Wednesday, February 18, 2009

TV Review: "Stealing Lincoln's Body" (History Channel)

"Stealing Lincoln's Body," a new 2-hour documentary by The History Channel, tells the almost unbelievable story of the over 35 year odyssey of Lincoln's body following his assassination. Following the story most clearly laid out in the 2007 book of the same name by Thomas Craughwell, the film by Trey Nelson precisely narrates the bizarre tale of how Lincoln's body was first prepared for burial following his death and how it was moved ten times after reaching its final resting place in Oak Ridge Cemetery.

The most dramatic event during these years, and the source of the title, is an improbable attempt in 1876 to steal Lincoln's body and hold it for ransom. However, this story only accounts for the middle third of the documentary; it took nearly eight years for Lincoln's body finally be permanently buried after his death and then a quarter-century to permanently rebury the body after the failed attempt to steal the body. Certainly the entire story is stranger than fiction.

The film does a strong job clearly telling this story, with a strong guiding narrative and interviews from several experts, including Craughwell, noted Lincoln scholars Michael Burlingame and Harold Holzer, as well as up-and-coming Lincoln scholar Jason Emerson, Jon Austin, Director of the Museum of Funeral Customs (located just outside Oak Ridge Cemetery), James Cornelius, curator of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, and Nan Wynn, the current manager of the Lincoln Tomb.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the film is the decision to show a "virtual Abraham Lincoln." In addition to some standard modern recreations of events for the film, there are also scenes of Abraham Lincoln that are graphically created from Lincoln images and life masks -- including, most notably, the assassination itself. The effect is odd, to say the least; the rendering, by a production company called Studio Macbeth, looks more like Lincoln than any actor could. At times it was charming; frankly, though, the moment of assassination was eerie. (The company has a blog about the development of this technology.) Odder still, though, is the fact that this technology seems wasted on a documentary that focuses exclusively on Lincoln's body after he was dead.

Regardless, the story itself demands attention. Perhaps it starts of slow, with a description of Lincoln's autopsy, and then a more detailed description of the embalming of Lincoln's body -- a relatively new procedure that had flourished during the Civil War. After tracing the long funeral train journey, featuring ceremonies in a dozen cities, the documentary tells of the various stops for Lincoln's body (and his son Willie's body) while the memorial tomb was being constructed.

Then the action really begins, as a Chicago counterfeiter hatches a plan to grave-rob the Lincoln tomb in hopes of gaining a pardon for his jailed accomplice and $200,000 cash. The plan has notable problems -- none of the criminals involved has experience with this type of crime, and they plan to hide the coffin in the Indiana Dunes, roughly a two-week journey. Still, they might have succeeded if the plan hadn't been discovered by the US Secret Service -- then an agency solely focused on fighting counterfeiting. While the planned theft is bizarre, without this discovery the terrifying thought is that the criminals likely would have stolen the body.

After the break-in, the custodian was fearful of the potential for the body to be stolen in the future. In order to prevent this, he hid the body in the tomb's basement, where it was eventually buried. Indeed, Robert Lincoln, who was aware of these security tactics, privately shed his staunch Victorian image when he instructed that his mother, following her death, was to be buried in the basement beside her husband's temporary shallow grave. A more permanent solution was possible only when it became clear that the entire memorial needed to be rebuilt. This was done and Lincoln was finally buried in a deep, cement vault beneath the tomb in 1901 -- following Robert's instructions, likely cribbed from the burial of Robert's previous (and publicly vilified) employer George Pullman.

The story is fascinating, and this film tells it well. Perhaps the buildups to each commercial break are a little overly dramatic, but aside from this, the documentary is both accurate and accessible. The subject matter is a bit macabre, but otherwise the film is highly recommended.

"Stealing Lincoln's Body" premiered on Monday, February 16, 2009.

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