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The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth George Alfred Townsend

Letter II: The Obsequies In Washington

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The fourth side is bare, save of a single row of chairs some twenty in number, on which the reporters are to sit. The odor of the room is fresh and healthy; the shade is solemn, without being oppressive. All is rich, simple, and spacious, and in such sort as any king might wish to lie. Approach and look at the dead man.

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Death has fastened into his frozen face all the character and idiosyncrasy of life. He has not changed one line of his grave, grotesque countenance, nor smoothed out a single feature. The hue is rather bloodless and leaden; but he was alway sallow. The dark eyebrows seem abruptly arched; the beard, which will grow no more, is shaved close, save the tuft at the short small chin. The mouth is shut, like that of one who had put the foot down firm, and so are the eyes, which look as calm as slumber. The collar is short and awkward, turned over the stiff elastic cravat, and whatever energy or humor or tender gravity marked the living face is hardened into its pulseless outline. No corpse in the world is better prepared according to appearances. The white satin around it reflects sufficient light upon the face to show us that death is really there; but there are sweet roses and early magnolias, and the balmiest of lilies strewn around, as if the flowers had begun to bloom even upon his coffin. Looking on uninterruptedly! for there is no pressure, and henceforward the place will be thronged with gazers who will take from the sight its suggestiveness and respect. Three years ago, when little Willie Lincoln died, Doctors Brown and Alexander, the embalmers or injectors, prepared his body so handsomely that the President had it twice disinterred to look upon it. The same men, in the same way, have made perpetual these beloved lineaments. There is now no blood in the body; it was drained by the jugular vein and sacredly preserved, and through a cutting on the inside of the thigh the empty blood vessels were charged with a chemical preparation which soon hardened to the consistence of stone. The long and bony body is now hard and stiff, so that beyond its present position it cannot be moved any more than the arms or legs of a statue. It has undergone many changes. The scalp has been removed, the brain taken out, the chest opened and the blood emptied. All that we see of Abraham Lincoln, so cunningly contemplated in this splendid coffin, is a mere shell, an effigy, a sculpture. He lies in sleep, but it is the sleep of marble. All that made this flesh vital, sentient, and affectionate is gone forever.

The officers present are Generals Hunter and Dyer and two staff captains. Hunter, compact and dark and reticent, walks about the empty chamber in full uniform, his bright buttons and sash and sword contrasting with his dark blue uniform, gauntlets upon his hands, crape on his arm and blade, his corded hat in his hands, a paper collar just apparent above his velvet tips, and now and then he speaks to Captain Nesmith or Captain Dewes, of General Harding's staff, rather as one who wishes company than one who has anything to say. His two silver stars upon his shoulder shine dimly in the draped apartment. He was one of the first in the war to urge the measures which Mr. Lincoln afterward adopted. The aids walk to and fro, selected without reference to any association with the late President. Their clothes are rich, their swords wear mourning, they go in silence, everything is funereal. In the deeply-draped mirrors strange mirages are seen, as in the coffin scene of "Lucretia Borgia," where all the dusky perspectives bear vistas of gloomy palls. The upholsterers make timid noises of driving nails and spreading tapestry; but save ourselves and these few watchers and workers, only the dead is here. The White House, so ill-appreciated in common times, is seen to be capacious and elegant--no disgrace to the nation even in the eyes of those foreign folk of rank who shall gather here directly.

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The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth
George Alfred Townsend

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