A rare image provided by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum shows the only known photograph of Lincoln lying in a coffin.
This past week historian Ronald Rietveld donated the image to the president’s Springfield, Illinois library. The image comes with a group of notes that Rietveld took on the infamous photo.
Rietveld’s discovery is not only the rarest photograph of Lincoln but it is also the final chapter of a great man. It was April 1865 and the image shows one of the numerous stops that the president made and the train made its way to Springfield.
The image, illusive for nearly a century, was discovered by a 14-year-old boy. That young boy was Ronald Rietveld himself and now he is handing over the image to its final and most glorious place.
Originally Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, heard about the photograph and ordered it and all the prints and negatives destroyed. All were except this illusive image that was originally sent to Stanton.
Rietveld found the image in the 1950s; fascinated with President Lincoln, he attended the dedication of a collection of Lincoln-related items at the University of Iowa.
Harry Pratt, state historian of Illinois and a presidential scholar, was so impressed with Rietveld that he invited him to Springfield to see the 16th president’s home and tomb.
Pratt also let Rietveld look through papers of John Nicolay and John Hay, who were White House secretaries when Lincoln was president. Hay’s daughter donated the papers to the Illinois State Historical Library in 1943.
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.
“Then I opened up the folded sheet of plain stationery and there lay a faded brown photograph,” Rietveld said.
At first he didn’t believe what he was seeing.
“My first reaction was, ‘This can’t be’ because I knew Lincoln photography well enough to know there were no photographs of Lincoln in the coffin, there were no such pictures, period,” Rietveld, noted.
Pratt told Rietveld to keep quiet about the photo until he could determine its authenticity. Rietveld boarded a bus with his secret, vowing to never tell anyone.
On Sept. 14, 1952, his mother shook him awake and told him that his grandfather had just called with news that a picture of Lincoln was all over the front page of the Des Moines newspaper, with Rietveld’s name attached to it.
“She wanted to know what I had done wrong,” said Rietveld, chuckling at the memory. “I told her I didn’t do anything wrong, I’d found the photograph during the summer in Springfield. The AP (Associated Press) had put my name all over the country.”