“Bizarro, “funky,” and “weird” is how Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) curator of history Robert Searing describes the most peculiar artifact in their possession. It’s a sculpture of an eagle made almost entirely from human hair, much of it belonging to Abraham Lincoln.
The artwork, which was dubbed “The Hairy Eagle,” was created in 1864 in the midst of the Civil War and was part of a contemporaneous trend of crafting mementos using human hair. In an effort to raise funds for the soldier advocacy group, the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a women’s group commissioned a “hair wreath” from a Washington, D.C. company named Spies & Champney. The group worked from a design by Louisa Wright, wife of Indiana governor Joseph Wright. After being put on public view for $1 admission, it stayed with the Champneys.
The entire display is sealed under glass and measures 1 foot in diameter. The eagle’s head is made from Lincoln’s tresses; its neck was crafted from the hair of vice-president Hannibal Hamlin. Secretary of State William Henry Seward was used for the eagle’s back. The beak? Comprised of hair from Attorney General Edward Bates. A total of 23 senators also donated follicles.
The eagle sits atop a globe made of hair from their wives, including Mary Todd Lincoln. It’s accompanied by a hair key so you can tell which hair was used for each segment.
The OHA came into possession of the sculpture circa 1923 thanks to ties the Champney family had in Syracuse, New York, where the association is located. Owing to its fragility and to keep it out of sunlight, the OHA only puts it on display periodically. By one estimate, it’s been viewable by the public just three times in the last 100 years.
Lincoln’s hair has always been a source of curiosity. In 1905, president Theodore Roosevelt wore a ring containing Lincoln’s locks during his second inauguration. (The hair had been removed at the request of Lincoln's secretary John Hay during Lincoln's autopsy in 1965; Hay gifted Roosevelt with the macabre accessory.) More recently, his hair has fetched as much as $81,000 at auction.