The Fates of 7 Grisly Assassination Artifacts

Abraham Lincoln's top hat, worn the night of his assassination
Abraham Lincoln's top hat, worn the night of his assassination
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

The murders of prominent political figures generally have a huge cultural impact; long after JFK's assassination, many could recall exactly where they were and what they were doing. As a result, there's a certain grim fascination around the relics of these events, some of which have been preserved in museum and private collections for decades—or even longer. Below are seven such assassination artifacts from the past few centuries.

1. ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S TOP HAT

At an impressive 6 feet and 4 inches, Abraham Lincoln was the tallest U.S. president, a fact that was enhanced by his fondness for wearing a top hat. On the night of April 14, 1865, as he set off for Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. to watch the play Our American Cousin with his wife Mary, Lincoln put on his hat, complete with black hatband worn as a sign of mourning for his son Willie. Lincoln reportedly enjoyed the play and laughed several times.

Then, at 10:15 p.m., actor and disgruntled Confederate John Wilkes Booth slipped into the president’s box and shot him in the head. Booth jumped onto the stage and broke his leg, but still managed to escape on horseback. Lincoln was taken to a nearby boarding house and doctors were called, but efforts to save his life were unsuccessful. He was pronounced dead at 7:22 a.m. the next morning.

The War Department took Lincoln’s hat and other items from where they fell at Ford’s Theater for safekeeping. In 1867, the hat was transferred to the Smithsonian Institute, where it was hidden away in a basement storage room because the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry, felt its appearance would provoke agitation. He stated that the hat should not go on show “under any circumstance." However, by 1893 enough time had passed that the Smithsonian allowed the hat to be exhibited by the Lincoln Memorial Association. Today it is a prized possession at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and a potent reminder of Lincoln’s enduring status.

2. JEAN-PAUL MARAT’S BATHTUB

French revolutionary, physician, and journalist Jean Paul Marat
French revolutionary Jean Paul Marat
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jean-Paul Marat was one of the most prominent voices of the French Revolution, leading the radical Montagnard faction and writing essays on political theories. He also suffered badly from a skin condition (doctors today aren't sure what kind, though one popular hypothesis is that it may have been eczema), and spent many hours writing in a medicinal bath to relieve his symptoms. On July 13, 1793, Charlotte Corday, a young supporter of the rival Girondin faction, tricked her way in to see Marat, pretending she had important intelligence for him. After Marat scribbled down the names she supplied, Corday lunged at him, stabbing him and causing him to quickly bleed out. Corday was captured and sent to the guillotine, while the bathtub was apparently squirreled away by relic hunters.

The Montagnard revolutionaries quickly realized that the terrible murder scene could serve as propaganda, and Madame Tussaud was reportedly called in to take a wax cast of Marat. The celebrated painter Jacques-Louis David was also asked to paint The Death of Marat, which went on to become one of the most famous paintings of its day. In 1885, the bathtub was sold to the Musée Grévin in Paris, where a grisly waxwork scene was created depicting Marat in his bath. The scene, with original tub, is still on view today.

3. THE FLOOR TILE ON WHICH JAMES GARFIELD FELL

James Garfield had been president for just four months when, in July 1881, he was fatally shot by Charles Guiteau, who was angry after being looked over repeatedly for a government post. Garfield was catching a train at Baltimore and Potomac Station in Washington, D.C. when he was shot twice, falling back on the floor and exclaiming “My God, what is this?”

According to legend, the tile on which he fell was afterwards pulled up from the floor by an unnamed individual who later presented it to Garfield’s son. (Was it actually the tile Garfield fell on, or was it just one of the tiles from the floor? No one knows for sure.) The relic was one of many collected by people who felt the need to preserve the scene of this historic tragedy. Garfield’s son donated the tile to the Smithsonian, where it remains today.

4. ARCHDUKE FRANZ FERDINAND’S BLOODSTAINED SHIRT

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia riding in their car minutes before their assassination
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia riding in their car, minutes before their assassination
STR/AFP/Getty Images

As heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand was not a welcome visitor to Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo, which had been annexed by the empire in 1908. When the Archduke and his wife Sophie rode through the streets on June 28, 1914, crowds thronged their open-top car, hiding a number of disgruntled would-be assassins. One threw a bomb at the car; it bounced off the hood and into the crowd, exploding and injuring several people. After attending a meeting at the Town Hall, the Archduke insisted on traveling to visit those injured in the attack—a fatal mistake. As the Archduke's motorcade made its way to the hospital, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip saw his chance. He fired two shots at the car, hitting Sophie in the abdomen and Franz Ferdinand in the neck.

The death of Franz Ferdinand set off a chain of events that contributed to the outbreak of World War I. The blood-spattered shirt he wore that day was preserved as a relic by the Jesuit priest who read the couple the last rites; it was acquired by the Austrian Military Museum in Vienna in 2004, but is only rarely on show due to its delicate condition.

5. THE BULLET THAT KILLED GANDHI

1940s portrait of Mohandas K. Gandhi
Wikimedia // Public Domain

On January 30, 1948, as Mahatma Gandhi was walking through a crowd to a prayer meeting, he was shot three times at point-blank range by Nathuram Vinayak Godse. A Hindu nationalist, Godse detested Gandhi's pleas for peace during India's religious violence, and his calls for tolerance toward Muslims. Gandhi fell to the ground and was later pronounced dead.

Gandhi had been such an influential figure for his promotion of non-violent protest that his death was mourned the world over. His iconic status meant that any items associated with the great man became revered, and in 1961, a collection of objects once owned by or otherwise related to Gandhi opened as the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi. Among the museum’s most prized exhibits are the bloodied loin cloth Gandhi was wearing when he was shot, and one of the three bullets that took his life.

6. JACKIE KENNEDY’S PINK SUIT

President and Mrs. Kennedy arriving at Dallas in 1963
President John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy arriving at Dallas in 1963
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Jackie Kennedy was famous for her style, as epitomized by the bright pink Chanel-style suit she wore on the day in November 1963 that her husband, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. When JFK was shot through the neck and head while the pair rode in open-top car through Dallas, he slumped down onto Jackie’s lap, and the side of her suit became soaked in blood. Just hours later, after JFK had been pronounced dead and his body loaded onto Air Force One, Jackie—still clad in the blood-spattered suit—stood stoically at the side of Lyndon B. Johnson as he was sworn in as president.

Jackie finally removed the suit at the White House the following morning, and a maid placed it into a bag. It was later reported that when aides had suggested she change clothes earlier she had refused, saying, “I want them to see what they have done.” Her mother put the unwashed suit into a box and wrote on top: “Jackie's suit and bag—worn November 22nd, 1963." Caroline Kennedy donated the suit to the National Archives in Maryland, where it's stored with the proviso that it remain out of public view until 2103, to avoid dishonoring the president's memory or causing grief to his family.

7. THE ICE AXE USED TO KILL TROTSKY

A black-and-white photograph of Leon Trotsky at his villa
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Leon Trotsky was, alongside Lenin, one of the leaders in the founding of the Soviet Union. But after a power struggle with Joseph Stalin, it was Stalin who succeeded Lenin, sowing the seed for a lifelong antipathy between him and Trotsky. The latter became increasingly critical of Stalin’s absolutist style, and by 1929, he had been expelled from Russia. Trotsky was eventually granted asylum in Mexico in 1936—but his card was marked.

The first attempt on Trotsky's life came in May 1940, when a gunman peppered his home with bullets. Trotsky and his wife, by some miracle, survived. The next attempt involved a Spanish communist named Ramon Mercader, who had infiltrated Trotsky’s inner circle over a period of years. On the morning of August 20, 1940, Mercader arrived at Trotsky’s highly fortified compound, claiming to want Trotsky to read a draft of an article he had written. When Trotsky welcomed him into his study, Mercader plunged an ice axe into the politician's skull, fatally wounding him. Trotsky died the next day. The Soviet Union denied responsibility, but today many historians believe that Stalin was behind the attack.

The axe was taken into storage as evidence at the Mexico City police station and later removed by secret police officer Alfredo Salas, who claimed he wanted to preserve it as an historical artifact. Salas passed it on to his daughter (or granddaughter—sources differ) who stored it under her bed for 40 years before deciding to sell it. Keith Melton, an American collector and author of espionage books, purchased the axe for an undisclosed sum. In February 2017 he hosted a talk at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., where the axe was displayed to the public for the first time in over 75 years.

Bessie Coleman, the Black Cherokee Female Pilot Who Made Aviation History

Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Early 20th century America didn’t offer many career paths to people like Bessie Coleman. It was a time when women were discouraged from working outside domestic spheres, and opportunities for women of African American and Native American descent were even more limited. When Coleman fell in love with the idea of flying planes, she knew that realizing her dream would be impossible in the United States—but instead of giving up, she moved to France to enroll in flight school. Less than a year later, she returned home as the first African American and the first Native American female pilot in aviation history.

A Determined Beginning

Bessie Coleman was born to sharecroppers in Texas on January 26, 1892. She was one of 13 siblings, and like the rest of Coleman clan, she was expected to help pick cotton on the farm as soon as she was old enough. At 6 years old, she started walking to school: a one-room wooden shack located four miles from her house. Her classroom often lacked basic supplies like paper and pencils, and, like all schools in the region, it was segregated.

Despite less-than-ideal conditions, she excelled in class and continued her studies through high school. In 1901, her father, who was part black and part Cherokee, relocated to Native American territory in Oklahoma to escape discrimination in Texas, leaving Bessie and the rest of his family behind. She knew she couldn’t depend on her now single-parent family to contribute money toward her education, so to save for college, she went to work as a laundress.

After a year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University—now Langston University—in Langston, Oklahoma, she dropped out when her tuition fund ran dry. Even though she was more educated than many women of the time, there were few opportunities for her in the South. At age 23, she followed her brothers to Chicago, which, though racially segregated, was slightly more welcoming to people of color than Texas had been. In Chicago, Coleman was able to mingle with influential figures in the African American community. She went to beauty school and became a manicurist in a local barbershop.

Chicago was also where she decided she wanted to learn how to fly.

Dreams of Flight—and France

Around the same time Coleman moved up north, World War I erupted in Europe. The conflict quickened the pace of technological advancement, including in aviation. For the first time in history, people around the world could watch fighter planes soar through the skies in newsreels and read about them in the papers. Coleman fell in love.

When her brother John returned home to Chicago after serving overseas, he gave her more material to fuel her daydreams. In addition to regaling her with war stories, he teased her about her new fantasy, claiming that French women were superior to local women because they were allowed to fly planes, something Bessie would never be able to do. He may have said the words in jest, but they held some truth: Female pilots were incredibly rare in the U.S. immediately following World War I, and black female pilots were nonexistent.

Coleman quickly learned that American flight instructors were intent on keeping things that way. Every aviation school she applied to rejected her on the basis of her race and gender.

Fortunately for Coleman, her brothers weren't her only source of support in Chicago. After moving to the city, she met Robert Abbott, publisher of the historic black newspaper The Chicago Defender and one of the first African American millionaires. He echoed John’s idea that France was a much better place for aspiring female pilots, but instead of rubbing it in her face, he presented it as an opportunity. Abbott viewed France as one of the world’s most racially progressive nations, and he encouraged her to move there in pursuit of her pilot's license.

Coleman didn’t need to be convinced. With her heart set on a new dream, she quit her job as a manicurist and accepted a better-paying role as the manager of a chili parlor to raise money for her trip abroad. At night she took French classes in the Chicago loop. Her hard work paid off, and with her savings and some financial assistance from Abbot and another black entrepreneur named Jesse Binga, she boarded a ship for France in November 1920.

The First Black Aviatrix

Coleman was the only non-white person in her class at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. Students were taught to fly using 27-foot-long biplanes that were known to stall in mid-air. One day, she even witnessed one of her classmates die in a crash. Describing the incident later on, she said, "It was a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them."

Despite the risks, she pressed on with lessons, and after seven months of training, she received her aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She became both the first African American woman and the first Native American woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license.

Coleman completed some extra flight lessons in Paris and then boarded a ship bound for the United States. American news outlets were instantly smitten with the 29-year-old pilot. The Associated Press reported on September 26, 1921 that "Today [Coleman] returned as a full-fledged aviatrix, said to be the first of her race."

In the early 1920s, an aviatrix, or female aviator, was still a fairly new concept in America, and many of the most famous women flyers of the 20th century—like Laura Ingalls, Betty Skelton, and Amelia Earhart—had yet to enter the scene. Coleman's persistence helped clear the path for the next generation of female pilots.

But her success in France didn’t mark the end of her battle with racism. Bessie needed more training to learn the airshow tricks she now hoped to do for a living, but even with her international pilot's license and minor celebrity status since returning home, American flight schools still refused to teach her. Just a few months after landing in the U.S., Bessie went back to Europe—this time to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France to learn the barnstorming stunts that were quickly growing into one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the 1920s.

Upon her second homecoming in 1922, newspapers praised her once again, reporting that European aviators had dubbed her "one of the best flyers they had seen." Finally, she would be able to show off her skills in her home country. Robert Abbott, the newspaperman who helped fund her dream, sponsored her first-ever American airshow at Curtiss Field, Long Island, on September 3, 1922. She spent the next few years touring the country, thrilling spectators by parachuting, wing-walking (moving atop the wings of her biplane mid-flight), and performing aerial figure-eights.

Coleman had become a real celebrity, and she tried to use her prominence to help black people. She gave speeches on aviation to predominantly black crowds and planned to open her own flight school for African American students. She only performed for desegregated audiences—the one notable exception being a show in Waxahachie, Texas, the town where she lived for most of her childhood. Event organizers planned to segregate black and white guests and have them use separate entrances. Coleman protested and threatened to cancel the exhibition unless a single entrance was set up for everyone. Officials eventually agreed, though audience members were still forced to sit on separate sides of the stadium once they entered.

Just when it seemed her career was reaching new heights, it was cut short by tragedy. On April 30, 1926, she was riding with her mechanic William Wills in Jacksonville, Florida, in preparation for a show scheduled for the next day, when a wrench left in the engine caused the plane to spin out of control. Coleman hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, and she was tossed from the passenger seat at 3000 feet above the ground. She died at age 34.

Bessie Coleman never achieved the same level of name recognition as some of her peers, but the impact she left on aviation history is undeniable. Even if they’ve never heard her name, Chicagoans living near Lincoln Cemetery have likely heard the sounds of jets flying overhead on April 30. Every year on the anniversary of her death, black pilots honor Coleman by performing a flyover and dropping flowers on her grave.

10 Fascinating Facts About Chinese New Year

iStock.com/aluxum
iStock.com/aluxum

Some celebrants call it the Spring Festival, a stretch of time that signals the progression of the lunisolar Chinese calendar; others know it as the Chinese New Year. For a 15-day period beginning January 25 in 2020, China will welcome the Year of the Rat, one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac table.

Sound unfamiliar? No need to worry: Check out 10 facts about how one-sixth of the world's total population rings in the new year.

1. Chinese New Year was originally meant to scare off a monster.

Nian at Chinese New Year
iStock.com/jjMiller11

As legend would have it, many of the trademarks of the Chinese New Year are rooted in an ancient fear of Nian, a ferocious monster who would wait until the first day of the year to terrorize villagers. Acting on the advice of a wise old sage, the townspeople used loud noises from drums, fireworks, and the color red to scare him off—all remain components of the celebration today.

2. A lot of families use Chinese New Year as motivation to clean the house.

woman ready to clean a home
iStock.com/PRImageFactory

While the methods of honoring the Chinese New Year have varied over the years, it originally began as an opportunity for households to cleanse their quarters of "huiqi," or the breaths of those that lingered in the area. Families performed meticulous cleaning rituals to honor deities that they believed would pay them visits. The holiday is still used as a time to get cleaning supplies out, although the work is supposed to be done before it officially begins.

3. Chinese New Year will prompt billions of trips.

Man waiting for a train.
iStock.com/MongkolChuewong

Because the Chinese New Year places emphasis on family ties, hundreds of millions of people will use the Lunar period to make the trip home. Accounting for cars, trains, planes, and other methods of transport, the holiday is estimated to prompt nearly three billion trips over the 15-day timeframe.

4. Chinese New Year involves a lot of superstitions.

Colorful pills and medications
iStock.com/FotografiaBasica

While not all revelers subscribe to embedded beliefs about what not to do during the Chinese New Year, others try their best to observe some very particular prohibitions. Visiting a hospital or taking medicine is believed to invite ill health; lending or borrowing money will promote debt; crying children can bring about bad luck.

5. Some people rent boyfriends or girlfriends for Chinese New Year to soothe their parents.

Young Asian couple smiling
iStock.com/RichVintage

In China, it's sometimes frowned upon to remain single as you enter your thirties. When singles return home to visit their parents, some will opt to hire a person to pose as their significant other in order to make it appear like they're in a relationship and avoid parental scolding. Rent-a-boyfriends or girlfriends can get an average of $145 a day.

6. Red envelopes are everywhere during Chinese New Year.

a person accepting a red envelope
iStock.com/Creative-Family

An often-observed tradition during Spring Festival is to give gifts of red envelopes containing money. (The color red symbolizes energy and fortune.) New bills are expected; old, wrinkled cash is a sign of laziness. People sometimes walk around with cash-stuffed envelopes in case they run into someone they need to give a gift to. If someone offers you an envelope, it's best to accept it with both hands and open it in private.

7. Chinese New Year can create record levels of smog.

fireworks over Beijing's Forbidden City
iStock.com/lusea

Fireworks are a staple of Spring Festival in China, but there's more danger associated with the tradition than explosive mishaps. Cities like Beijing can experience a 15-fold increase in particulate pollution. In 2016, Shanghai banned the lighting of fireworks within the metropolitan area.

8. Black clothes are a bad omen during Chinese New Year.

toddler dressed up for Chinese New Year
iStock.com/lusea

So are white clothes. In China, both black and white apparel is traditionally associated with mourning and are to be avoided during the Lunar month. The red, colorful clothes favored for the holiday symbolize good fortune.

9. Chinese New Year leads to planes being stuffed full of cherries.

Bowl of cherries
iStock.com/CatLane

Cherries are such a popular food during the Festival that suppliers need to go to extremes in order to meet demand. In 2017, Singapore Airlines flew four chartered jets to Southeast and North Asian areas. More than 300 tons were being delivered in time for the festivities.

10. Panda Express is hoping Chinese New Year will catch on in America.

Box of takeout Chinese food from Panda Express
domandtrey, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Although their Chinese food menu runs more along the lines of Americanized fare, the franchise Panda Express is still hoping the U.S. will get more involved in the festival. The chain is promoting the holiday in its locations by running ad spots and giving away a red envelope containing a gift: a coupon for free food. Aside from a boost in business, Panda Express hopes to raise awareness about the popular holiday in North America.

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