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1950s / 14-Year-old Finds Lincoln Death Photo
American history buffs were startled in September 1952 when it was announced that a banned photo of Abraham Lincoln lying in his coffin was discovered by a 14-year-old boy. Robert Lincoln, the eldest son of the assassinated president, had forbade any post-mortem photography of his father. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had zealously enforced Robert's wishes and destroyed several such photos and their negatives. Enter young Ron Rietveld of Des Moines, IA 80-plus years later. As a preteen Lincoln buff he had precociously begun corresponding with Judge James W. Bollinger, one of the country's leading collectors of Lincoln memorabilia. When Bollinger died in 1951, he left his collection to the University of Iowa. The 13-year-old Rietveld wrote to the university for permission to attend the dedication ceremony for Bollinger's collection. As a friend of Bollinger, Rietveld was granted VIP status. At the ceremony Rietveld befriended many of the great Lincoln historians of the era, including Henry Pratt. Pratt and his wife were so impressed by the teenager that they invited him to come to their Springfield, IL home to see Lincoln's tomb and visit the research library on the grounds. While there, Rietveld was given free rein to examine the archival material. Purely by chance, Rietveld began looking through papers sent by the son of Edwin Stanton. To his surprise, Rietveld found a photo (shown here) of Lincoln lying in state in an open coffin. It was taken on April 24, 1865 in New York City--meaning that Stanton had curiously kept one of the photos he was supposed to have destroyed. Rietveld recognized the scene from an artist's rendition that had appeared in Collier's magazine. Rietveld alerted Pratt to his find. Pratt suspected the photo was authentic, but he reserved judgement until it could be positively verified. Rietveld was sworn to secrecy. Not even his parents knew about his remarkable find until the story was front-page news in the Des Moines Register. As one might expect, Rietveld became a history professor himself.