by Dale Ogden, Senior Curator of Cultural History
Attempting to touch the life of a great person by obtaining a personal souvenir has been a human compulsion since medieval hucksters scammed the faithful by supplying countless splinters from what they claimed to be the “True Cross” of Jesus. When these entrepreneurs ran out of sacred relics they simply cut down a sapling and made more. It’s not surprising that such an industry developed around the martyred President Lincoln almost immediately upon his assassination. Chips of wood from the house in which he died, remnants of sheets from the deathbed, flakes of stone from Ford’s Theatre, and scraps of clothing from those in attendance were among the artifacts prized for their intimate connection to the great and terrible event.
That some of these relics are authentic, while others were manufactured for financial gain, has had little relevance to their place in the American imagination for nearly 150 years. At some point, whether a specific relic is authentic or not becomes almost beside the point. Of course, a key task of a museum is to separate the real from the fake. Museums are repositories of genuine artifacts and the true stories they tell. That a minuscule or obscure object may be said to represent a great event can become a sidebar in its own right, however. The need for emotional healing can facilitate the financial schemes of petty hucksters.
By the spring of 1865, more than 1,000,000 Americans had become casualties of the Civil War. A comparable loss today would equate to more than 200 times the American casualties suffered in the war in Iraq. Much of the country lay in ruins, with untold numbers of farms, roads, trains, bridges and businesses destroyed. Political systems from national to community levels were in chaos. Despite the end of hostilities, the future of the country remained in doubt. The American psyche was in great need of reassurance. Attributing such inconceivable loss to a sacred cause led by an almost divine figure was an understandable first step in a national healing that remains incomplete to this day.
The Indiana State Museum’s Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection (LFFC) contains several relics associated with the murder of the nation’s 16th president. Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Lincoln Life Insurance Company began assembling this collection in 1915, and the museum acquired the accumulated treasure in 2009.