The journey of Abraham Lincoln‘s body from Washington, DC to Springfield, Illinois took 13 days and was witnessed by hundreds of thousands of mourners. Solemn observers lined the tracks as the funeral train passed by. In several cities, the President’s coffin was removed from the train so residents could pass by and show their respects. Countless photographs recorded the largest funeral procession in history. One of those photographs captured two young boys who were, themselves, destined to transform the office of the man whose funeral procession they observed.
The funeral train arrived at New York City on April 24, 1865. President Lincoln’s body was taken to City Hall for public viewing until the next day. As the military honor guard proceeded down Broadway, a photographer captured a picture of the mourners.
Two figures can be seen in a second-story window. The building was the union square mansion belonging to Cornelius Roosevelt. The figures in the window were the owner’s grandsons, 6-year-old Theodore and 5-year-old Elliott.
History does not record what the two boys thought about the spectacle or what impact the scene made upon such impressionable minds. Were they old enough to understand the horror of the assassination of the President and the changes that would come with it? What we do know is that thirty-six years later, another President would be assassinated, and as a result, Theodore would become the 26th President of the United States. We also know that 19 years after this photograph was taken, Elliott would become the father of a girl whom he would name Eleanor. Almost exactly 80 years after the funeral procession her father witnessed, she would board a train for the solemn funeral procession of her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
It was Theodore Roosevelt‘s wife, Edith, who identified the boys. “Yes, I think that is my husband, and next to him, his brother,” Edith Roosevelt told the photojournalist Stefan Lorant. She recalled that at the age of 3, she had joined her future husband and his brother, Elliott, at the open window, but that when she saw “all the black drapings,” she started to weep: “They didn’t like me crying. They took me and locked me in a back room.”
As President, Theodore referred to Lincoln as “my great hero” and said that he meant “more to me than any other of our public men.” Noting a Lincoln portrait he had hung on his office wall in the White House, he said, “I look up to that picture, and I do as I believe Lincoln would have done.”