April 25, 2017
Preserving presidential history, one cemetery library at a time
by Susan Rella
The entry consists of just four words: Abraham Lincoln. Assassinated. Kentucky.
This notice of death—listing name, cause of death, and birthplace of the deceased—is recorded in a plain, inch-thick volume at Oak Ridge Cemetery, located in Springfield, Illinois. The cemetery’s first volume of interment records provides the only handwritten account of President Lincoln’s funeral known to exist. The second volume has a similar listing for his widow, Mary Todd Lincoln. And both are in need of intense preservation efforts.
“Time has not been kind to them after 150 years,” the cemetery’s executive director, Michael Lelys, told David Blanchette of Springfield’s State Journal-Register. And with that in mind, the cemetery has just launched a $40,000 fundraising drive: $30,000 to restore the two books, $6,000 for a climate-controlled display case, and $2,300 for high-quality facsimile reproductions. The remainder of the raised funds will go toward a donor plaque and to cover any additional expenses.
The fundraising drive is still in its nascent stage, but a GoFundMe page is being planned, and the cemetery will also hold special events to encourage contributions. Currently, the books are in a laboratory at an archival restoration firm in Chicago, where work will begin as soon as half the necessary funds have been raised. The project is expected to take several months to complete.
Springfield has a decent track record for fundraising Lincoln-related costs; in 1865, the city raised $25,000 toward the funeral expenses. That funeral—whose the procession retraced Lincoln’s 1861 route as president-elect—included public viewings in thirteen cities and lasted twenty days. And while in 1865 the town of Springfield had an estimated population of just 15,000, the turnout for the funeral was estimated at 150,000 (according to James Cornelius, curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum). Approximately one-third of the US population at the time participated in some form of commemoration, far surpassing public participation in any prior national event.
Katie Spindell, a member of the cemetery’s board, told Blanchette that a graphic conservator had appraised the books and told her, “This is a national treasure.” Spindell was also executive director of the Lincoln Funeral Coalition, which oversaw the 150th commemoration of Lincoln’s funeral train. Before the coalition disbanded, $5,000 in remaining funds was diverted to Oak Ridge Cemetery for this restoration. And while the board will review requests from area institutions to house the books on loan, Spindell said the board’s decision is firm: the books’ final resting place, just as that of the names held within, will be Oak Ridge Cemetery.
Susan Rella is the Director of Production at Melville House, and a former bookseller.