February quest unearths Lincoln story

Welcome to February. We know it's the second month, and the shortest month, but how did it get such a strange name? July and August are named for emperors, but February?

When I typed "February" into the Internet, this caught my eye: On Feb. 1, 1963, Fleetwood Lindley, the last living person to see Abraham Lincoln's face, died.

That sounded odd. Lincoln was killed in 1865, so I suppose a child could have seen the president and then died 98 years later as an old, old man.

But no. Lindley was born in 1888, long after Lincoln's assassination, and was only 75 when he died.

A few more clicks told the story. Thieves had tried to steal Lincoln's body from its Springfield, Ill., tomb in 1876, and over the years it had been relocated 17 times for security and maintenance reasons. Reconstruction of the tomb began in 1900, at the order of Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln, and the coffin was to be buried the next year in a steel cage and concrete.

Twenty-three people were present for the re-entombment, including a man who had summoned his 13-year-old son from school to take part in the ceremony. That was Fleetwood Lindley.

The group wanted to be sure the body had not disappeared, so a section was cut from the coffin lid. They viewed the president's remains, preserved from intensive embalming that had preceded Lincoln's long train trip from Washington, D.C., in 1865. All agreed it was the president's body, and they sealed it forever.

Earlier that same month, Robert Todd Lincoln had arrived at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., just as President McKinley was shot dead. Twenty years before, he had witnessed the assassination of President Garfield in Washington. And on April 14, 1865, he had been invited to Ford's Theatre by his father, but he begged off and was at the White House the night Lincoln was shot.

The last words his father heard, coming from an actor in the play Our American Cousin , were, "You sock-dologizing old mantrap." John Wilkes Booth, knowing the theater and the play well, waited for the audience's laughter so he could step forward and fire his weapon.

Booth jumped onto the stage and fled Washington, D.C. He was chased down and shot in a burning barn, though there are sensational stories that he escaped.

One of those theories holds that Booth got away, changed his name and poisoned himself in 1903 in Enid, Okla., where my sister-in-law Mona lives. Mona's birthday is just one day after Lincoln's, on Feb. 13.

That reminds me of February. It seems the word comes from the Latin term februarius mensis, meaning "month of purification" for the ancient Romans.

That's not nearly as interesting as the stories about Lincoln.

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