Mementos of the dead were an important part of nineteenth century grieving culture. Throughout Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, the living gather mementos of those who have died to remember them by. The constant presence of death during the Civil War era, when a catastrophic number of people died both on the battlefield and from disease, led people to gather physical reminders of those they had lost. Physical relics taken from the dead (including President Lincoln, in the book) are used to hold onto memories of the dead and what they stood for.
Mementos Quotes in Chasing Lincoln’s Killer
Stanton knew that if any person in Washington deserved a precious lock of the martyr’s hair, it was Mary Jane Welles. She later framed the cherished relic with dried flowers that had decorated Abraham Lincoln’s coffin at the White House funeral. Stanton gazed down at his fallen chief and wept.
After the others who had sat by Lincoln’s deathbed had left, Stanton spent a private moment in the room where Lincoln’s body lay. Although Stanton, with Lincoln dead, saw himself as being responsible for the nation’s security, he was also affected on a personal level by the death of the president. During the years of the war, the cabinet members had forged close, almost familial ties. Looking at Lincoln’s corpse, Stanton thought back on other losses that top government officials and their families had suffered. Mary Jane Welles had nursed Mary Todd Lincoln through the loss of her son Willie. At this moment, Stanton’s grief gave him sympathy for Mary Jane’s experience. Stanton was compelled to reward the woman who had taken it upon herself to comfort the Lincoln family during another period of grief with a lock of Lincoln’s hair that would serve as a memento. This passage is also a reminder of the extent to which Lincoln sacrificed his family life in order to save the country and defend its principles.
The nation could hardly bury its martyred Father Abraham with a lead ball lodged in his brain. They cut it out, marked it as evidence, and preserved it for history. His blood, according to a newspaper report, was drained from his corpse by an embalmer, transferred to glass jars, and preserved. When they were finished, Mary Todd Lincoln sent a request: Please cut off a lock of his hair for her.
After Lincoln died but before he was buried, doctors and coroners examined his body and an embalmer prepared it for burial. It was common in the nineteenth century to collect mementos of the dead, such as locks of hair. At such an uncertain time for the nation, and with the hunt for Lincoln’s killers only in its beginning stages, the professionals tasked with the care of Lincoln’s body went farther in collecting mementos that might usually occur. Because of the gravity of the situation and the uncertainty of what was to come, they not only collected the bullet which could be used as evidence but also went so far as to preserve his blood. This also reflects the extent to which the president had been beloved by Union sympathizers. Even strangers felt devastated by Lincoln’s death and they desired mementoes that would make this historic event seem as personal to them as it felt.