A century before television made the funeral for President John F. Kennedy a national event, Americans gathered in vast numbers to mourn Abraham Lincoln during a marathon funeral that traveled by steam train from city to city. Two weeks of active mourning for Lincoln was not the only enormous display of grieving 19th century America. Here is a look at significant public funerals of the 1800s.

National Mourning for Henry Clay

Portrait painting of Henry Clay by George Peter Alexander Healy in 1845, displayed at the National Portrait Gallery. Clay is depicted with a solemn expression, his head slightly tilted to one side. He has a high forehead, receding hairline, and wears a black suit with a white shirt and black bow tie. The background is a warm, muted gold, highlighting his face and attire.
Henry Clay by George Peter Alexander Healy, 1845, National Portrait Gallery

A Kentuckian who first served in Congress in 1811, Henry Clay became one of the dominant political figures of the early 19th century. Clay was likely the most powerful American politician who never became President. He died in Washington, D.C. on June 29, 1852, and his funeral became a display of national unity in a turbulent era that would lead to the Civil War.

His body, in a stylish cast iron coffin, was carried to the Capitol. During his long career, he had been Speaker of the House and a highly influential Senator. In death he became the first person to lie in state in the Capitol’s rotunda. A train leaving Washington carried his body back to Kentucky, by way of various cities where citizens gathered to pay their respects.

Elaborate funeral processions moved through city streets as Clay’s coffin was carried to public buildings so the public could file past.

An illustration depicting the funeral procession of the Honorable Henry Clay in New York. The scene is filled with onlookers dressed in period attire, observing a horse-drawn hearse adorned with drapery and plumes. In the background, the architecture of the city, including several church steeples, is faintly visible, suggesting the event's urban setting. The solemnity of the occasion is conveyed through the detailed rendering of the draped fabrics and the quiet, attentive stance of the crowd.
Funeral Procession of the Hon. Henry Clay in New York, The Henry Clay Estate

Traveling Funeral Paid Tribute to Henry Clay’s Ideas

During his long and often controversial career, Clay had consistently advocated for “internal improvements,” which included the building of roads, canals, and eventually railroads. Clay’s policies over decades made his own traveling funeral possible. As his body moved via railroads and steamboats, his final trip back to Kentucky was something of a tribute to his life’s work in Congress.

This is a map illustrating the route taken by the funeral procession of Henry Clay in July 1852, from Washington, D.C., to Lexington, Kentucky. The map highlights major cities along the route such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and others. Population density from the 1850 census is represented by yellow dots scattered across the map, with each dot signifying 2,500 residents. The map is a result of a collaboration between Sarah Purcell, Eric Carter, and Justin Erickson.
The map traces the journey of Henry Clay’s remains as they were transported from Washington, D.C., to Lexington, Kentucky, during July 1852. This map is a collaborative creation by Sarah Purcell, Eric Carter, and Justin Erickson, Common-place

After thousands viewed Clay’s coffin in New York’s City Hall, a steamboat carried his body up the Hudson River. An astounding scene was described in newspaper accounts. A steamboat named for Henry Clay came sailing in the opposite direction. Both boats stopped their engines, and passed each other silently, the passengers standing quietly on the decks with their heads uncovered.

For a week crowds gathered in vigils to watch trains and boats carrying Clay’s body. The day before finally reaching Kentucky, a steamboat carrying the funeral party passed the town of Rising Sun, Indiana. On a wharf stood 31 young women, representing the states of the Union at the time. All wore white but one. The woman representing Kentucky wore black mourning robes.

Clay was buried in Lexington, Kentucky, on July 10, 1852.

An image of Henry Clay's marble sarcophagus, elegantly draped with a carved stone cloth and adorned with star motifs, situated in a dimly lit chamber beside a wall featuring a decorative laurel wreath and a plaque.
Henry Clay’s marble sarcophagus in Lexington, Kentucky, Wikimedia Commons

Bill Poole’s Scandalous Funeral

The political brawling of 1850s New York City was made even more raucous by William “Bill” Poole, widely known as “Bill the Butcher.” The former boxer (and butcher by trade) led a gang affiliated with the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party. Poole’s career as an intimidator ended when rival ruffians from the Tammany Hall political machine shot him in a Broadway saloon in early 1855.

An old sepia-toned illustration of Bill Poole, also known as "Bill The Butcher," from the late 1880s. He is depicted with a distinguished handlebar mustache, wearing a formal coat and patterned cravat. His hair is parted on the side and he sports a stern yet composed expression.
Bill Poole, circa late 1880s, Wikimedia Commons

Poole lingered for a week with a bullet next to his heart before muttering his famous last words: “Goodbye boys. I die a true American.” The Know Nothings had been a secretive and shady group, but after doing fairly well in the 1854 elections they had shed their shyness. Bill the Butcher’s funeral was an opportunity to show their strength.

The funeral procession for Poole marched down Broadway on Sunday, March 11, 1855. A hearse pulled by four horses was followed by 150 carriages.

Shocking Turnout for a Dead Brawler

Amazingly, more than 5,000 people marched in the procession from Greenwich Village to the Brooklyn ferry, and it was estimated that onlookers numbered more than 100,000. Many of those in attendance wore ribbons marking them as members of various Know Nothing clubs. The New York Tribune reported that liquor stores and cigar shops along the route were “mostly open” and “did an active business.”

Newspaper editorials in the following days expressed revulsion that a notorious political thug could be shown such respect. But while Poole’s funeral drew a vast crowd, it did little to sustain the Know Nothing Party, which soon faded away.

Bill the Butcher’s grave at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery is still visited by admirers (who may really be fans of the fictionalized version of him portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis in “Gangs of New York”).

This image shows the gravestone of William Poole, also known as Bill The Butcher. The inscription reads that he was shot on February 24, 1855, at Stanwix Hall on Broadway, and died of his wounds on March 8, 1855, at the age of 33 years and 8 months. The epitaph says "Good bye boys I die a true American." Small stones are placed on top of the gravestone, which is a tradition often associated with respect or remembrance. An American flag is planted in the ground next to the grave.
The grave of William Poole, “Bill The Butcher,” marked with stones of remembrance and an American flag, commemorating his death in 1855 as a self-proclaimed true American.

National Honors for a Martyred President: Abraham Lincoln

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, painted by George Victor Cooper in 1865. Lincoln is depicted with a solemn expression, his dark hair combed to the side, and sporting his iconic beard without a mustache. He is dressed in a black suit with a bow tie and a white collared shirt. The painting has a plain brown background, and there are visible craquelure patterns across the canvas, indicative of the painting's age.
Abraham Lincoln by George Victor Cooper, 1865, National Portrait Gallery

When Abraham Lincoln died in a Washington rooming house on the morning of April 15, 1865, after being shot at Ford’s Theater, it was obvious that public grieving would occur on a vast scale. Lincoln’s assassination came just five days after the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. The shocking crime devastated a public just emerging from four long years of war.

A private funeral service was held in the East Room of the White House. On April 19, 1865, a military procession carried the coffin to the Capitol where it was placed in the rotunda. The public filed past, and on the morning of April 21, 1865, a military procession to a railroad station began the long trip back to Illinois.

The special train carrying Lincoln’s coffin, as well as the coffin of his son Willie, who had died in the White House in 1862, would travel 1,700 miles.

Lincoln’s Long Train Ride Home

An artist's impression of President Abraham Lincoln lying in state at New York City Hall on April 24-25, 1865. The illustration depicts a somber scene with a draped casket surrounded by mourning officials and guards in uniform. A group of civilians, some with bowed heads, are paying their respects.
President Lincoln in New York City Hall, April 24-25, 1865, artist’s impression, Dickinson College

When Lincoln’s body arrived in New York City it was taken to City Hall, which was decorated with a large sign reading, “The Nation Mourns.” The coffin was opened and thousands of New Yorkers viewed his body. Before leaving New York City, a huge procession witnessed by enormous crowds carried Lincoln’s body up Broadway to a train station.

The photograph captures a moment from the funeral procession of President Abraham Lincoln in New York on April 25th, 1865. Crowds of onlookers fill the balconies and windows of the buildings lining the street, while masses of people gather on the sidewalks to witness the event. A large military escort marches in formation ahead of the hearse, which is not visible in the frame, illustrating the grand scale of the public mourning for the assassinated president. The buildings are draped with mourning bunting and American flags, and the solemn mood is palpable even in the still image.
The Funeral of President Lincoln, New-York, April 25th, 1865, Library of Congress

After leaving New York City, Lincoln’s funeral train went on to Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Chicago, and finally to Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois. Some of the most touching scenes took place in rural areas. Where the train would pass in the dark of night, people would silently gather by torchlight beside the tracks.

Lincoln was buried in Springfield, Illinois, on May 4, 1865.

This is an image of the Abraham Lincoln Tomb in Springfield, Illinois. The towering monument, topped by an obelisk, is surrounded by several bronze statues, with a bust of Lincoln placed prominently at the front. Stairs lead up to the structure set against a backdrop of a clear blue sky with a few scattered clouds. The monument serves as a memorial to the 16th President of the United States.
Abraham Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois, Wikimedia Commons

Ulysses S. Grant’s Funeral Marked the End of an Era

Portrait of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant by Constant Mayer, 1866, depicting Grant in a navy blue military uniform with gold shoulder straps featuring a three-star insignia, indicative of his rank as Lieutenant General. He has neatly combed hair, a full beard, and a serious expression. The background is a nondescript, muted shade, putting the focus on Grant’s visage and uniform.
Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant by Constant Mayer, 1866, Wikimedia Commons

The death of Ulysses S. Grant seemed to end the Civil War era. He had been the greatest hero of the conflict which preserved the Union, and he followed that by serving two terms in the White House. When he died after an illness in upstate New York on July 23, 1885, the news, though not unexpected, unleashed a wave of national mourning.

Grant’s passing came 20 years after the end of the Civil War. America had come back together, and a public funeral for Grant was an opportunity for those who had endured the war to pay their respects. When his body lay in state in New York’s City Hall, newspapers described veterans, many with missing limbs, filing past his coffin.

The New York Tribune on August 7, 1885, describing the scene at City Hall, estimated that more than 125,000 mourners “looked on the face of General Grant yesterday.”

Grant’s Funeral: New York City’s Largest Crowd

The procession to carry Grant’s body from City Hall to a tomb on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on Saturday, August 8, 1885, drew enormous numbers of spectators. The newspapers estimated the size of the onlookers at more than two million, and it was said to be the largest crowd ever assembled in New York City to that point.

A historical photograph of Ulysses S. Grant’s funeral procession, showing a line of horse-drawn carriages stretching three miles along 5th Avenue in New York, with crowds of onlookers lining the streets and buildings adorned with American flags, as dignitaries and military personnel pay their respects.
Ulysses S. Grant’s Funeral Procession, a Line of Carriages Three Miles Long, Passing 5th Avenue in New York

A horse-drawn hearse was followed by dozens of carriages filled with family members, military officers, political figures, and other dignitaries. More than 30,000 marchers, including military units, bands, civic societies, and veterans organizations, created a procession that took all day to move through the city. 

When Grant’s body finally arrived in Riverside Park it was placed in a temporary tomb. A landmark structure to hold his remains was built and his body transferred into it in 1897.

The General Grant National Memorial in Manhattan, New York City, photographed at twilight. The Neoclassical domed mausoleum, also known as Grant's Tomb, is illuminated against the evening sky, with its large granite steps leading up to a portico supported by Ionic columns. Sculptural details and trees in autumn foliage frame the tranquil scene.
General Grant National Memorial, Manhattan, New York City, Wikimedia Commons

Public Funerals Carried Great Meaning

Significant public funerals are still held for national leaders. But for most people they are experienced via television. They do not carry the meaning they did for mourners in the 19th century, when times of shared mourning could be a powerful symbol of national unity or political affiliation.