Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What Abe Lincoln looked like naked

I learned something yesterday while reading from my stash of old American Heritage magazines, in a fine article detailing events during the hours directly after Lincoln was shot in 1865. For one thing I learned what Abraham Lincoln’s body looked like, when his clothes were removed after his death.
There would be disagreements among the four doctors as to the right treatment to pursue, and their versions of what happened on the death night would vary startlingly. There was total agreement always on the astonishment they all felt at that first sight of Mr. Lincoln’s extraordinary physique.

“They were familiar with the dark, brown face, weather worn and crisscrossed with lines, and they knew that old Abe’s neck, too, was leathery and wrinkled: the ‘old’ in his nickname was apt. The stunning surprise was that the fifty-six year old President’s body was that of a much younger man and was unbelievably perfect. The beautiful proportions, the magnificent muscular development, and the clear, firm flesh were all the more astounding because the visible man had given no clue. Charlie Taft pointed out that there was not one ounce of fat on the entire frame. Charles Leale was something of a student of classical sculpture and remarked immediately that the President could have been the model for Michelangelo’s Moses; he had the same massive grandeur.

 “Assassination!” by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip R. Kunhardt, Jr., American Heritage, April 1965.
Lincoln got his muscled physique from hard work, and descriptions of his strength were told in the stories of his upbringing. Unlike now, there was no work-out room in the White House.

Some other things from the article:

The ball that went through the back of Lincoln’s skull stopped in his brain before exiting. He never regained consciousness. When Lincoln’s brain was removed during autopsy, the flattened ball felt into a metal basin.

If what happened to Lincoln had happened today the medical care, not to mention the record of what happened immediately after the act of assassination, would have been professional, at least. In 1865, with no one but Lincoln expecting an attack on his person (his premonitions of his own death are spooky, but considering the circumstances of the times, the attitudes of those around him were remarkably lax), the care given him was much what would have been given on the battlefield to a wounded soldier: fast and dirty. The doctor who got to Lincoln first was pulling clotted blood from his wound to let the blood flow freely. Had Lincoln survived the shot, the doctors’ fingers touching him would have been enough to kill him with infection.

(Anyone who says they would prefer the “good old days” of the 19th century should remember there were no antibiotics.)

Quoted from the article: Hermann Faber, an artist who saw the death room just after the body was removed, made a fairly realistic sketch of it showing Robert Lincoln and Secretary Welles seated by the bed, and Stanton standing by Welles.

The scene in the small room was chaotic, people coming and going. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took over the immediate duties of President while Vice President Andrew Johnson was being notified of the situation.

Stanton ordered roads out of Washington closed and water traffic stopped, in a vain attempt to catch assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Mrs. Lincoln was beside herself, weeping and lamenting loudly at the bedside until Stanton said, “Take that woman out and do not let her in again!”

One of the controversies of Lincoln’s death was Stanton’s statement immediately after Lincoln died, which has been quoted as both, “Now he belongs to the ages,” and “Now he belongs to the angels.” According to the authors of the American Heritage article what Stanton said was, “He belongs to the angels now.” In the interest of historical accuracy we’d like to know the exact quote, but in fact both versions are pretty good. “…belongs to the ages” would indicate a sense of historical importance, where “...belongs to the angels” is religious, and also appropriate for the moment.

What is left unsaid in the article is tragedy that a clumsy assassination like Booth committed would probably have been prevented had even a few armed soldiers been outside of the President’s box that night. There had been a couple of attempts on Lincoln during the war. Common sense tells us someone should have been alarmed enough by those attempts to insist the President needed extra security. Nothing can guarantee anyone’s absolute safety, and an assassin who is willing to die is hard to stop. But in the case of Lincoln’s death it seems that official stupidity or denial of the possibilities of Presidential assassination were as much to blame as Booth’s bullet.

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