(The following is a story written by Library of Congress archivist Cheryl Fox for the July-August 2013 edition of the Library of Congress Magazine. You can download the issue in its entirety here.)
As the American people struggled to come to grips with the death of president John F. Kennedy, the nation’s Library provided reference, refuge and remembrance.
Just after 10 p.m. on Nov. 22, 1963, White House Special Assistant Arthur M. Schlesinger called two Library of Congress officials at home to “relay an urgent personal request from Mrs. Kennedy.” Just nine hours after the president’s death, the calls on behalf of the newly widowed wife of John F. Kennedy were placed to Roy Basler, director of the Library’s Reference Department, and Manuscript Division Chief David C. Mearns. The request was for documentation of Abraham Lincoln’s lying in state.
According to William Manchester in “Death of a President,” First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy remembered an engraving of Lincoln lying in state that she had selected to illustrate the first public guide to the White House, published in 1962. The image showed Lincoln’s coffin, shrouded in black crepe, on a catafalque in the East Room.
Mearns volunteered to go to the Library at once to get copies of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (later renamed Leslie’s Weekly) and Harper’s Weekly, in which the images could be found. He asked James I. Robertson, a noted Civil War scholar and executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission, to join him, along with James Sutton, head of the Newspaper and Periodical Section of the Serial Division. Mearns and Basler later documented their activities, which are preserved as part of the Manuscript Division’s David C. Mearns Papers, 1918-1979. Mearns wrote:
Upon arrival, we went directly to the Manuscript Division, where I distributed flashlights. Mr. Sutton went off to collect Washington and New York newspapers. Dr. Robertson and I went to the Main Building to examine contemporary general periodicals. In Leslie’s Weekly we found excellent pictures of the scene in the White House’s East Room and in the rotunda of the Capitol. … We selected and marked those [newspapers] which contained the fullest and most precise accounts. I then called Dr. Schlesinger, and described to him the materials we had gathered together. He instructed us to deliver it to the Northwest Gate of the White House, which Dr. Robertson did. I reached home about half past one.
Throughout the national period of mourning, from 3 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22 until 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 26, a skeleton staff at the Library of Congress was at work. Basler, Mearns and many other staff members fulfilled numerous media requests, created reports on presidential succession and a bibliography on firearms-possession laws. They even offered the cold and weary mourners refuge in the Library’s Jefferson Building as they waited to file past the President’s coffin lying in state across the street in the U.S. Capitol. During the month that followed the state funeral, the Library presented an exhibition of books by the late president and other memorabilia.