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The Face of the Rail-Splitter

Before we leave the month of presidents’ birthdays, let’s ponder for one moment longer one of history’s most-pondered people: Illinois’ own Abe Lincoln. We never seem to tire of this roughhewn Midwesterner who already has countless towns named after him, his face carved into a mountain and enough books written about him to form another small mountain. In fact, the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership in Washington, D.C., has created a tower representing every Lincoln book. It rises three stories and represents about 15,000 volumes.

So what insights can possibly remain about our 16th president? Subtle ones, it turns out, if you know where to look. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, is a multisensory extravaganza, packed with holographic ghosts, mannequins you can walk around and an eerie re-creation of Lincoln’s casket lying in state. But the exhibit that many visitors find most profound is a simple line of portraits. One by one, they show the change in Lincoln’s face from 1860 to his death five years later. There, etched in human flesh, is a record of the toll that war, slavery and personal anguish took.

And now, thanks to another round of technological advance, we can see that face in even more vivid detail, just inches from our own. The Smithsonian Institution has launched a project to make 3-D scans of numerous objects in its endless collection. You can view them on a computer screen or, if you happen to own a 3-D printer, manufacture your own model at home in a few minutes. Among the scanned objects are two life masks of Lincoln. One was made in Chicago in 1860 by Leonard Volk; the other in Washington in February 1865 by Clark Mills. The masks were commonly made in the 1800s, and Lincoln put a special priority on keeping himself visible to the public, knowing full well how the presidency had changed him.

When you visit the Smithsonian page for the mask, you’re immediately face-to-face with Lincoln, his eyes closed for the mask-making process. In the 1865 mask, the cheekbones are stony ridges, the cheeks deep vales below. His right eye and the right corner of his mouth seem to droop in unison. The brow seems permanently knitted. With your computer mouse, you can rotate the mask in any direction, spinning it to see the profile of the heavy brow and prominent nose.

As you stare at the image, you can imagine that profile silhouetted against a White House window in dark hours. You wonder how you personally would’ve changed under such circumstances. You feel grateful that this Illinois lawyer held on until the final battle was won.

Tower of books photo from Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership; Lincoln portraits photo courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; life mask photos from the Smithsonian Institution.

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