The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
The Last of Mr. Lincoln
October is American Archives Month, and to celebrate, the Smithsonian is hosting a month-long blog-a-thon, an online Q&A with Smithsonian archivists and conservators, a lecture series, film series, and an opportunity to consult with archives experts at Ask-the-Smithsonian. For schedule and details, please visit the Archives Fair website.
There are all sorts of fascinating stories in the accession records of objects that were acquired for the Smithsonian's collections. However, the documents that tell the story of an object that the Smithsonian didn't acquire can be equally interesting.
In May, 1921, a delicate task confronted Charles Doolittle Walcott, Secretary of the Smithsonian. A unique item of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia had been offered for sale--the suit of clothing that Lincoln was wearing the night of his assassination. The suit in question was given to Alphonse Donn, the White House doorman, by Mary Lincoln shortly after Lincoln's death. It had remained in the Donn family as a treasured heirloom.
There was one living person who could be contacted for authentication; the question was how to address him without giving offense. Walcott began writing, "Dear Mr. Lincoln:"
In his long life, Robert Todd Lincoln had served as Secretary of War, Minister to the Court of St. James, and President of the Pullman Palace Car Company. However, the leading role of his lifetime was as the last surviving keeper of his father's legacy.
Lincoln's request that the clothing "be kept in great seclusion among the possessions of the museum" brought to an end to the Smithsonian's hope of purchasing the suit, as expressed by Walter de Coursey Ravenel in a letter to Walcott:
The object of the gentlemen interested in the purchase of the Lincoln relics for the National Museum was that they should be placed on permanent exhibition and made as prominent a feature as possible of our exhibit…Mr. Robert Lincoln, as you see, thinks they should be kept in great seclusion…
William de C. Ravenel, Administrative Assistant to the Secretary, May 14, 1921 [Record Unit 192, Box 221, Folder 4 - File 69608]
The Smithsonian stayed true to Robert Lincoln's request through the 1940s, when an offer to purchase the clothing on the Smithsonian's behalf was answered:
The interest which prompts your offer is highly appreciated but it is the established policy of the National Museum to give as little prominence as possible to gruesome objects…For this reason it would not be practical for us to undertake to except and exhibit the clothing in the manner you desire.
Alexander Wetmore, Assistant Secretary, March 28, 1940 [Record Unit 192, Box 221, Folder 4 - File 69608]
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the suit was offered several times for sale or at auction by the Donn family, always at prices the Smithsonian couldn't reach. A Smithsonian staffer with a sense of humor summarized the Institution's feelings on the matter:
A bill was introduced Dec 14, 1915 by Mr. Roberts of Mass. to purchase the Lincoln clothing for $7,500. Never materialized due to WWI approaching.
In 1924, the clothing was offered for public auction…but was purchased…for the family at $6,000, as they felt it should sell for more…
P.T. Barnum, of circus fame, offered $20,000 for the clothing to be displayed…offer turned down because of the principle.
Later, a Washington man offered a brick home in exchange for the clothing and that was turned down.
Maybe we could offer the old A&I building for the clothing, once our new building is completed! [Record Unit 192, Box 221, Folder 4 - File 69608]
In 1968, the suit was acquired by the National Park Service, finally finding a fitting home at Ford's Theater, where it can be seen today.
- Record Unit 192 - United States National Museum, Permanent Administrative Files, 1877–1975, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Ford's Theater - Lincoln's Clothing, Ford's Theater