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.

The History Behind 10 Thanksgiving Dishes

VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images
VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images

Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. Turkey

A roasted turkey on a platter.
612645812/iStock.com

Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as … served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. Stuffing

Pan of breaded stuffing.
mphillips007/iStock.com

Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. Cranberries

Dish of cranberry sauce.
bhofack2/iStock.com

Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. Mashed Potatoes

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
bhofack2/iStock.com

Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting president to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. Gravy

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
cislander/iStock.com

Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to create a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. Corn

Plate of corn.
PeopleImages/iStock

Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. Sweet Potatoes

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
bhofack2/iStock

In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. Green Bean Casserole

Plate of green bean casserole.
DreamBigPhotos/iStock.com

Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you probably know was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. Pumpkin Pie

Slice of pumpkin pie.
bhofack2/iStock.com

Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. Wine

Two glasses of wine.
Moncherie/iStock.com

Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

Why Do We Eat Cranberry Sauce on Thanksgiving?

MSPhotographic/iStock via Getty Images
MSPhotographic/iStock via Getty Images

While plenty of people eat turkey, mashed potatoes, and pie year-round, it seems like cranberry sauce almost exclusively exists in the Thanksgiving universe. Although we don’t know for sure whether it was eaten at the very first Thanksgiving, the jiggly, gelatinous side dish does have deep roots in the history of America’s fruited plains.

According to Insider, cranberries are one of only three commercially grown fruits native to the United States, and the Wampanoag tribe had been using them for food, dye, and medicine long before feasting with the Pilgrims in 1621. If there were cranberries at the party, they probably didn’t taste much like the sweetened sauce we’re (circumstantially) fond of today; at that point, the settlers hadn’t yet succeeded in growing sugar cane in the New World.

But a little more than 50 years later, according to a 1672 account cited by The Washington Post, the new Americans and Native Americans had both started to enjoy cranberries much like we do at Thanksgiving dinner: “Indians and English use it much, boyling them with Sugar for a Sauce to eat with their Meat.”

In 1796, Amelia Simmons—author of American Cookery, the first-ever American cookbook—took it one step further by recommending that roast turkey be served with cranberry sauce. Considering that the Library of Congress included the book on its list of “Books That Shaped America,” it’s possible that Simmons’s suggestion reverberated through kitchens across the nation, and the tradition gained momentum from there. She does mention pickled mangoes as an alternate side dish for turkey, but the then-Indian import was likely less common than the locally-grown cranberry.

Then, in the early 1800s, Ocean Spray revolutionized the labor-intensive process of hand-picking cranberries from vines with what’s called a wet harvest. Basically, farmers flood the bogs where cranberries grow, and then they wade into the water to collect the floating berries en masse.

farmer wet-harvesting cranberries
A farmer gathering cranberries during a wet harvest.
kongxinzhu/iStock via Getty Images

This was a more efficient technique, but a mass harvest meant that more cranberries got damaged. So in 1912, Ocean Spray began crushing them into canned, jellied cranberry sauce—maximizing the yield and making it easier than ever for every home in America to slice up a cylinder of solid, sugary, berry goodness.

Explore the stories behind your other favorite (or least favorite) Thanksgiving foods here.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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