A Brief History of Presidential Funeral Trains

Funeral Train of President Abraham Lincoln
Funeral Train of President Abraham Lincoln
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

The body of President George H. W. Bush will be transported by train along a 70-mile route to College Station, Texas, where it will be taken to its final resting place at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Texas A&M University. The train—Union Pacific 4141, named for the 41st president—is painted robin's egg blue (just like Air Force One) and will tow a special transparent viewing car, allowing the public one last chance to pay their respects to the former head of state.

It's the first time a president's body has been moved by funeral train in almost 50 years.

Funeral trains, however, used to be something of a tradition for departed politicians: Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, Warren G. Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower were all transported to their final resting places by a ceremonial train. (As were other government figures, including Robert F. Kennedy, Douglas MacArthur, and Frank Lautenberg.)

Lincoln's funeral train, the first, was arguably the most memorable. Traveling 1654 miles from Washington D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, the train chugged at a steady speed of 20 mph and stopped at 180 cities over the course of 13 days. The steam engine featured a portrait of Lincoln at the front and carried nine cars covered in elaborate mourning bunting. According to Olivia B. Waxman at TIME, "When it was in transit, a train traveling 30 minutes ahead of the Lincoln Special sounded a bell to alert those in the area that the funeral train was approaching. Those who could only see it at night camped out at bonfires along the route." Millions of people turned out to show their respects.

The next presidential funeral train was for another head of state who sadly also succumbed to gunshot wounds—James A. Garfield. According to the James A. Garfield National Historic Site blog:

"All along the route mourners stood at trackside, heads bowed as the train went by and church bells tolled. Bridges and buildings were draped in black. At Princeton, New Jersey, students scattered flowers on the track and then retrieved the crushed petals after the train had passed to keep for souvenirs. The train was met in Washington by the Chief Justice, Garfield's entire cabinet, and Presidents Grant and Arthur."

In many cases, the funeral trains traveled through places beloved by the presidents. Ulysses S. Grant's train was saluted as it passed through West Point. McKinley's train made haste to reach his beloved home in Canton, Ohio. (Many onlookers, not content to just bring flowers, made mementos by placing coins on the tracks and watched as the train flattened them.)

Meanwhile, FDR's funeral train—which embarked on a nine-state, three-day ride—carried much more than the president's remains: It also carried some of the most important people in government, including Roosevelt's family, the vice president and his family, every Supreme Court Justice, and most of the administrative cabinet. According to the MacMillan synopsis of Robert Kara's book FDR's Funeral Train, "Many who would recall the journey later would agree it was a foolhardy idea to start with—putting every important elected figure in Washington on a single train during the biggest war in history."

In some cases, the deceased had a special connection to the train itself. Eisenhower's body was transported in a car named "The Old Santa Fe." It was a familiar place: Ike had ridden the same car when he made his first campaign speech in 1952. Similarly, Bush—a train lover—had been acquainted with his funeral train for more than a decade, having given the 4300-horsepower locomotive his seal of approval back in 2005. At the time, he even gave the train a two-mile test drive and called it, "The Air Force One of railroads."

25 Fascinating Facts About John F. Kennedy

Photo by Keystone/Getty Images
Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

More than 55 years after his tragic assassination cut his presidency short, John F. Kennedy remains one of history’s most intriguing figures—and, according to Gallup, America’s favorite president. Here are 25 things you might not have known about JFK.

1. John F. Kennedy received last rites a total of four times.

From a young age, John F. Kennedy battled a range of health problems, some of which appeared to be life-threatening—so much so that he received the sacramental last rites a total of four times: first in 1947, when he became sick while traveling in England and was diagnosed with Addison’s disease; a second time in 1951, when he was suffering from an extremely high fever while in Japan; the third time in 1954, when he slipped into a coma following back surgery; and a final time on the day of his assassination, on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas.

2. JFK faked his way into the Navy.


By Photograph in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Kennedy’s ongoing health problems became an issue when he attempted to enlist in the military in the lead-up to America’s entry into World War II. Because of his various medical conditions, Kennedy could not pass a proper physical examination. Instead, according to JFK historian Richard Reeves, Kennedy “used the riches and influence of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, to become a naval officer. The old man persuaded friends in the military to accept a certificate of good health, a false one, from a family doctor.”

3. JFK became a war hero.

Regardless of how he found his way into the navy, Kennedy certainly proved his chops as an officer once he was there. In 1943, he was made commander of a PT-109 patrol boat that came under attack near the Solomon Islands. After the boat sank, Kennedy and his crew swam approximately 3.5 miles to a nearby island, where they were stranded for seven days until a pair of PT boats came to their rescue.

4. A memento from JFK’s near-death experience was an Oval Office fixture.


Public Domain, JFK Library

In an attempt to get help for himself and his marooned crew of fellow officers, Kennedy etched an SOS message into a coconut shell, which he gave to two natives to deliver to a nearby base in order to arrange for their rescue. As a reminder of the incident, Kennedy had the coconut encased in wood and plastic and used it as a paperweight. It sat on his desk in the Oval Office.

5. The wreck of John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 was discovered nearly 60 years later.

In 2002, famed deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of Kennedy and his crew’s PT-109 boat about 1200 feet below the water’s surface during a National Geographic expedition. "I'm very pleased, because it was a real needle in a haystack, probably the toughest needle I've ever had to find," Ballard said—which was quite a testament, as Ballard also discovered the Titanic.

6. JFK is the only president to have received a Purple Heart.

Though recent presidential candidates John Kerry and John McCain both received Purple Hearts for their service during wartime, Kennedy is the only president to boast the honor. He received it after being wounded in action on August 22, 1943.

7. Bobby Kennedy got a little wild at JFK’s wedding.


The Kennedy siblings celebrate John and Jackie's wedding.

By Toni Frissell, 1953, Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When JFK married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier on September 12, 1953 in Newport, Rhode Island, his brother, Robert, served as his best man. But that best man got a little wild. According to Evan Thomas’s Robert Kennedy: His Life, Bobby “behaved like a naughty teenager, stealing a policeman’s hat” on his brother’s wedding day. “Joe Kennedy was furious. He summoned Bobby and his co-conspirators, his brother Teddy and some younger cousins, and gave them a lecture about disgracing the family name. When Bobby tried to speak up, Joe snapped, ‘No. You keep quiet and listen to me. This is childish behavior, and I don’t want anything more like it.’"

8. John F. Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize.

In 1957, Kennedy was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his book, Profiles in Courage. Though Kennedy is credited as the book’s sole author, questions have arisen in the years since about how much of the book was actually written by Kennedy, and how much was written by his ghostwriter, Ted Sorenson. In 2008, Sorenson told The Wall Street Journal that he “did a first draft of most chapters,” “helped choose the words of many of its sentences,” and likely “privately boasted or indirectly hinted that I had written much of the book.”

9. John and Jackie Kennedy had four children.


National Archive/Newsmakers

Though both Caroline and John Kennedy, Jr. became celebrities in their own right, JFK and Jackie had four children: In 1956, Jackie gave birth to a stillborn daughter who they had planned to name Arabella. On August 7, 1963, she gave birth to Patrick Bouvier Kennedy more than five weeks before her due date; he died just two days later. In 1963, the bodies of both children were moved from Massachusetts to Arlington National Cemetery, to be buried with their father.

10. JFK got into a fender-bender with Larry King.

In 1958, Larry King got into a car accident with JFK, who was then a senator, while in Palm Beach. In his autobiography, King wrote about how he had just arrived to the area from Brooklyn and was so distracted by the swanky South Florida locale that he wasn’t really paying attention to the road. And Kennedy was pretty angry about the whole incident. “How could you?” Kennedy yelled. “Early Sunday morning, no traffic, not a cloud in the sky, I’m parked—how could you run into me?”

“All I could say was, ‘Senator, do you want to exchange information from our driver’s licenses?’” King replied, writing that, “Eventually he calmed down, and he said he’d forget the whole thing if we just promised to vote for him when he ran for president. We did, and he drove away—though not before saying, ‘Stay waaay behind me.’”

11. JFK didn’t expect Lyndon Johnson to say “yes” to becoming his running mate.


By Abbie Rowe - John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Kennedy’s choice of running mate came down to the wire. “At around 11 a.m. on the day a nominee was to be presented, John Kennedy visited Johnson in his hotel suite and offered him the job,” according to PBS. “Robert Kennedy maintained afterward that his brother offered the job to Johnson only as a courtesy, and then felt trapped when he accepted. ‘Now what do we do?’ the candidate asked, then answered by sending Bobby back to talk Johnson out of it. Around 4 p.m., with tensions running high all around, John Kennedy called Johnson to assure him he was the one. Ignore Bobby, he said, because ‘he's been out of touch and doesn't know what's happening.’”

12. John F. Kennedy was the last president to wear a top hat at his inauguration.

For many years, going back to at least James Garfield’s inauguration in 1881, it was a tradition for incoming presidents to wear a top hat as part of the Inauguration Day garb. Though JFK wasn’t a fan of hats, he went along with the tradition—but was the last POTUS to do so.

13. JFK began the tradition of having an inaugural poet.

Though not every incoming president has chosen to have an inaugural poet, the tradition itself began with Kennedy, who asked Robert Frost to recite “The Gift Outright” on his Inauguration Day in 1961. But Frost had other ideas and wrote an entirely new poem for Kennedy, entitled “Dedication,” for the occasion. There was just one problem: It was a bright and sunny day, and Frost—who was 87 years old at the time—had trouble reading the copy of the poem he had brought with him, so ended up reciting “The Gift Outright” from memory.

14. William Faulkner refused a White House dinner invitation.

Kennedy may have been able to convince one of the world’s most celebrated poets to attend his inauguration, but not every literary hero was so keen to make the journey to the White House. When Kennedy extended a dinner invitation to William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize-winning author politely declined, telling LIFE Magazine: “Why that’s a hundred miles away. That’s a long way to go just to eat.”

15. JFK was the second wealthiest president.

With an estimated net worth of about $1 billion (in today’s dollars) when he took office in 1961, Kennedy had long held the record for the wealthiest president in U.S. history. In 2017, he was knocked into second place when Donald Trump—whose net worth is estimated to be approximately $3.5 billion—took office.

16. JFK donated all of his salary to charity.

Given the size of Kennedy’s bank account, he certainly didn’t get into politics for the money. In fact, he donated his entire presidential salary to charity, just as he did his congressional salary.

17. JFK was an animal lover.


STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

The Kennedy White House was a bit of a zoo. Among the animals that called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home during JFK’s administration were five horses, two parakeets, two hamsters, a cat, a rabbit, and five dogs, including a mutt named Pushinka, a gift from Nikita Khrushchev. Pushinka was the daughter of Strelka, one of the first dogs in space.

18. JFK was a speed reader.

While the average reader is said to digest words at a rate of about 250 to 300 words per minute, JFK was far from the average reader. He could reportedly read about four times faster than that, at a speed of 1200 words per minute.

19. JFK was a James Bond fanatic.

In 1955, JFK was given a copy of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond book, Casino Royale, and was immediately intrigued by the character. In 1962, he hosted a private screening of Dr. No at the White House. When asked to name his 10 favorite books, he listed From Russia With Love at number nine. In a documentary included in the Bond 50th anniversary Blu-ray collection, Kennedy was quoted as saying, "I wish I had had James Bond on my staff."

20. A day before signing the Cuba Embargo, JFK bought a lot of cigars.


Photo by Walter Daran/Getty Images

Kennedy was a fan of fine cigars, and Cuban cigars in particular. In February of 1962, he asked press secretary Pierre Salinger to help him acquire a large supply of Cuban cigars—and quickly. When Salinger asked how many he needed, Kennedy told him, "About 1000 Petit Upmanns." And he wanted them by the next morning. The next day, when Salinger informed the president that he had managed to get 1200 of them, he wrote that, “Kennedy smiled, and opened up his desk. He took out a long paper which he immediately signed. It was the decree banning all Cuban products from the United States. Cuban cigars were now illegal in our country.”

21. JFK recorded more than 260 hours of private White House conversations.

In the spring of 1962, Secret Service agent Robert Bouck installed secret recording devices in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room of the White House at the request of President Kennedy. Though the president never explained why he wanted to record his conversations, both Bouck and Evelyn Lincoln, JFK’s personal secretary, believed that his reason for doing this was to have a personal record of his time in the White House after he had left. The Miller Center at the University of Virginia has made many of the 260-plus hours of recordings available to the public (you can even listen to some of them online).

22. JFK helped get The Manchurian Candidate made.


AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Kennedy ran with a pretty cool circle of friends, and Frank Sinatra was one of them. When Sinatra was having trouble getting United Artists to greenlight a big-screen adaptation of Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, The Manchurian Candidate, for fear that it was too controversial, Sinatra persuaded Kennedy to make a personal appeal to the studio head. "That's the only way that film ever got made," Condon later told Kitty Kelley, Sinatra’s biographer. "It took Frank going directly to Jack Kennedy."

23. JFK was the target of at least four assassination attempts.

Throughout his life, JFK was the target of at least four assassination attempts—including once in 1960, shortly after being elected president, when a retired postal worker filled his car with dynamite and followed the president-elect from Hyannisport to Palm Beach. "Brother, they could have gotten me in Palm Beach,” Kennedy reportedly told a Secret Service agent. “There is no way to keep anyone from killing me." In the lead-up to JFK’s assassination in Dallas, two additional plots—one in Chicago and one in Tampa—were discovered.

24. JFK’s trusty black alligator briefcase sold for more than $700,000.


JON LEVY/AFP/Getty Images)

One of Kennedy’s most trusted companions was his black alligator Hermès briefcase, which he carried with him everywhere, including the morning of his assassination. In 1998, the briefcase was among the president’s personal possessions that were being included in a highly anticipated auction of his personal memorabilia. The item became one of a number of items that Kennedy’s children fought to have taken off the auction block, but they eventually relented. The briefcase sold for more than $700,000.

25. JFK’s last words were “no, you certainly can’t.”

Though it’s been widely reported that JFK’s final words were, “My God, I’ve been hit,” that information is incorrect. His last words were in regards to how well he had been received in Dallas. Just seconds before he was shot, Nellie Connally—wife of Governor John Connally—remarked that, "You certainly can’t say that the people of Dallas haven’t given you a nice welcome, Mr. President,” to which he replied: “No, you certainly can't."

How to Baffle a Bull Moose: The Time Harry Houdini Tricked Theodore Roosevelt

Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator.
Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

When the SS Imperator set sail for New York City in June 1914, it had on board bigwigs of both politics and entertainment—namely, former president Theodore Roosevelt and acclaimed illusionist Harry Houdini. Houdini was returning from a performance tour across the UK, and Roosevelt had been busy with a tour of his own: visiting European museums, meeting ambassadors, and then attending the wedding of his son, Kermit, in Madrid. Though the two men hadn’t crossed paths before, they soon became fast friends, often exercising together in the morning (at least, whenever Houdini wasn’t seasick).

The ocean liner hadn’t booked Houdini to perform, but when an officer asked Houdini if he’d give an impromptu performance at a benefit concert on the ship, he agreed, partially at the insistence of his new companion.

Little did Roosevelt know, Houdini had spent weeks plotting an elaborate ruse especially for him.

Houdini Hatches a Plan

ss imperator in 1912
The SS Imperator circa 1913.
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Earlier in June, when Houdini was picking up his tickets for the trip, the teller divulged that he wouldn’t be the only celebrity on the SS Imperator.

“Teddy Roosevelt is on the boat,” the teller whispered, “but don’t tell anyone.”

Houdini, knowing there was a good chance he’d end up hosting a spur-of-the-moment show, started scheming immediately. The story was recounted in full in a 1929 newspaper article by Harold Kellock, which allegedly used Houdini’s own words from unreleased autobiographical excerpts.

Having heard that The Telegraph would soon publish details about Roosevelt’s recent rip-roaring expedition through South America, Houdini paid his editorial friends a surprise visit.

"I jumped into a taxi and went to The Telegraph office to see what I could pick up," he said. They readily obliged his request for information, and even handed over a map of Roosevelt’s journey along the Amazon.

What followed was a combination of spectacular cunning and good old-fashioned luck.

Houdini hatched a plan to hold a séance, during which he would employ a particular slate trick common among mediums at the time. In it, a participant jots down a question on a piece of paper and slips it between two blank slates, where spirits then “write” the answer and the performer reveals it.

He prepared the slates so that one bore the map of Roosevelt’s entire trail down Brazil’s River of Doubt, along with an arrow and the words “Near the Andes.” In London, Houdini had also acquired old letters from W.T. Stead, a British editor (and spiritualist) who had perished on the RMS Titanic in 1912. Houdini forged Stead’s signature on the slate to suggest that the spirit of Stead knew all about Roosevelt’s unpublicized escapades.

Upon boarding the ship, Houdini faced only two obstacles. First, he had to finagle his way into performing a public séance with Roosevelt in attendance. Second, he would have to ensure that the question his “spirit” answered was “Where was I last Christmas?” or something very similar.

Houdini cleared the first hurdle with flying colors, saying he “found it easy to work the Colonel into a state of mind so that the suggestion of séance would come from him.” Though the master manipulator doesn’t elaborate on what exactly he said about spiritualism during their conversation—later in his career, Houdini would actually make a name for himself as an anti-spiritualist by debunking popular mediums—it sufficiently piqued Roosevelt’s interest. When the ship’s officer requested that Houdini perform, Roosevelt apparently goaded, “Go ahead, Houdini, give us a little séance.”

Just like that, Houdini had scheduled a séance that Roosevelt wouldn’t likely miss—and the illusionist wasn’t going to leave a single detail up to chance.

A Back-Up Plan (Or Two)

theodore roosevelt on the ss imperator
Roosevelt relaxes aboard the SS Imperator.
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Rather than bank on the shaky possibility that Roosevelt himself would pen the perfect question, Houdini prepared to stuff the ballot, so to speak. He had copied the question "Where was I last Christmas?" onto several sheets of paper, sealed them in envelopes, and planned to make sure that only his own envelopes ended up in the hat from which he’d choose a question. (It seems like a problematic plan, considering the possibility that Roosevelt would speak up to say something like "Wait, that wasn't my question," but Houdini doesn't clarify how he hoped this would play out.)

The morning of the séance, Houdini devised yet another back-up plan. With a razor blade, he sliced open the binding of two books, slipped a sheet of carbon paper and white paper beneath each cover, and resealed them.

As long as Roosevelt used one of the books as a flat surface to write on, the carbon paper would transfer his question to the white sheet below it—meaning that even after Roosevelt had sealed his question in an envelope, Houdini could sneak a glance and alter his performance accordingly.

A Little Hocus Pocus

Theodore Roosevelt poses with a map of the roosevelt-rondon expedition
Sometime after his voyage on the SS Imperator, Roosevelt posed with a map of his expedition through the Amazon.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

That night, Houdini kicked off the show with a series of card tricks, where he let Roosevelt choose the cards. “I was amazed at the way he watched every one of the misdirection moves as I manipulated the cards,” he said, according to Kellock’s article. “It was difficult to baffle him.”

Then, it was time for the séance.

"La-dies and gen-tle-men," Houdini proclaimed. "I am sure that many among you have had experiences with mediums who have been able to facilitate the answering of your personal questions by departed spirits, these answers being mysteriously produced on slates. As we all know, mediums do their work in the darkened séance room, but tonight, for the first time anywhere, I propose to conduct a spiritualistic slate test in the full glare of the light."

Houdini distributed the slips of paper, gave instructions, and then solicitously passed Roosevelt one of the books when he saw him start to use his hand as a surface. As Roosevelt began to write, composer Victor Herbert, also in attendance, offered a few shrewd words of caution.

"Turn around. Don't let him see it," Houdini heard him warn Roosevelt. "He will read the question by the movements of the top of the pencil."

"The Colonel then faced abruptly away from me and scribbled his question in such a position that I could not see him do it," Houdini said, adding, "Of course that made no difference to me."

After Roosevelt finished, Houdini took the book and slyly extracted the paper from the inside cover while returning it to the table.

In an almost unbelievable stroke of luck, Roosevelt’s question read “Where was I last Christmas?” Houdini wouldn’t need to slip one of his own envelopes between the slates after all.

"Knowing what was in the Colonel's envelope, I did not have to resort to sleight of hand, but boldly asked him to place his question between the slates himself," Houdini said. "While I pretended to show all four faces of the two slates, by manipulation I showed only three."

Then, after Roosevelt stated his question aloud to the audience, Houdini revealed the marked-up map, bearing the answer to Roosevelt’s question signed by the ghost of W.T. Stead.

In a 1926 article from The New York Times, Houdini describes Roosevelt as “dumbfounded” by the act.

“Is it really spirit writing?” he asked.

“Yes,” Houdini responded with a wink.

In Kellock’s account, however, Houdini confessed that “it was just hocus-pocus.”

Either way, it seems that Houdini never explained to Roosevelt exactly how he had duped him, and Roosevelt died in 1919, a decade before Kellock’s detailed exposition hit newsstands.

To fully appreciate the success of Houdini’s charade, you have to understand just how difficult it would’ve been to pull one over on a sharp-witted guy like Theodore Roosevelt. Dive into his life and legacy in the first season of our new podcast, History Vs. podcast, hosted by Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy.

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