The value of relics

by Dale Ogden, Senior Curator of Cultural History

According to a note penned on this splinter, the fragment is purported to be “From the table used to examine Booth’s body.” After Booth was killed, an autopsy was conducted on a rough carpenter’s bench aboard the federal monitor Montauk.

According to a note penned on this splinter, the fragment is purported to be “From the table used to examine Booth’s body.” After Booth was killed, an autopsy was conducted on a rough carpenter’s bench aboard the federal monitor Montauk.

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.

Even the most minute remnants of artifacts related to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination have become treasured relics. These few strands, glued to a note card, are ostensibly from the rope used to hang one of the conspirators, David Herold.

Even the most minute remnants of artifacts related to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination have become treasured relics. These few strands, glued to a note card, are ostensibly from the rope used to hang one of the conspirators, David Herold.

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.

For many years, this swatch of fabric, which is preserved in the LFFC, was purported to be from the dress of actress Laura Keene, the female lead in “Our American Cousin” the night of Lincoln’s murder. According to legend, Keene rushed to the Presidential Box to comfort the stricken leader, cradling his bloody head in her lap. Whether or not this story is accurate, recent examination suggests this fragment dates to the 1890s, three decades after the murder, and 20-some years after Keene’s death. At one time or another, most historical organizations east of the Mississippi River have claimed to possess a “fragment of Laura Keene’s dress.”

For many years, this swatch of fabric, which is preserved in the LFFC, was purported to be from the dress of actress Laura Keene, the female lead in “Our American Cousin” the night of Lincoln’s murder. According to legend, Keene rushed to the Presidential Box to comfort the stricken leader, cradling his bloody head in her lap. Whether or not this story is accurate, recent examination suggests this fragment dates to the 1890s, three decades after the murder, and 20-some years after Keene’s death. At one time or another, most historical organizations east of the Mississippi River have claimed to possess a “fragment of Laura Keene’s dress.”

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.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: