Death of a President - Part I, Abraham Lincoln

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.   The event has become a part of popular culture, and virtually all those old enough to remember the tragedy can recall where they were when they received the news that the president was dead.

It is interesting to note that John and Frances Glessner lived through the assassination of three U.S. presidents – Lincoln in 1865, Garfield in 1881, and McKinley in 1901.  In this article, the first of three to explore those events, we will explore the Glessners’ interest in Lincoln.

In 1865, John Glessner was 22 and his future wife Frances Macbeth was just 17.  Frances Glessner would not start recording events in her journal until 1870, the year she married.  As such, the only record of Lincoln’s assassination in the museum archives exists in two letters to John Glessner from his sister, Mary (Glessner) Kimball, and one to Frances from her mother Nancy Macbeth. 

The first letter to John Glessner is dated Sunday April 16, 1865, the day after Lincoln died.  After a lengthy discussion of selling her home in Canton, Ohio and preparing to move, Mary notes:
“Wasn’t the killing of Lincoln a dreadful affair?  Our church was draped in black for him today and Mr. Buckingham preached on that subject.  His text was ‘A prince and a great man has fallen in Israel.’  His sermon was very good.  He said he hoped the mantle of Lincoln would fall upon Johnson but he trembled lest it would not.”

The second letter, written one week later on April 23, makes brief mention of Lincoln’s funeral train:
“If I get an answer to a letter I wrote to cousin Laura and she invites me to go to Mrs. Child’s to spend a day or two, I will go; I would be there then the day Lincoln’s remains are.”
The reference is to Lincoln’s funeral train which entered Ohio early on Friday April 28th, making a stop in Cleveland that morning, and a longer stop in Columbus the next day, where it remained for eleven hours.  The train left Ohio early in the morning on Sunday April 30th

The letter to Frances (called Fannie by her family) from her mother is a bit more detailed in describing the reaction people had to learning of Lincoln’s death.  In a letter from Springfield, Ohio dated Sunday April 16, 1865, she wrote:
“Dear Fannie:  I know you are thinking of me this day and wondering how I felt under the terrible news of the death of our beloved President – and I am sure I cannot tell you – it would be hard to convey to your mind the sadness and sorrow that we all feel at this time – the loyal American nation is in mourning for this sad bereavement.  Our church was all draped in mourning, all the flags and everybody almost had on some token of the sadness they felt within.  Mr. Bower preached a regular funeral discourse and a very good one, too – Friday was a great day of rejoicing here as well as everywhere else, but alas how quickly our joy was turned into sadness.”
The rejoicing on Friday is a reference to learning the news of the end of the Civil War.

THE LINCOLN LIFE MASK
One of the most important objects visitors to the museum see during their tour is the bronze life mask and hands of Abraham Lincoln that is displayed on the partner’s desk in the library.  This is the story of how those relics came to be.

Chicago sculptor Leonard W. Volk first met Lincoln in 1858 during Lincoln’s historic debates with Stephen Douglas.  During that meeting, Lincoln promised to sit for the sculptor.  In April 1860, Volk saw a newspaper article announcing Lincoln’s arrival in Chicago to argue a case.  Volk went to the courthouse and reminded Lincoln of his old promise.  Lincoln readily agreed to begin sitting, paying a visit to Volk’s studio each morning for a week.  If he could take a mask of Lincoln’s face, Volk explained, the number of sittings could be greatly reduced.  At the session where the mask was made, Lincoln sat in a chair and carefully watched every move Volk made by way of a mirror on the opposite wall.  The plaster was carefully applied without interfering with Lincoln’s eyesight or breathing through the nostrils.  After an hour, the mold was ready to be removed.  Lincoln bent his head low and gradually worked it off without breaking or injury, although in the process he did pull a few hairs from his temples, causing his eyes to water.  Lincoln continued to sit for Volk for five days after the mask was prepared, Lincoln entertaining Volk with “some of the funniest and most laughable of stories.”

The next month, Volk was on the train to Springfield when he heard the news of Lincoln’s nomination by the Republicans.  He arrived in Springfield and rushed to Lincoln’s house, announcing to the astonished candidate, “I am the first man from Chicago, I believe, who has the honor of congratulating you on your nomination for President.”  Volk insisted that he now must execute a full-length statue of Lincoln, and Lincoln agreed to provide Volk with appropriate photographs of himself, while Volk would take his measurements as well as make casts of his hands.  Volk appeared at the Lincoln’s home on the next Sunday morning and set to work in the dining room.  He suggested that Lincoln should be holding something in his right hand for the cast.  Lincoln disappeared to the woodshed and returned whittling off the end of a piece of broom handle.  When Volk said that was not necessary, Lincoln remarked cheerfully, “I thought I would like to have it nice.”  Volk noticed that the right hand was still severely swollen from the handshaking of Lincoln’s latest campaign – a difference that is visible in the casts.  Volk commented on a scar on Lincoln’s left thumb, and Lincoln explained that it was a souvenir of his days as a rail-splitter.  “One day, while I was sharpening a wedge on a log, the ax glanced and nearly took my thumb off.”  After the casts were completed, Volk set off for Chicago with the molds, photographs, a black suit left over from Lincoln’s 1858 campaign, and a pair of Lincoln’s pegged boots.

Volk never completed the statue, and later gave the casts of Lincoln’s face and hands to his son Douglas, himself an artist, who later passed them on to a fellow art student, Wyatt Eaton.  During the winter of 1885-1886, Richard Watson Gilder saw the casts in Eaton’s studio and immediately grasped their significance.  

On February 1, 1886, Gilder, along with his friends Augustus St. Gaudens and Thomas B. Clarke, sent out a letter to a select group of individuals which read in part:
“The undersigned have undertaken to obtain the subscription of fifty dollars each, from not less than twenty persons, for the purchase from Mr. Douglas Volk of the original casts taken by his father, the sculptor, Mr. Leonard W. Volk, from the living face and hands of Abraham Lincoln, to be presented, together with bronze replicas thereof, to the Government of the United States for preservation in the National Museum at Washington.
“The subscribers are themselves each to be furnished with replicas of the three casts, in plaster or bronze.  If in plaster, there will be no extra charge beyond the regular subscription of $50; if the complete set is desired in bronze, the subscription will be for $85 . . .
“Those wishing to take part in the subscriptions will notify at once either of the undersigned.”

Subscriptions were apparently received rapidly.  Frances Glessner recorded the following entry in her journal on May 30, 1886:
Last week we got a bronze cast of Lincoln’s life mask and hands made by Douglas (sic) Volk – a few copies have been made to raise funds enough to give the originals to the government.”
The underside of the life mask contains the following inscription:
“THIS CAST WAS MADE FOR J. J. GLESSNER A SUBSCRIBER TO THE FUND FOR THE PURCHASE AND PRESENTATION TO THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT OF THE ORIGINAL MASK MADE IN CHICAGO APRIL 1860 BY LEONARD W. VOLK FROM THE LIVING FACE OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN.  THIS CAST WAS TAKEN FROM THE FIRST REPLICA OF THE ORIGINAL IN NEW YORK CITY FEBRUARY 1886.  COPYRIGHT 1886 BY LEONARD W. VOLK.”
The stump end of each hand contains the following inscription:
“COPYRIGHT 1886 BY LEONARD W. VOLK.  THIS CAST OF THE HAND OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS MADE FROM THE FIRST REPLICA OF THE ORIGINAL MADE AT SPRINGFIELD ILL THE SUNDAY FOLLOWING HIS NOMINATION TO THE PRESIDENCY.”

Volk's plaster life mask and hands on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. beside the second life mask created by Clark Mills in February 1865.

In 1888, the original plaster mask and hands, together with the first bronze casts, were presented to the National Museum (now the Smithsonian Institution) along with an elaborate illuminated manuscript which read in part:
“This case contains the first cast made in the mold taken from the living face of ABRAHAM LINCOLN by Leonard W. Volk sculptor in Chicago in the year 1860.  Also the first casts made in the molds from Lincoln’s hands likewise made by Leonard W. Volk in Springfield Illinois, on the Sunday following Lincoln’s nomination for the Presidency in May 1860.  Also the first bronze casts of the facemold, and bronze casts of the hands.  Presented to the Government of the United States for deposit in the National Museum by Thirty Three Subscribers.”
The list of subscribers includes the name of J. J. Glessner, as well as J. Q. A. Ward, Frances Glessner’s first cousin, a talented sculptor who created the bronze standing Shakespeare on display in the library.  Ward and St. Gaudens were close friends, and it is possible that Ward suggested that St. Gaudens include John Glessner on the mailing list, when the original subscription letter was mailed in February 1886.

BEYOND THE MASK
John Glessner was a Sustaining Member of the Lincoln Centennial Association, organized in 1909, and renamed The Abraham Lincoln Association in 1929.  His library contained over three dozen books and booklets on Lincoln, which he kept on a shelf in the southeast bookcase in the library.  The books include such standards as Carl Sandburg’s two volume Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, as well as more obscure titles, many of which were issued by the Association.  An interesting volume, of which only 750 copies were printed, is Abraham Lincoln in New Hampshire, which recounts Lincoln’s visit to that state in 1860.  The author, Elwin L. Page, was a friend of George and Alice Glessner, and Alice presented the volume to her father-in-law upon its publication in 1929.

John Glessner also owned a photograph of Lincoln.  The cabinet card, featuring an image taken at Eaton’s Studios, carried the following inscription:  “For Mrs. Lucy G. Speed, from whose pious hand I accepted the present of an Oxford Bible twenty years ago.  Washington, D.C., October 3, 1861.  A. Lincoln.”  Lucy G. Speed was the mother of Lincoln’s closest friend, Joshua F. Speed, and had presented the Bible to Lincoln during his visit to the Speed home in August 1841, in the hopes of relieving his depression and melancholia.  The original photograph remained in the Speed family until the 1990s, but copies were apparently made, one of which was purchased by John Glessner.  The photograph was donated to the Chicago Historical Society in April 1940 by Frances Glessner Lee.