Morbid Road Trip: The Scattered Artifacts of Lincoln’s Assassination
By Matt Soniak
Almost every item even remotely connected to Lincoln’s assassination, death, and funeral later found its way into some special collection. Many wound up in the hands of museums, historical societies, or the government, and are available for public viewing. Many more in private collections occasionally get loaned out for display. If I ever convince my girlfriend to go on an Assassination Vacation-esque Lincoln road trip, here’s what’s on my must-see list:
The Contents of Lincoln's Pockets
It's not surprising that Washington, D.C., has the lion’s share of assassination artifacts. The Library of Congress has contemporary newspaper accounts of the assassination, a playbill from the performance of Our American Cousin which Lincoln saw at Ford’s Theatre, and the contents of his pockets that night. These include two pairs of glasses, a lens polisher, a pocketknife, a watch fob, his wallet and a linen handkerchief. The wallet contained a five-dollar Confederate note and a few newspaper clippings that mentioned him.
The pocketknife may or may not be the same one that was, according to Lincoln mythology, given to him by a man he met on the street. Claiming that he’d been instructed to give the knife to someone uglier than him, the man said that Lincoln was the first man he’d met that fit the bill.
Lincoln’s personal effects were given to his son Robert Todd after his death, and went to the library as part of a 1937 donation by Robert’s daughter, Mary Lincoln Isham, just before her death.
Lincoln's Top Hat
At the Smithsonian Institution, there’s the top hat Lincoln was wearing at Ford’s Theatre. After the assassination, the War Department collected many of Lincoln’s personal belongings from the theatre and preserved them. The hat made its way to the Patent Office and then the Smithsonian, where it was kept on a basement storage shelf until 1893. The Smithsonian’s directors didn’t want the hat displayed -- or even spoken of by staff -- any earlier because of the strong emotions still surrounding Lincoln’s murder.
Canvas Hoods the Conspirators Wore
The Smithsonian's Lincoln collection also includes several of the canvas hoods that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered be worn by the seven male assassination conspirators. The hoods were meant to isolate the men and prevent conversation during their incarceration. They were worn 24 hours a day, and had no openings for their eyes or ears and only a small hole that they could eat through.
A Drum From the Funeral
On display now as well are a drum and drumsticks that were used during Lincoln’s two-week-long funeral procession.
The Bullet That Killed Lincoln
Also in Washington, D.C., the National Museum of Health and Medicine has three items preserved from Lincoln’s autopsy: the bullet that killed Lincoln, several skull fragments created by the shot, and the probe that was used to remove the bullet.
The last D.C. stop is Ford’s Theatre, which has a museum displaying a few of John Wilkes Booth’s possessions that had been kept as evidence by the government, and a number of items from the Presidential Box where Lincoln was shot. The collection includes one of Booth’s boots with its spur, a knife and sheath, a compass, the Derringer he used to shoot and kill Lincoln, and the diary he kept while on the lam.
The Flag Booth Tripped on and a Chair from the Crime Scene
The museum also has the dress coat that Lincoln wore to the theatre, the flag that decorated the Presidential Box (which Booth caught his spur on while escaping), and a chair from the box that might be the one Mary Todd Lincoln was sitting in. The chair had been taken by a worker after the theatre shut down and was kept in a family collection for more than a century before being donated to the museum.
The Carriage He Rode In On
Heading west, the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana, has the carriage in which Lincoln rode to Ford’s Theatre the night of his assassination. The barouche model carriage, built in 1864 and engraved with Lincoln’s monogram, was given as a gift to the president by a group of New York merchants just before his second inauguration. After the president’s death, his son Robert Todd sold it to a New York physician named F.B. Brewer, who later sold it to the Studebaker brothers. The Studebaker collection has had it since 1889 and it was restored in 2008 by Pennsylvania-based conservators B.R. Howard and Associates.
The Chicago History Museum has Lincoln’s deathbed from the Petersen House, the boarding house across the street from the theatre where Lincoln was moved for treatment. The bed, small enough that Lincoln had to be laid on it diagonally, was sold at auction for $80 after the Petersens’ deaths, and then sold to a Chicago candy magnate. After his death, the museum purchased the bed and several other pieces of furniture from the Petersen House.
A Bloody Cloak
Their collection also includes a comb that Lincoln may have used the night he was shot, and a bloody cloak that Mary Todd Lincoln might have been wearing. The Chicago Historical Society has been hard at work verifying the authenticity of these items, and you can take a virtual tour of their forensics lab here. The museum also keeps a list of “Lincolnabilia” that’s in private collections.
A Souvenir from the Gallows
At the Kansas State Historical Society, one can find a crossbeam from the gallows used to execute four of the assassination conspirators: Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt and Mary Surratt.
The Thorax of John Wilkes Booth
The last stop is one of my favorite places in my adopted home town, the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. There, preserved in a jar on a shelf, is a lone fragment from Booth's autopsy: a piece of tissue probably cleaned off his cervical vertebrae and originally mistaken as part of his thorax.
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All right, history buffs and museum hounds -- I know this list is by no means complete. What other relics and artifacts am I missing, and where can I see them? Anyone out there have their own plans for an unconventional historical vacation?