, grieves beside a closed coffin labeled “Lincoln.” The upper left and right corners show, respectively, a bereaved U.S. soldier and sailor. Centered at the bottom, beneath the coffin, is a circular image of a congregation in a church, with the altar draped in black cloth. The Harper’s “picture,” then, is an engraved image depicting the funeral of Lincoln through semi-allegorical figures. The picture was most definitely not a photograph.[3]

 

What, then, to make of all the speculation about a photograph? Why would a photograph of the dead president have been taken in the first place?

 

Although taking photographs of deceased persons may seem ghoulish to modern sensibilities, the concept was widely accepted and popular during the 19th century. In 1865, photography was only about two decades old and still a relatively new technology. Compared to portrait painting, it was far less expensive and far more accessible to average middle-class persons, or at least those who lived in towns or cities with photography studios. Death was a common event. Most people died at home, and there were ample opportunities to photograph the deceased, especially babies and children who had not been photographed while alive. Such images were termed memento mori (literally, an admonition to “remember you must die”), or alternatively as mementos of the recently deceased. To photograph Lincoln in his coffin, then, would not have been unusual at all, though there may have been reasons for forbidding it. It was, after all, the right of the next-of-kin to approve or disapprove the taking of a deceased family member’s photo.

 

After Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, in Washington, D.C., his body was brought to the White House the following day. Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, confined herself to her bedroom upstairs and never saw her deceased husband’s body. Lincoln was lain in state in the East Room on April 18, 1865, and then moved to the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, where he was lain in state again two days later. Lincoln’s remains were then placed in the President’s Car on a special train for transport to Springfield, Ill., for burial. Traveling slowly along 1,700 miles of railroad tracks, the train stopped in Baltimore, Md.; Harrisburg and Philadelphia, Pa.; New York City, Albany, and Buffalo, N.Y.; Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis and Michigan City, Ind.; Chicago and, finally, Springfield. At each stop, Lincoln’s open coffin was displayed for viewing in state capitols, city halls, and other locations that could accommodate large numbers of people. The U.S. Army Assistant Adjutant General, Brigadier General Edward D. Townsend, commanded the escort detail during the journey to Springfield. Many photographs were taken of the crowds, the parades, and other ceremonies surrounding the events, but none of them showed Lincoln in his coffin—with one exception.[4]

 

In New York City, the coffin was placed in City Hall for public viewing on the afternoon of April 24, 1865, and on the morning of the next day. The New York Times devoted the entire first page and more than half of the back page of its April 25 edition to the events that occurred at City Hall on both days. When the procession reached the building on the afternoon of April 24, the coffin was carried into the rotunda and placed on a landing at the top of a double staircase. An embalmer opened the casket and “prepared the body for exhibition” before the public was admitted. Flowers were laid inside and atop the coffin. Finally,

 

Mr. [Jeremiah] Gurney, Jr., to whom had been granted the exclusive right of taking pictures of the body and the scene, took possession of the hall and retained it for over half an hour, during which time he succeeded in securing material for a photograph as interesting as it will be historic.[5]

 

Gurney would have set up his view camera on a tripod. He then would have produced more than one photograph employing “wet plates,” an early process for developing photos using glass plates coated with a wet silver-nitrate solution. The plates were placed inside a lightproof holder, inserted in the camera, exposed to light coming through the lens by removing the lens cap, and then taken from the camera in the holder to the darkroom and developed in a wet solution—all in about 15 minutes.[6] Gurney would have taken multiple photographs as quickly as possible at varying exposure lengths to get the best negative.

 

That evening, issues of the Times and other New York newspapers reached the desk of Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War, in Washington, D.C. To say Stanton was displeased to learn photographs had been taken of Lincoln in his coffin would be a gross understatement. He was outraged. At 11:40 p.m., he fired off a telegram to Townsend in New York and demanded that the photographic plates (glass-plate negatives) and any photographic prints or pictures, such as engravings, be confiscated and destroyed. He also wanted whoever was responsible for allowing the photography to be relieved of duty.[7]

 

Townsend was stunned by the orders, as his telegram to Stanton the next morning revealed. He explained,

 

…the photograph was taken while I was present, [Rear] Admiral [Charles H.] Davis being the officer immediately in charge, but it would have been my part to stop the proceedings. I regret your disapproval, but it did not strike me as objectionable under the circumstances as it was done.[8]

 

Stanton, when he replied to Townsend, had calmed down enough to explain the reason for his concern. “The taking of a photograph,” he wrote, “was expressly forbidden by Mrs. Lincoln, and I am apprehensive that her feelings and the feelings of her family will be greatly wounded.”

 

Townsend was in Albany, N.Y., when he received Stanton’s answer. He responded that he “was not aware of Mrs. Lincoln’s wishes, or the picture would not have been taken with the knowledge of any officer of the escort.” He wrote, “It seemed to me the picture would be gratifying, a grand view of what thousands saw and thousands could not see.”[9]

 

Townsend followed this telegram with another, also on April 26:

 

[Major] General [John A.] Dix, who is here, suggests that I should explain to you how the photograph was taken. The remains had just been arranged in state in the City Hall, at the head of the stairway, where the people would ascend on one side and descend on the other. The body lay in an alcove, draped in black, and just at the edge of a rotunda formed of American flags and mourning drapery. The photographer was in a gallery twenty feet higher than the body, and at least forty distant from it. Admiral Davis stood at the head and I at the foot of the coffin. 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.[10]

 

Townsend, Dix, and the funeral train departed Albany for Buffalo that afternoon. The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, an ardent abolitionist leader, and Henry J. Raymond, co-founder of the New York Times and a member of the House of Representatives from New York, wrote to Stanton, begging him to postpone destroying the negatives until Gurney could speak to the Secretary of War in person. Although Stanton remained convinced that the photograph should not have been taken, he agreed to postpone the negatives’ destruction and ordered them turned over to Dix.[11]

 

Dix passed the plates by train to Major General John J. Peck, his second-in-command in New York City. Peck telegraphed Stanton about midday on April 27, noting a dispatch he had received from Townsend with the plates:

 

…advises of your condemnation of the taking of a photograph of the President’s remains, and orders the destruction of the plates, pictures, and engravings. The plates include the pictures of General Townsend and Admiral Davis [with Lincoln’s remains in City Hall]. They are in my hands awaiting your pleasure, as by second telegram.[12]

 

No further telegrams followed, or at least no others on the subject were printed in the Official Records. The matter rested for the next 87 years, and the outcome of all orders and telegrams were unknown.

 

An engraving of citizens viewing Lincoln’s coffin at New York City Hall, published in the May 6, 1865, issue of Harper’s Weekly. Photo: The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection.

Early in the 1950s, an Iowa boy named Ronald Rietveld became increasingly fascinated with American history, and especially with Abraham Lincoln. After he read a newspaper article about Judge James W. Bollinger of Davenport, Iowa, who was an avid collector of Lincoln memorabilia, Rietveld corresponded with the judge about his own interest in Lincoln. Later, Rietveld learned Bollinger had died and left his collection to the University of Iowa. He wrote the university to ask if he could attend the dedication of the collection in November 1951. At the dedication, he met Harry Pratt, the state historian of Illinois. Pratt took a liking to the 14-year-old boy and invited him to visit Springfield.

 

On his visit to the city in July 1952, Rietveld accompanied Pratt to his office at the statehouse grounds. Pratt allowed the boy to browse through the papers of Lincoln’s secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, authors of a massive 10-volume biography of the president. Rietveld came across an envelope dated 1887 containing a letter and a folded paper. Lewis H. Stanton, son of Edwin M. Stanton, had sent the letter and the paper to Nicolay for possible inclusion in the biography.

 

When Rietveld unfolded the paper, he saw the faded brown photograph of Lincoln in his coffin in New York City Hall. It showed the scene exactly as Townsend had described it in his telegram on April 26, 1865. The photo also closely resembled an engraving printed in the May 6, 1865, issue of Harper’s Weekly featuring mourners filing up a flight of stairs past Lincoln’s coffin on the landing and then down the opposite staircase. As Townsend had asserted in his telegram, Lincoln’s features in the photo were hard to discern, most likely due to overexposure on the negative.[13]

 

After Edwin M. Stanton died in 1869, Lewis H. Stanton inherited his father’s papers. But how did the photograph end up in Edwin Stanton’s papers in the first place? Had he met with the photographer? Was the print sent to Stanton by Gurney in lieu of such a meeting? Did Townsend ask Gurney to send it to Stanton to illustrate the points Townsend made in his telegrams? To date, no answers to these questions have been found. A possible explanation is that before the plates were destroyed, Gurney or Townsend presented a photographic print to Stanton.

 

Questions also remain unanswered about the Harper’s illustration found in the copper box, as well as Pattie Leake’s motivation for donating it. Obviously, the description of her gift in the Richmond Dispatch, “picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin,” is inaccurate. Assuming that she subscribed to Harper’s in 1865, had saved the issues, and wanted to show Lincoln in his coffin, she could have donated the engraving from May 6, 1865. That image depicted him in death and was indeed a “picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin.” Instead, the image she gave was one of America mourning its loss.

 

When the engraving was removed from the copper box, conservators observed that the paper had been folded and repaired. Pieces of newspaper had been glued to the reverse side of the image. This suggests the illustration was much-loved and cared for. Perhaps, rather than gloating, Leake was instead expressing support for reconciliation through her donation.[14]

 

—John Salmon, Historian

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Footnotes
[1] Richmond Dispatch, Oct. 26, 1887.
[2] Dale Brumfield, “A Monument Avenue Mystery,” Richmond Magazine, Dec. 3, 2017, on Richmondmagazine.com, accessed Jan. 13, 2022.
[3] Richmond Times-Dispatch, Dec. 28, 2021.  The illustration can be accessed at this site, at the top of the page, accessed Jan. 10, 2022.
[4] Map showing funeral train route and stops, in “Funeral and burial of Abraham Lincoln,” on Wikipedia Web site, accessed Jan. 10, 2022.
[5] The New York Times, Apr. 25, 1865.
[6] The “dry plate,” which was precoated and then exposed while dry, was not invented until 1871.
[7] Robert N. Scott, ed., The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), Ser. 1, Vol. 46, Part 3, p. 952.
[8] Ibid., 965.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 965-966.
[11] Ibid., 966-967.
[12] Ibid., 989.
[13] Ronald Rietveld, “The Magnificent Find: Discovering the Lincoln Death Photograph,” on Abraham Lincoln Web site, accessed Jan. 10, 2022 (the article incudes the photograph of Lincoln in his coffin, April 24, 1865, at City Hall, New York, by Jeremiah Gurney, Jr., the original of which is in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum); “President Lincoln’s Funeral. Citizens Viewing the Body at the City Hall, New York,” Harper’s Weekly, May 6, 1865, accessed Jan. 10, 2022.
[14] Katherine Ridgway to author, description of repairs to image, personal communication, Jan. 21, 2022.

•••

Bibliography

“Miss Pattie Leake, picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin.” Richmond Dispatch, Oct. 26, 1887.

Brumfield, Dale. “A Monument Avenue Mystery.” Richmond Magazine. Dec. 3, 2017. On Richmondmagazine.com, accessed Jan. 13, 2022.

“Funeral and burial of Abraham Lincoln.” Map showing funeral train route and stops. On Wikipedia Web site, accessed January 10, 2022.

Gurney, Jeremiah, Jr. Photograph of Lincoln in his coffin, April 24, 1865. City Hall, New York. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Kunhardt, Philip B., Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt. Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

“President Lincoln’s Funeral. Citizens Viewing the Body at the City Hall, New York.”
Harper’s Weekly, May 6, 1865, accessed Jan. 10, 2022.

Ridgway, Katherine, to author. Description of repairs to image. Personal communication, Jan. 21, 2022.

Rietveld, Ronald. “The Magnificent Find: Discovering the Lincoln Death Photograph.” On Abraham Lincoln Online Web site, accessed Jan. 10, 2022.

Scott, Robert N., ed. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 128 vols.  Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.

[Untitled engraving depicting a female figure grieving beside a coffin labeled “Lincoln.”]
Harper’s Weekly, April 29, 1865, accessed Jan. 10, 2022.

Originally posted: January 24, 2022
Updated: March 29, 2022