To Orwell Today,

Dear Friend,

I came across your web site while researching my grandfather who was a US Capitol Building master carpenter during the JFK administration. The atmosphere in the Capitol Building where the carpentry shop was and the White House in general was a lot more open in those days. I visited my grandfather's shop and met many persons at the Capitol Building when I was much younger.

Coming to the point of my writing being that because my grandfather was a carpenter at the Capitol, he was responsible for many things. When JFK died, we do know that he was laid on the same "platform" as you called it -- known as a catafalque -- that Lincoln was. The catafalque was not immediately found but my grandfather knew where it was and is the person who repaired and restored it for use for JFK.

I wrote to the Architect of the Capitol to communicate my desire to learn more in regard to my grandfather but I received no response. I can only imagine how it was for my grandfather, who thought the world of JFK, to have something that was used for one of our country's greatest presidents, Lincoln, as his responsibility and honor, not only to touch, but to repair and restore.

Best regards,
C. Leahy

Greetings C Leahy,

Yes, I did call the catafalque a "platform" one time when explaining its function in relation to the coffin -- but usually I call it a catafalque in the articles on my website. See LINCOLN DREAMS JFK FUNERAL & JACKIE'S TOUR & JFK'S FUNERAL & EAST ROOM MEMORIES JFK FUNERAL

That's amazing about your grandfather being the person who found Lincoln's catafalque when it was needed for JFK at the White House. It would be very interesting to hear the full story as to how he knew where it was and how he found it. In Manchester's 1967 book THE DEATH OF A PRESIDENT he describes the funeral preparations going on at the White House after Jackie had sent instructions that she wanted the East Room decorated exactly as it had been for Lincoln and that she wanted the same catafalque.



At first there was confusion as to whether the catafalque that Lincoln had lain on at the White House still existed. The catafalque at the Capitol -- where Lincoln had lain in state and where Kennedy would also be laying in state -- was safely stored and on permanent display in President Washington's empty tomb in the basement under the floor of the Rotunda (and a few years ago was moved to Exhibition Hall of the new Capitol Visitor Center).

Some of the planners of JFK's funeral thought they would have to build a new catafalque and were using the picture from the White House guide book as a model. But then a call came in from the office of the Architect of the Capitol saying a replica of Lincoln's catafalque had been found and it was delivered to the White House in time for the arrival of JFK's coffin.

Below I've transcribed passages from THE DEATH OF A PRESIDENT (and inserted photos from various sources) describing the preparations for JFK's return home -- in a coffin -- to the White House in the wee hours of Saturday morning fourteen hours after his assassination in Dallas.


ManchesterCover ManchesterInsidePage
by William Manchester, pages 414-442


...The arrival of the Kennedy party in the Bethesda Naval Hospital tower suite had set in motion a strange ritualistic dance. Groups formed, parted, and re-formed... In the dense macabre certain themes recurred. At one time or another nearly everyone present urged Mrs Kennedy to change her clothes. To each such suggestion she shook her head tightly. Then it was felt she ought to take a sedative... Here too, she was inflexible, and Dr John Walsh supported her. He said, "If she doesn't want it, OK. Leave her alone, let her talk herself out". She was talking a great deal -- he thought she was "on a talkathon". To him she recounted her recollection of what had happened in the Presidential Lincoln. She told the story of the ring at Parkland and recalled the death of Patrick. Always the two deaths were intertwined. For the country the assassination of the President stood alone; for her the two acts of the double tragedy were inseparable....

Early in the evening she also solved the lying-in-state question. Few of the million tourists who filed through the mansion's first floor rooms each year knew that the White House Historical Association's dollar guide had been largely the work of the First Lady. At the bottom of page 39 she had reprinted an engraving of Lincoln's body on its catafalque.

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From the hospital she asked artist William Walton to find a certain book on a certain shelf in the White House library containing sketches and photographs of Abraham Lincoln lying in state. From Bethesda Hospital during that first long night she began a series of astonishingly detailed plans and decisions, many drawn from history, the rest from her own devising... The Kennedy who was really in charge of the tower suite was the Attorney General. He made the call about the catafalque...

As Ralph Dungan put it, there were "two circuits that night: here and there". "There" was Bobby Kennedy [at Bethesda]. "Here" was Dungan's office [at the West Wing], where Shriver continued to preside over the marathon meeting, discussing preliminary arrangements for the funeral Mass and trying to absorb a copy of the turgid State Official and Special Military Funeral Policies and Plans. Both the tower suite and the West Wing were vexed by an exasperating uncertainty: no one knew when the President's body would be ready to be moved from the morgue.


From a telephone on the nurse's desk outside the suite Clint Hill periodically checked with Roy Kellerman; Ted Clifton, at Shriver's elbow, called Godfrey McHugh. Kellerman and McHugh weren't doctors, so they asked Dr Burkley, who repeatedly replied, "It's taking longer than they thought". The first estimated time of arrival at the White House was 11pm. This then became midnight, 1am, 2am, 3am, 3:30am, and 4am. The reason it was taking longer was never specified....

At the hospital the two most impressive men were the Attorney General and the Secretary of Defense; in the mansion they were Shriver and Walton, both of whom joined in the response triggered by Mrs Kennedy's recollection of the guidebook. Shriver, juggling telephones, turned the lying-in-state task over to Dick Goodwin. Goodwin phoned historian Schlesinger...and at 10:pm Roy Basler of the Library of Congress received a call... Further dialing summoned David Mearns, the chief of manuscripts division, and James Robertson, a scholar of the Lincoln funeral. Mearns, Robertson, and a third librarian met in the cavernous library. The library's master switch was off, locked in that position by a timing device. Flashlights were fetched, and the three men ran up and down the gloomy warrens, assembling a truckload of reports from century-old newspapers and magazines. The most precise accounts were delivered to the Northwest Gate of the White House, and on a table in the mansion's marble entrance hall Goodwin laid out two, from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper; and the May 6, 1865, issue of Harper's Weekly. Walton rifled through them, found an Alfred Waud sketch in Harper's, and went to work...

General Clifton was misinformed about the Lincoln catafalque. The original was stored in the Capitol basement, and a replica was available, but Clifton was frantically attempting to get the White House carpenters to build a new one....

Down in the executive mansion's theater, where Lieutenant Sawtell's honor guard had resumed rehearsals, Special Forces men were being integrated into the Death Watch. This was a greater challenge than Lieutenant Bird's reshuffling of body bearers at Andrews. The Attorney General's recognition of the guerrilla fighters moved them deeply. As one of their officers told Clifton, "These boys regard the President as their godfather". They came anxious to serve with dignity. But the Death Watch was unusual duty. Refitting them in Army dress blues, leaving them their distinctive green berets, was relatively easy. And the visual signals were swiftly learned. The real problem would come in the morning, when the men stood by the coffin. Experience had taught Sawtelle that the fragrance of wreaths could be nauseating, that a soldier who kept his eyes fixed on one point could become hypnotized and swoon, and that a man's greatest struggle would be with his own emotions. It was hard enough to remain rigid when visitors wept over the coffin of a stranger. All the men in the joint guard of honor held the young President in special regard, however, and the reference of the elite Special Forces made them particularly vulnerable. The Lieutenant cautioned them never to look directly at a candle, the quickest mesmerizer. He warned them that they must think about other things -- about anything except the murdered President. Even so, he was worried. Obviously the husky guerrillas were tense. They were primed for combat, but standing motionless hour after hour required a different sort of discipline. Sawtelle decided to hold them back until the East Room watch had been established for some time, and then to assign an additional soldier to each shift as insurance against fainting...

At Bethesda the Attorney General became impatient. At 10pm Godfrey McHugh assured him they would be ready to leave at midnight, but at midnight the embalming hadn't even begun. During the delay several occupants of the tower suite roused from their stupor. Jean Smith told George Thomas to bring the President's favorite suits and ties from the White House; he left for the mansion with two agents. Ken O'Donnell gave Bob Kennedy the President's wallet. Then Ken said determindly -- it had been preying on his mind since Parkland -- "Jackie, I'm going to get that ring back for you". Down in the morgue he spoke to Dr Burkley, who worked the ring free and brushed past him. On the seventeenth floor Burkley explained to the Attorney General, "I want to give it to her myself, so I can be sure she has it". Wordlessly Bob Kennedy stepped aside, and in the little bedroom the Presidential physician handed her the ring and tried to voice his anquish....

Mrs Kennedy urged Evelyn, Nancy, Mary, and Pam to drive home and get some sleep... Of herself Jacqueline Kennedy said to Martha, "I'm not leaving here till Jack goes. But I won't cry till it's all over"... Ken, Larry, and Dave, like Mrs Kennedy, weren't leaving without the President. There was no discussion. It was understood....

In the corridor outside the morgue one of the undertakers handed Lieutenant Bird an American flag. It was standard Veterans Administration issue, 5 1/2 by 9 feet... The flag was folded, as usual, in a triangle... After the casket team had carefully packed the floor of the ambulance with blankets the team formed two facing ranks. When the casket had been wheeled between them, the flag would be neatly handed from man to man, unfolding as it went until, fully unfurled, it was being held above the lid. Then it would be draped over the coffin and all hands would salute....

During General Wehle's absence from his customary command post at Fort McNair, the Military District of Washington was gripped by a strange inertia. A martyred Chief Executive was about to be returned to the executive mansion. Every soldier at McNair and Myer, every sailor at Anacostia, every Marine from Quantico should have been alert. They weren't. They were either in their bunks or watching the atypical late shows. The Secretary of Defense, with two and a half-million men under arms, hadn't been able to muster an appropriate guard for the White House. He was bewildered. The Attorney General, also puzzled, said icily, "If we can get twenty thousand tropps to Oxford, Missippi, we can get enough troops to Washington, DC, for this".

It was a reasonable assumption. It didn't work. Sargent Shriver, who was keeping Kennedy and McNamara posted, was frantic. This was not, after all, Valley Forge; it was peacetime, and the Pentagon was maintaining the largest standing army in history. Yet the only standees at 3am were Lieutenant Sawtelle's Death Watch and Lieutenant Bird's casket team. The smoothly oiled military establishment had inexplicably clanked to a halt. Orders were issued, but not obeyed. The businessman in Shriver was choleric. "We have a fifty-billion-dollar defense budget", he barked, "the guy in charge of it is coming home. Can you find somebody?" The Navy Captain and the Army Colonel squirmed, exchanged uncomfortable looks, and hurried off to make calls. They returned. No troops arrived...

Behind the North Portico, still undistinguished by the presence of a single soldier or sailor, the decoration of the East Room was proceeding in an atmosphere of controlled frenzy. As the number of people in the tower suite [at Bethesda] had dwindled, the decorating force had grown... The East Room of the White House is the largest room in the mansion. Originally known as "the Public Audience Chamber", it is paneled in white-enameled wood and illuminated by five great windows and three gigantic chandeliers, any one of which would mash a man to pulp. The sheer dimensions of the room are defeating... Walton's challenge was to transform it into a funeral hall.


At the outset he didn't think it possible. He studied the Library of Congress engraving and doubted there was that much crepe in Washington. Luckily that much was unnecessary. The closer Walton examined the sketch, the more he realized that Mrs Kennedy would recoil from such a display. It resembled a grotesque carnival of death. Everything had been overdone...the chandeliers had been wholly enveloped in crepe, transforming them into horrid beehives.


Borders of crepe would be more appropriate, provided it was available. It was, thick bolts miraculously appeared... Because of the uncertain deadline, the decoration proceeded in phases. Clifton's first word from McHugh had been that the body would be brought through the Northwest Gate before eleven o'clock. Between them and McHugh's next call Walton ignored everything except the chandeliers. After the first postponement he turned to the windows, fashioning curtains of black. As delay followed delay Walton, Shriver, and Arata dashed about brandishing cloth and hammers, carpet tacks gripped in their teeth, darkening the mantel and the door. The mansion entrance and the North Portico were to be left until last; they would do them if they had time...

The estimated time of arrival was changed from 4 to 4:30am. That proved correct, though down in the theater the rehearsing Death Watch received the news with soldierly skepticism and those upstairs were too busy to give it much thought. Between crepe-looping sessions they were dealing with artifacts... Walton was the New Frontier's artist-without-portfolio. And Shriver had his own notions about taste. He frowned down at the monstrous East Room piano. "We'll move it", he said briskly. The men around him sagged. It was a Herculean job -- what was really needed was a crane --but groaning and perspiring they somehow managed it.

The catafalque replica, which had been arriving in pieces since midnight, was uncrated and erected. It should have been majestic. It looked barren. Accouterments were needed. Lincoln had had them; they must be provided for Kennedy.


Walton thought first of flowers, and pointing to one of Jacqueline Kennedy's East Room urns he told West, "Fill it with magnolia leaves". West said he hadn't any. "Yes, you do", Walton said. "Cut them off Andy Jackson's trees, they'll grow back."...

Wooden candlesticks from St Steven's were presentable and adopted... Walton began to wonder whether they needed any cross at all. He checked the Lincoln engraving. A crucifix was clearly visible. Furthermore, it had lain at the foot of the bier; it would be conspicuous to every visitor. "Doesn't anyone have one that would fit?" he asked in despair. "I'll get mine", said Shriver. He dispatched a White House car to his home in Maryland, and his secretary, who had been watching the Shriver children, gave the driver the Benedictine cross from his bedroom -- black, hand-sculpted, with a realistic, Germanic figure. "Perfect", said Walton when he saw it. "It could have been ordered for the occasion".

Sarge walked out to the portico with Goodwin, West, and Dr English. Across Pennsylvania Avenue the huge, eerie crowd was milling about. They would never see the crepe-bordered East Room, Shriver thought, and the occasion should be made memorable for them, too. Remembering White House parties when the President and Mrs Kennedy had had the grounds lit with little flaming pots, he called a council of the military men present. "This funeral for a President is going to vary a little bit from the manual", he said. "I know he isn't really coming home, but I want it to look that way". He explained the need for light. They replied that they had none. "None"?  Sarge repeated sarcastically. "Not even flashlights"? Hurt, one officer suggested helicopter lights. "Ridiculous", Shriver fumed, and telephoned the District Highway Department. He recalled seeing tiny flambeaux set out to warn night drivers of highway construction... The right warehouse was located, the man with the key was found, and at 3:30am pots were situated on either side of the entrance drive and ignited.


Meanwhile Shriver had turned to the door... The entrance to the mansion was handsome. Unfortunately it was obscured by a storm door... In the event that the coffin should be cumbersome, the storm door might not be wide enough for it. Sarge waved his arm. "Take it off", he said... The three-sided glass enclosure could be dismantled, and West supervised its removal. But the frame was embedded in concrete. It had to stay. Arata and his wife mounted step-ladders and tacked crepe around it, and nobody noticed the frame.

Among them they had created a scene of indescribable drama: the flame-lit drive, the deep black against the white columns, the shrouded doorway, the East Room in deep mourning, the catafalque ready to receive the coffin.

There was only one omission, and Shriver was now free to concentrate on it. He said to Shepard, "All right, where are they?" He didn't identify them. It was unnecessary. Shepard spread his hands. He just didn't know.


"The President of the United States is going to be here any minute", Sarge said flintily, "and there's nobody to meet him. Goddamn it, Taz, we want some soldiers or sailors who will walk slowly and escort him to the door, reflecting the solemnity of the occasion".


"Get the Marines", Dean Markham suggested. Markham had served in the Marine Corps in World War II, and he knew that the Corp's crack drill teams were garrisoned at Eighth and I streets, southeast of the Capitol. Colonel Miller thought it was an excellent idea. "That's closer than any Army or Navy post", he said. "I'll send a bus". Shepherd phoned the barracks' duty officer. Under pressure himself, he spoke with exceptional force: "Break out the Marines. The Comander in Chief has been assassinated, and I want a squad at the White House double-quick. You better move!". They moved. At the time of Shepard's call they were in their bunks. Exactly seventeen minutes later they appeared on the South Portico in immaculate dress blues, each man trailing a glossy rifle at order arms. The entire squad had dressed in the bus. Unquestionably the men of any other service would have responded eagerly, but the selection of the leathernecks was particularly fitting for two reasons. Thomas Jefferson had ordered the construction of the barracks at Eighth and I, but John Kennedy had been the first President to inspect them. The Marines remembered that...

Double-timing through the Diplomatic Reception Room, the squad appeared on the North Portico. Under his breath Shriver said to English, "They made it". Their officer, First Lieutenant William Lee, formed them in ranks, dressed the ranks, and then strutted them down the drive toward the gate. At mid-point he ordered a halt and began speaking to them in a low voice. From the mansion it was inaudible, and after the vexing delay those on the portico were afraid the squad might be lost. Shirver squinted toward the gate. In the flickering torchlight he had an indistinct impression of glittering brass buttons, buffed shoes, choker collars, and visored white caps. Lieutenant Lee's sword shimmered, but the comforting thump of boots had stopped; they were making no sound at all. "Where's he taking them"? Goodwin asked uneasily. "What are they doing"? A voice behind him said, "They're bowing their heads".

At Bethesda hospital Lieutenant Bird's pallbearers saluted the flag-draped coffin, and Dr Burkley headed for the seventeenth floor. Ethel and Jean, roused by light knocks, remained in the background with Burkley and McNamara while Jacqueline Kennedy and the President's brother headed the group from the tower suite. Mrs Kennedy was uncertain about their destination; she was under the impression that they would go to another room and wait there -- that had been the pattern for fourteen hours. Instead, it seemed, they were going to walk awhile. Leaving the elevator on the third floor, she followed the bobbing hat of a naval officer for nearly two hundred strides over seemingly endless stretches of rolling, red-tiled corridor to a second, push-button lift which carried them down to the basement. The hat bobbed to the right, past an out-patient clinic, left beneath a sign flashing physicians' call numbers, and then she saw the flag outside the morgue and knew they were really going home now.



The purpose of the long trip had been to shield her from phtographers. The cameramen were undeceived. They had scouted every exit and spotted the ambulance parked beside the hearse. She saw them beyond the concrete platform, dim figures prancing behind ropes, and again she murmered to Clint Hill, "Don't keep them away. Let them see". They didn't see. Everything happened so quickly. The coffin slid in; she sat on the jump seat beside it; Robert Kennedy crouched on the floor, and at 3:56am Clint told Bill Greer to pull out. Greer followed General Wehl's staff car in a rapid tour of the hospital grounds, back out the main gate and down Wisconsin to Massachusetts.

It was the smallest hour of the morning. Hardly anyone spoke. Everything had been said, and they were exhausted. Bob Kennedy saw that they were passing Gawker's and remembered that the new coffin had come from there, but he remained mute. So did his wife, in the car behind the ambulance... Except for the red roof light on the staff car, the cavalcade did not announce itself. Nevertheless the silent witnesses were there... They looked out wearily and saw men in denim standing at attention beside cars halted at intersections, and in all-night filling stations attendants were facing the ambulance, their caps over their hearts. To Hackett this hushed trip back to the mansion was the most moving moment of the weekend, because the roughly dressed workmen heading for the 5am shift, the attendants and the bareheaded Negroes on the sidewalks were, he thought, "the people the President had been working for hardest". They knew it, and they were here. And although traffic was thinnest at this time of day, a tremendous escort had sprung to life. The casket team rode in the last car of the procession. Yet as they turned off Massachusetts at Twentieth Street, Lieutenant Bird looked back up embassy row and saw "hundreds of automobiles following us, bumper to bumper as far back as they could see, their headlights flashing".


In Lafayette Park the naked elms and beeches above the crowd there glistened with dew and stirred faintly in a southerly breeze as the General turned off his roof light. He radioed a brief report to the rest of the cars that they were entering the Northwest Gate and slowing down to pick up an honor guard of Marines.


The report couldn't reach the rear of the ambulance. Mrs Kennedy heard "a slow clank-clanking" outside. The Attorney General thought he could hear the roll of drums, and perhaps the distant strains of music.


In reality there was only Lieutenant Lee's squad, moving ahead at port arms, in flawless formation, in that heart-breaking cadence of mourning which the Marine Corps learned at the turn of the century.

The two chief mourners stepped out [Bobby and Jackie]; Shriver silently clasped their hands. The casket team moved up to the ambulance. Normally the officer commanding military body bearers does not touch the coffin, because he would throw it off balance, but on the portico steps Lieutenant Bird's six men began to lurch alarmingly. Stepping up swiftly, he slid his fingers beneath the coffin and felt a wrenching strain in his arms. The soldier in front of him rolled his eyes back and whispered, "Good God, don't let go," and the seven of them carried it across the marble hall, into the East Room, onto the catafalque.

WhiteHouseEntrance JFKcoffinEnterWH HalltoEastRoomDoor


Maitre Fincklin and a doorman lit the tall candles. The hands of both Negroes were trembling violently, and in attempting to ignite the fourth taper the doorman extinguished his torch and had to begin again. Bill Walton handed a sheaf of flowers to Godfrey McHugh, who laid them against the coffin... He tiptoed away...


Everyone who had joined in the redecoration were anxious not to intrude upon the family's grief. They bunched together on the south side of the room, from time to time looking at the casket almost furtively. Among them was Pierre Salinger, who wrote: "Our Chief is home. And for the first time...I began to believe he was really dead."

Standing in the doorway of the elegant room she had loved, whose history she knew so well, and which she had last left at the height of Wednesday's judiciary reception, the widowed First Lady recognized the tallest of the men -- gaunt, pocked Chuck Spalding. Their eyes met. During that fleeting exchange she saw the harrowed lines of suffering in his face and thought of Abraham Lincoln...

"A priest said a few words", Schlesinger noted. It was a brief blessing. Those at the far end of the chamber could not hear it... Now she knew she was home. Kneeling by the veterans' flag, she buried her face in the field of stars.

"Then she walked away", Schlesinger wrote. "The rest of us followed".... They trooped out to the hall and she mounted the stairway to the second floor...

~ end quoting The Death of A President by Manchester ~

All the best,
Jackie Jura

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Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~

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