Monday, October 13, 2014



Chicago, Illinois (JFK+50) Last week Professor Emeritus Ronald Rietveld* gave the three pages of notes he wrote about a photograph of the body of Abraham Lincoln which he had discovered when he was 14 years old to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield.

No known photographs of the body of the assassinated 16th President of the United States were known to exist.  Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had prohibited the taking of pictures of Lincoln's corpse.

It was known, however, that when the body was lying in state in New York City on April 24, 1865, a photographer was granted permission by General E.D. Townsend** to make a picture of the corpse. When he learned about the violation of his orders, Secretary Stanton had the photographic plate destroyed and it was assumed any and all prints from the plate were also destroyed.

Eighty-seven years later, however, Ronald Rietveld stumbled upon a single print of Lincoln's corpse.  He recognized Mr. Lincoln's coffin from an illustration published in Harper's Weekly.

Lincoln's Coffin
White House East Room
Harper's Weekly

Described as a "teenager fascinated with Lincoln," Rietveld was invited by the Illinois State historian to visit Springfield and was given the opportunity to "look through the papers" of the President's secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay.

In his article on this topic, Don Babwin of the Assoicated Press writes...

"Rietveld came upon an envelope sent to Nicolay in 1887 by Stanton's son, who explained that he'd found some of his father's papers and thought Nicolay might want them."

In the envelope, Ronald Rietveld found the "faded brown photograph" showing Lincoln in repose in his coffin in New York City flanked by two military honor guards.

After a short investigation was conducted, Rietveld was informed on September 14, 1952 that the photograph was authentic.  

The question remains as to why Stanton did not destroy this one remaining print.  James Cornelius, Curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum believes the War Secretary just couldn't bring himself to destroy "the last print."  And so it remained hidden for so many years.


"Historian donates notes on famous Lincoln photo," by Don Babwin, Associated Press, Knoxville News-Sentinel, October 12, 2014.

"Lincoln museum to get account of famous coffin," by Barbara Brotman, October 6, 2014,

"The Magnificent Find, Discovering the Lincoln Death Photograph,"

*Ronald Rietveld is Emeritus Professor of History at California State University Fullerton.  He was born in Des Moines, Iowa and was living there at the age of 14.

RR also is noted as the man who met Fleetwood Lindley whose father was a member of the Lincoln Honor Guard and who had the opportunity to look upon the remains of President Lincoln in 1901 when they were about to be buried in a permanent grave in Springfield.  Mr. Lindley also assisted with the ropes as the coffin was lowered 10 feet below ground level.

**General E.D. Townsend was in charge of Lincoln's funeral train.


We had the honor of attending a speech given by Ronald Rietvald many years ago at a Lincoln Symposium held at Lincoln Memorial University here in East Tennessee.

I talked to Mr. Rietvald after the speech.  I told him I would include his story in my lessons on Lincoln's death and asked if there was anything in particular he would like me to tell my students about his contribution.

Mr. Rietvald said that he would like them to understand that by his own example any one of them could one day make a similar contribution to history.