My Childhood Fear of Abe Lincoln's Corpse

When I was a young girl, I was deathly afraid of Abraham Lincoln. Let me rephrase that. I was deathly afraid of Abraham Lincoln’s corpse. His corpse, I deduced, was somehow crammed into an old steamer trunk. The trunk once belonged to my great-grandmother but at the time resided stacked on a small tower of boxes in my grandparents’ basement.

I have no idea what made me think he was in there. But he was.

I spent a lot of time in that basement. It was fairly typical as fair as basements went. Concrete floors, washer and dryer, storage boxes, an upright freezer for surpluses of meat and hidden desserts. There was a large, deep, white basin sink next to the laundry that my grandma would sometimes wash my hair in. I always hated this because I had to uncomfortably bend over and crane my neck against the stiff lip of the sink. I had to stand at the basin because I was also afraid of taking showers when I was a young girl, so this was the only way for my grandma to wash my hair when I stayed over.

But the reason I was down there so much was because of the Ping-Pong table. And although I loved playing hours of Ping-Pong with my grandpa, I also loved skating in endless circles around the table while listening to Rockin’ Gold.

 Rockin’ Gold is a series of four cassette tapes compromised of the golden oldies classics. The tapes were released in 1987 by McDonalds. That’s right, McDonalds. Americana at its finest. Questionable burger meat, salt doused fries, rectangular apple pie, My grandma had the whole set. I would skate and skate and skate around the Ping-Pong table to the Beach Boys, the Chiffons, and Chubby Checker.

I obviously wasn’t so scared of the corpse of our 16th president that I wouldn’t not go down into the retreat of my own private skating rink, but every time I sharply rounded the corner of the table closest to the trunk, I eyed it with extreme caution and dread.

My worst fear was that he would speak. I was terrified that he would speak to me through the wooden walls of the trunk. I imagined he would say my name, nothing else, and repeat it over and over. I would conjure up this fear so vividly that often I could barely make it through one side of the cassette before I was flinging off my skates and charging up the steps in a cold sweat.

I forgot to mention that in this fear Lincoln is not in the trunk alone. The trunk was standard in size, approximately 2’ x 3’, and packed with the normal tucked away keepsakes and tchotchkes. Lincoln was not his formerly booming 6’4” stature but rather in my mind he was much smaller. Tiny. Hand-held. Wooden. Artisanal. He was in there among the junk taunting me with his death and the prospective utterance of my name. See, because he was a very particular Abraham Lincoln that was my haunting my discotheque, he was the Lincoln of Ernest “Mooney” Warther whittled into the back of funeral train on display in The Warther Museum and Gardens in Dover, Ohio.

Wather’s Museum is little over an hour’s drive south from my hometown of Lodi, Ohio. My grandparents would often take my younger brother, my cousins, and I on field trips around Ohio and the immediate surrounding states. Warther was a master wood carver whose carvings and handmade knives, according to the museum’s website, are praised by the Smithsonian Institute as “priceless works of art.”  They indeed are, inspiring awe, admiration, and, apparently, fear in young children. Well, maybe just me.

Warther’s specialty is model trains with the museum housing 64 steam engines carved in unbelievable, painstaking detail out of walnut wood, bone, ivory, and pearl.

There is the Dewitt Clinton engine, the first locomotive of the New York Central Railroad built in 1831. The Great-Northern Mountain-Style Locomotive designed and built in 1930. The Commodore Vanderbilt also built for the New York Central Railroad in 1870. The “General,” the famous Civil War locomotive built for the Western Atlantic Railroad in 1855. And, of course, the Lincoln Funeral Train.

There is nothing specific about Lincoln that frightened me nor the manner of his demise. I remember learning in school that a man named John Wilkes Booth had shot him at Ford’s Theatre and that his funeral was a long drawn out affair. It wasn’t his death that marked me; it was death in general.

Thinking back, I had grasped the idea of immorality pretty early and it troubled me. I was fortunate to not meet with much death in my childhood years so I can only recall that which I was witness to in the pop culture I consumed.

The 1989 animated film All Dogs Go to Heaven set in 1939 New Orleans, in which a mischievous German Shepard named Charlie B. Barkin is murdered by his riverboat casino partner, a bulldog named Carface Caruthers, had me contemplating Hell for weeks.

When the textually gifted barn spider, Charlotte A. Cavatica, of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, dies after giving birth to a gaggle of eggs, I was beside myself.

I remember watching a cartoon version of the The Nutcracker in which the Mouse King meets a gruesome end and I could not fathom how this tale of horror and mortal (or rodent) demise became a joyous Christmas classic.

When I spent the night at my grandparents’ house, I would often bunk with my grandma, and every stuffed animal and doll baby I could fit in the car, while my younger brother and my grandpa would sleep in the guest room. I would wake early in the morning while it was still dark but with just enough light creeping in from behind the drawn shades to illuminate my grandma’s slumbering profile. I would lay there stiff and scared with a brief reprieve every time I saw the shallow rise and fall of her chest. What if the next fall didn’t give way to a rise? I never felt such relief in my young life as when she groggily opened her eyes and said good morning.

Lincoln was just another example of death but he wasn’t just a movie I saw or a story I read, he was made manifest. A wooden figured carved into a miniature open casket carved into a miniature funeral train. He wasn’t a dog or spider or rat, he was once a man, he was once real and alive. That meant to me that he could come back.

My memory of the train is this—It was in the center of a room. The room was cold and low-lit. The train was under a glass case and illuminated. You could approach the train and peer through the glass to ogle all the microscopic crafted details put into the driving wheels, axel boxes, pistons, the smokebox, and coal hopper.

You could peer into the windows of the passenger cars and marvel at the minuscule aspects of folds in curtains, straight back chairs, sinks, tassels, keys, Lincoln’s black coffin, and his ivory bearded face. He was trapped in this ornate, miniature death that was stuck in permanent display. 

This filled me with an extreme about of anxiety. Death is the ultimate trap. You can't move. You can't breathe. You can't be. So when I think about it now, it doesn't seem odd that I relocated this tiny Lincoln from being encased in a wooden train in a glass display to being locked in a trunk, stored in the basement. As a child, if I could keep tabs on death...if I could trap it in a trunk...then at least I would know where it was. I could out-skate it. And when I got too close I could fling off my skates (real or metaphorical) and run away leaving it the dusty basement for another, braver, day.