The only photograph of Abraham Lincoln in death almost never survived.
When the assassinated president was laid out in his coffin in the rotunda of New York’s City Hall for a viewing attended by 120,000 people on April 24, 1865, his widow Mary Todd Lincoln explicitly banned shutterbugs to preserve the privacy of the solemn moment. But Brigadier-General E.D. Townsend, who attended the viewing, let a local photographer take a picture of the slain Lincoln.
Just before the doors opened to the public, photographer Jeremiah Gurney Jr. and his assistants were allowed to come in and set up their equipment and take a daguerreotype photo of the solemn moment.
As soon as word spread of Gurney’s photographs, the reaction was fast and fierce. Dozens of competing photographers sent telegrams expressing their outrage to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Mrs. Lincoln complained as well.
Townsend’s superior gave the order to seize the photographic plates and have them destroyed.
Gurney managed to save one plate, which was shown to the president’s oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, in the hopes that he might want to preserve the image for the sake of posterity. But Lincoln refused and Stanton ordered the last plate destroyed as well.
However, the War Secretary kept one print to himself – “he did not have the heart to destroy it,” reported Life magazine – and buried it so deep in his files that it was lost to history for over almost 70 years.
It was discovered in 1952 by a teenager visiting the Lincoln Home historic site in Springfield, Illinois. Ronald Rietveld, a 14-year-old history buff, was looking through some old folders when he came across a faded brown photograph and immediately recognised Lincoln.
The discovery made newspapers around the country and set Rietveld on a path to become a historian. Years later, he wrote:
“It’s interesting to think that as a boy I found the last photograph of the president in death, which triggered a phone call from James Wheeler of Des Moines whose father was Lincoln’s White House gardener [Thomas G. Wheeler]. James Wheeler knew the president as a six-year-old, and Lincoln teased him about stealing some figs off a White House tree. His father took him to see Lincoln’s body at the Rotunda in the U.S. Capitol. So in some strange way my life has been connected directly with the death of President Lincoln.”
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