The Lincoln Funeral in Columbus, Ohio

This is the latest in a series of posts by Remembering Lincoln Digital Collection partner institutions, discussing the items they are contributing to the project and the impact of the Lincoln assassination in their locales.

Alice Strickler Keyes (1851–1935) was 14-years-old when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and the memory of that traumatic event never left her. Decades later she wrote an eyewitness account of the day that Lincoln’s funeral train stopped in Columbus, Ohio, on its way to Springfield, Illinois, where the remains of the president and those of his son Willie would be buried.

On April 29, 1865, the funeral train arrived promptly at 7:30 a.m. in Columbus to the sound of muffled bells. A huge crowd of spectators watched as the president’s coffin was removed from its train car and placed on a massive hearse drawn by six white horses. A solemn cortege accompanied the hearse from Union Depot to the Ohio Statehouse, where Lincoln’s body lay in state for six and a half hours. During that time more than 50,000 people were estimated to have passed through the Statehouse rotunda. Young Alice was no mere onlooker, however; she was a member of the procession to the Statehouse.

When she was in her 60s, Mrs. Keyes recalled that historic day in a brief memoir she composed for the Altrurian Club of Columbus, of which she was a charter member. Founded in 1897, the club offered educated white women the social, literary and philanthropic opportunities lacking in the domestic sphere. As the organization’s 10th anniversary approached, the club asked each of its charter members to compose a short autobiography for the historical record. Their submissions, written in elegant script, were collected in a small three-ring binder with a brown leather cover.

Today that little binder, titled “Altrurian President’s Book I,” resides in the Altrurian Club of Columbus manuscript collection, MSS 445, at the Ohio History Center. As so often happens, I found this unexpected treasure in the archives while looking for something else. Alice Keyes wrote with a journalist’s eye for detail and with a historian’s insight. She begins her account by describing the city’s joyous mood on April 14, 1865:

On that day there were services in the churches in the morning; in the afternoon and evening everything was done that is possible on such occasions to express the joy of the citizens. The town was lavishly decorated.

The next morning, April 15th, all this joy was turned to sorrow when the news of President Lincoln’s assassination reached the city. The emblem of Victory gave place to those of mourning for the fallen President.

Then, there came news of the funeral train’s scheduled stop in Columbus. The city’s fire department recruited students from Alice’s school to ride with its unit in the procession to the Statehouse. Most of these schoolgirls rode on a large hook-and-ladder wagon reconstructed for the occasion. In its coverage of the event, the May 1 issue of the Ohio State Journal  singled out the Fire Department and the students for praise.

The hearse was 17 feet long, 8½ feet wide, and 17½ feet high at its apex. Mrs. Keyes recalls it vividly:

The catafalque used to carry the body of President Lincoln had a canopy shaped like a pagoda. It was large, covered with black cloth festooned, and trimmed with silver fringe. It was drawn by six white horses with large black plumes on their heads. The horses had a covering of black cloth edged with silver fringe, and each horse was led by a groom dressed in black.

When the procession reached the Statehouse, the girls entered the rotunda and walked past the president’s coffin. It rested on a flower-covered bier bearing the word “Lincoln” written in silver letters.

The memoir had one more surprise in store for me. Attached to its final page is a small piece of tarnished silver fringe. Acutely aware of its historic significance, Mrs. Keyes donated it to her beloved Altrurian Club.

In 1924 the Ohio Historical Society (now the Ohio History Connection) received another segment of silver fringe attributed to Alice Strickler Keyes and donated by John Howes Waters. This artifact currently is on loan to the Ohio Statehouse Museum.

Carolyn Wavrin was a member of AmeriCorps, serving with the Ohio History Service Corps at the Ohio History Connection.