Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

A Monumental Corpse

I couldn’t resist the book when I stumbled across it in the bookstore. The title drew me in. Thomas J. Craughwell’s Stealing Lincoln’s Body (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007) is an intriguing account of an effort in 1876 by a group of counterfeiters to steal the body of Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom (in order to generate funds for their nefarious schemes). The attempted theft led to a series of efforts over the decades to hide Lincoln’s body in the monument to protect it from grave robbers, a common occupation of the time, and to maintain the monument itself. In these days of scrutiny about presidential libraries and records, this is a book reminding us of the general fascination we have had with presidents.

One finds in the book some fascinating allusions to documentation about the attempted theft and the subsequent history of the monument in Springfield, Illinois. Craughwell discusses the emergence of the U.S. Secret Service and the demands from its beginning for meticulous documentation of its activities and investigations. The author mentions one of the early agents, Patrick D. Tyrrell, who becomes involved in the Lincoln case, as the kind of recruit to the service most desired – “honest, respectable, incorruptible. Not only was he a good detective, but he had a high tolerance for filing reports and filling out forms” (p. 55). In describing the challenges of understanding the Lincoln family responses to the attempted theft, the decay of the monument and family crypt, and other matters related to Lincoln’s memory, Craughwell also comments on the efforts by Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd, to gather up his mother’s correspondence in later years in order to destroy it and his efforts to limit access to the Lincoln papers until well after his own death. Obviously, there are numerous gaps in the records about the case and the history of the monument from this vantage. As is easy to surmise, Robert Lincoln’s concern for privacy was certainly challenged in the bizarre interest in his father’s remains. In a couple of other points in the book, the author notes how one of the men involved in moving Lincoln’s body to a secret place in the monument so that it would be safer carefully records the facts of the new location, seals them in an envelope, and places them in his safe (pp. 159, 161). Craughwell, despite allusions to such care with these documents, also notes how many of the records John Carroll Powell used in his 1890 account of the attempted theft “have been lost or destroyed” (p. 161).

This is not a book about archives, but I thought it provided some interesting allusions to historical documentation, as well as telling a fascinating story about Lincoln’s remains.