A replica of Lincoln’s hearse wows funeral directors

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Just one black-and-white photo exists of the horse-drawn funeral coach used to carry Abraham Lincoln’s body in 1865 to its final resting place in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois.

It shows a remarkable gilded coach, topped with eight plumes of black ostrich feathers, parked on Springfield’s main street.

The grainy photo is all P.J. Staab II, co-owner of Staab Funeral Home in Springfield, had to go on when he agreed two years ago, perhaps somewhat recklessly, to recreate the Lincoln hearse for the 150th anniversary of the president’s death.

File Photo
File Photo

Why would a small-town funeral director devote two years of his life to a historian’s quest? Two of Staab’s friends, who helped him roll the replica coach into the Indiana Convention Center on Sunday, roar with laughter at the question and repeat it in unison: Why’d you do it?

Staab, a congenial man in jeans and button-down shirt who is the second generation of Staab’s in the undertaking business, at first says, “I don’t honestly know.” Then he offers a disjointed reply that suggests he’s still struggling with a satisfying answer.

Attendees at the National Funeral Directors Association’s convention in Indianapolis this week can get a good look at Staab’s replica of one of history’s most famous hearses and maybe ponder that Why? question themselves.

The association invited Staab to show off the hearse at its four-day convention, the first time it’s been out of Illinois since it was shipped from Arizona for its debut at the May re-enactment of the Lincoln funeral.

With its black fringe, etched-glass windows and gold and silver adornments — not to mention those feather plumes — the carriage drew a steady stream of the curious on Sunday who couldn’t resist staring and snapping photos.

“It’s amazing,” said Frank Brummett, a Northern Indiana man and convention exhibitor. He couldn’t help picturing himself going out in style like Lincoln. “I want this for me.”

Another exhibitor, Lisa Watkins of Erie, Pennsylvania, said she spotted the 9-foot-tall coach from across the huge exhibit hall and beelined over to it. “I was like, ‘What is it?’ ” she said. “It reminds me of the Munsters — the size and the feathers and the gold.”

The Victorian era of the late 1800s was a time of ornate design, with frills and ornamentation aplenty, and the Lincoln hearse had it all, from its silver hubcap-equipped wheels to the 24-carat gold encrusted fence work along the roof.

Staab’s task was to replicate the true look as best he could. “I didn’t want to provide something that wasn’t suitable,” he said.

The real Lincoln hearse, which carried the assassinated president’s body from the Springfield train station to the Illinois Capitol and then to the cemetery, is long gone. It was destroyed in an 1887 fire at the St. Louis livery that lent its massive, one-of-a-kind hearse for the president’s funeral.

Using historians at the Lincoln library and elsewhere, Staab jumped into the task of recreating the famous hearse with the help of friends he knew from the funeral business. They included a group of military veterans in California who made the coach’s frame and cast the metalwork; a Kentucky wheelwright who did the wheels, axles and springs; and Jack Feather, owner of Tombstone Hearse in Arizona, who put it all together.

“I didn’t have a clue what I was getting into. I just kept calling P.J. saying, ‘I need more money,’ ” said Feather.

Because no one had the blueprints for the Philadelphia-made hearse, Feather said the process of recreating it “was more hours spent scratching your head than it was working.”

Since no photos existed of the interior, the roof or other parts, “We ad-libbed it,” Feather said, using whatever knowledge they could glean of coach-building in Victorian times.

Team members got caught up in the historic accuracy. A feather worker in Arizona rejected the first batch of ostrich feathers Staab supplied, saying they weren’t the right type.

The California vets melted down 200 pounds of car pistons to get the needed metal for the ornamentation. Feather fitted 136 silver diamonds around the carriage’s top (the number came from Psalm 136 in the Bible). And when a British company demanded $25,000 apiece for the dual kerosene lanterns on the carriage (that would have taken up Staab’s entire budget for materials), Staab and Feather found a craftsman who agreed to make the 48-pound silver lanterns from scratch for much less.

Feather puts the total cost at well over $150,000, but it’s tough to say because everyone donated the cost of their labor. The hearse has been insured for $500,000.

The team got the carriage delivered to Springfield, via a special Mayflower van, just days before the May 1 re-enactment.

One unfortunate glitch: the springs collapsed because the team grossly underestimated the carriage’s 4,600-pound weight. Heftier springs are being made and will be installed soon, along with a few other things, like a grab bar by the driver’s seat, that Feather didn’t have time to install.

One disappointment at the convention: The hearse was supposed to be parked outside the exhibit hall, where the public also could see it. But it’s too tall for the entry doors, so it must remain in back of the exhibit hall where only convention attendees can see it.

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