Abe Lincoln, Assassinations, Auctions, Museums, Politics

Abraham Lincoln’s Hat Needs You!


Original publish date:  September 3, 2018

Attention Hoosiers, Abraham Lincoln needs your help. More specifically the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation in Springfield, Illinois is appealing to all friends of Mr. Lincoln to lend a hand in their hour of need. Last week I traveled to the ALPLM to speak with the State Historian of Illinois and Director of Research and Collections, Dr. Samuel Wheeler. Although his title and resume may sound imposing, “Sam” is a breath of fresh air for the Lincoln historical community. Dr. Wheeler’s appearance is immediately disarming, his countenance inviting and friendly. Sam breaks the long-established mold of the elderly historian whose gray hair, Meerschaum pipe and leather-elbowed corduroy jacket are calculatedly designed to intimidate. Sam’s youthful appearance and ready smile invite everyone to come, sit and talk history for awhile.

Dr. Sam Wheeler

Dr. Samuel Wheeler is the tenth State Historian in Illinois history and when you consider that 2018 is the state’s Bicentennial year, you may deduce that they choose their historians carefully. Sam’s specialty is the cool stuff: the history of Illinois, the Civil War Era, and the Life and Legacy of Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Wheeler’s life mission is to protect, preserve, and promote history through education. During his three years at the helm, he has devoted much of his time to assisting other museums, libraries, historic sites, documentary projects, and historical societies. He regularly speaks to diverse audiences across the country, writes for scholarly journals and popular magazines, and offers commentary to newspaper, radio, and television outlets. In short, Dr. Wheeler is a busy man.
The subject of my visit is a topic that has occupied social media, blog spots and chat rooms for the past few weeks. The ALPLM is in danger of losing some of its most precious Abraham Lincoln relics and associative memorabilia. If the ALPLM cannot satisfy a substantial financial liability by October 2019, priceless Lincoln relics will have to be sacrificed to meet their obligation. Meaning that these items will likely end up in the private collections of millionaires never to be displayed publicly again. While the amount of the liability, $9.7 million is staggering, Dr. Wheeler points out that “if we could just get every citizen of Illinois to donate one dollar each, we would wipe out that debt in no time.” Sam continues, “and if you could get Indiana to pitch in the same, we can keep the collection open for generations to come.”
LogoThe ALPLM’s “problems” began back in 2007 when it purchased the famous Taper collection for $23 million. “The collection is amazing,” says Sam, “the Lincoln top hat and bloodied gloves seem to be the items that resonate most with people, but the collection is much more than that.” Dr. Wheeler says that the uniqueness of the Taper collection centers around its emphasis on assassination related items, a field that had been largely ignored by Lincoln collectors at that time of its assemblage. The collection was created by Louise Taper, daughter-in-law of Southern California real estate magnate S. Mark Taper. She created the exhibition The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America which was at the Huntington Library from 1993–1994 and at the Chicago Historical Society from 1996-1997.
According to the ALPLM’s website, “Louise Taper amassed the largest private collection of Lincolniana in more than a half-century, highlighted by 1 of 3 stovepipe hats known to have belonged to Lincoln; the earliest of his boyhood sumbook pages, ca. 1824-1826; and more than 100 letters or notes in the hands of Abraham or Mary Lincoln. Also among the 1,500 items in the collection are manuscripts by friends and contemporaries, personally owned books and clothing or other accouterments, prints, broadsides, newspapers, artworks, period photographs, and assassination-related materials.”
The ALPLM acquired the Taper Collection two years after they opened the $150 million facility on April 19, 2005. To blunt public charges that the ALPLM had bit off more than it could chew, Dr, Wheeler compares the museum to a 13-year-old child. He states, “Not too many 13-year-olds have got it all together. We’ve matured a lot in the last two years.” Sam notes that in those two years, the ALPLM has streamlined much of their operation citing as examples that more of the collection has been digitized for research and the museum’s six research rooms have been pared down to one.
Presidential-Museum-CreditALPLM3“Bottom line,” Sam says, “we need to keep the collection here. That is our first priority.” It is easy to see how important this collection is to Dr. Wheeler by simply watching his eyes as he speaks. To Wheeler, the collection is not just a part of the museum, it is a part of the state of Illinois. Sam relates how when he speaks to groups, which he does quite regularly on behalf of the ALPLM, he often reaches into the vault to bring along pieces from the Taper collection to fit the topic. “People love seeing these items. It gives them a direct connection to Lincoln.” states Wheeler.
When asked if he has a particular favorite from the Taper collection, Dr. Wheeler smiles and says, “I’m particularly drawn to the gold cufflink that Lincoln was wearing at Ford’s Theater that night.” However, Sam is quick to point out that what makes the Taper collection so special is the depth of quality it represents. The collection contains Mary Lincoln’s hand fan carried to the theater that night, locks of hair from members of the Lincoln family, and the oldest piece of writing by Abraham Lincoln known. It is a page from 15-year-old Abraham Lincoln’s 1824 schoolbook whose content Dr. Wheeler can recite by hear. “Abraham Lincoln is my name/ and with my pen I wrote the same/ I wrote in both haste and speed/ and left it here for fools to read.”
Dr. Wheeler also informs that the Taper collection contains a treasure trove of letters written by John Wilkes Booth and his entire family as well as the ring J.W. Booth presented to his fiancée Elizabeth Sumner. “We also have stage costumes and the handwritten character sketch for John Wilkes Booth’s role in Shakespeare’s Macbeth,” says Wheeler. “Our main objection for the collection, is that we keep it in the public realm. That is imperative.”
The Lincoln Library foundation recently said, “If the foundation is not able to secure commitments in the very near future to retire most-if not all-of the remaining $9.7 million debt, it will have no choice but to accelerate the possibility of selling these unique artifacts on the private market-which would likely remove them from public view forever.”
gettyimages-468377946Hoosiers may ask, why doesn’t the ALPLM just ask the state of Illinois for the money? After all, with 300,000 visitors annually, the Lincoln Library Museum is one of the most popular tourist sites in the state of Illinois and is prominently featured in all of their state tourism ads. Well, the state is billions of dollars in debt despite approving a major income-tax increase last summer and as of the time of this writing, has yet to put together a budget. To the casual observer, one would think that financial stalemate between the state and the museum would be a no-brainer when you consider that the ALPLM has drawn more than 4 million visitors since opening in 2005. The truth is a little more complicated than that. Illinois State government runs and funds the Lincoln library and museum. The separately run foundation raises private funds to support the presidential complex. The foundation, which is not funded by the state, operates a gift store and restaurant but has little role in the complex’s operations, programs and oversight.
Aside from the items previously mentioned, the Taper collection, which numbers over 1500 pieces, also includes a pair of Lincoln’s eyeglasses and his billfold. The Taper collection includes about 100 Mary Todd Lincoln letters, giving the Lincoln presidential library a total of 500-out of only 600 in the world.
Museum officials are sorting out which Taper collection items were donated and transferred to the state, and what might end up for sale-if it should come to that. One item that won’t be on the auction block is the state’s rare copy of the Gettysburg Address, written in Lincoln’s own hand. Luckily, the document wasn’t part of the Taper purchase. The state’s collection of Lincoln artifacts, tens of thousands strong, draws researchers from across the globe and gives the public a chance to see up close the man many Americans feel was the greatest President in U.S. history.

Carl Sandburg and Marilyn Monroe

The Taper collection also included a dress worn by 1950s movie star Marilyn Monroe, an admitted “fan girl” of the 16th President. The blonde bombshell’s dress was considered a non-Lincoln item that potentially would fetch big bucks to help pay off the loan. Perhaps to show that they were serious, in late July the ALPLM sent Monroe’s slinky black dress off to a Las Vegas auctionhouse, where it fetched $50,000 from the lucky bidder. Also sold were seven original photographs of Monroe, which sold for $3000 each. However, an original bust of Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg failed to sell. All proceeds from the Julien’s sale went towards the outstanding debt. Hopefully Lincoln relics will not be next up on the auction block.

Author Doris Kearns Goodwin

Dr. Wheeler is doing his best to get the message out. Aside from his normal 60 hour work week he spends nights and weekends all over the state and country talking about Lincoln, the museum and sounding the alarm to save the collection. The museum is getting help from cherished friends like Doris Kearns Goodwin who will be speaking at the ALPLM on October 29 with “proceeds from this event to benefit the campaign to secure a permanent home for Lincoln’s most personal effects comprising the Taper collection.” Interested and concerned Hoosiers can help by visiting the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library website at http://www.alplm,org and there is a “Save the Lincoln Artifacts” go find me page on the web.
If every Hoosier would chip in a few bucks we could honor our state’s favorite son and help our neighbors in Illinois at the same time. Skip that latte for Lincoln. Snap off that sawbuck for the rail splitter. Honest Abe is depending on you.

Abe Lincoln, Auctions, Museums

Osborn Oldroyd-Keeper of the Lincoln flame. Part IV

z p15155coll1-3429Original publish date:  July 27, 2017

I have spent the last 3 weeks retracing the steps I have taken chasing one of my heroes, Osborn Oldroyd. In early June of this year, I was contacted by a Marshalltown, Iowa auction house in who informed me of a small group of items they were auctioning off that came from the Oldroyd museum in Springfield. There were 10 items in the sale that could be directly traced to Osborn Oldroyd’s museum. They were 10 items marked as being “Property of O.H. Oldroyd” in one form or another.

IMG_1924On June 16th I found myself in Marshalltown examining the items. I obtained my bidder number, which happened to be bidder # 1, and retreated to my hotel room to await the next day’s auction. There’s not a lot to do in Marshalltown, Iowa so I decided to take a drive to the nearby community of LeClaire, Iowa to mark time.

LeClaire rests a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River. The town is best known as the home of TV’s American Pickers. The duo’s Antique Archaeology headquarters is a converted gas station and car wash atop a small rise on the west side of the river. I pulled in about 9:30 in the morning, a half hour before they opened, and drove slowly through a crowd of some thirty people who all stopped and stared at me uncomfortably as I cruised past. I soon realized that these people were checking me out carefully to make sure I wasn’t one of “them”. The disappointment was palpable as they realized I wasn’t Frank Fritz or Mike Wolfe. I walked around the buildings, looked through the windows, and since I wasn’t in the market for a 10-foot gas station or junk car and didn’t need any American Pickers t-shirts, coffee mugs, hats or water bottles, I headed back to Marshalltown. IMG_1921

The Oldroyd lots were in the middle of a 600 lot sale billed as a “Gentlemen’s Items and Silver Collector’s Auction” by the Tom Harris auction house. So I sat patiently and watched nearly 200 items (mostly an assortment of old fashioned silver matchsafes) get gaveled down before my first item came up on the auction block. I won’t bore you any further with a blow-by-blow account of each item’s bidding and disposition, however, when the dust cleared, I had won 8 out of 10 Oldroyd items sold that day. Why not 10 out of 10, you ask? Well, as I am not independently wealthy, I decided it best to let 2 lots (a pair of eyeglasses with a dubious claim to fame and a cabinet photo made after Lincoln’s death) be sacrificed for the acquisition of the other 8.

IMG_7343Among the items I brought home were a pair of contemporaneous framed leaflets. Both are displayed starkly in black wood and glass frames, one is a copy of Lincoln’s farewell address to the citizens of Springfield and the other a copy of Lincoln’s favorite poem. The farewell address is important to me because Lincoln’s first stop after the delivery of this poignant edict was Indianapolis. The next item was a classic looking photo of Lincoln ascending to heaven wrapped in the open arms of George Washington. The careworn oval metal frame fits snugly in the palm and bears the wear and patina of an item held repeatedly in the loving hands of a legion of Lincoln admirers.

IMG_7339The next item is the haunting life mask of Abraham Lincoln that once hung on the wall of the museum. The lifesized mask is attached to a larger handcrafted oval wooden plaque with a smaller brass nameplate attached to the front. The lifemask, made by artist Leonard Volk in 1860 before Lincoln grew his signature beard, is an accurate representation of what it would have been like to look at the face of a young and vibrant Lincoln. This item was surely a highlight of the museum and, judging by the loss of paint and subsequent repair of the nose, was a good luck talisman for all visitors. Rubbing Lincoln’s nose is still a popular tradition at the Lincoln tomb in Springfield.

The next item was, according to Oldroyd, the last Bible that the Lincoln family ever IMG_7352owned. The Bible was obtained by Oldroyd after Mr. Lincoln was killed and presumably following the death of Mary and Tad Lincoln. The phone book sized Bible shows signs of heavy wear and transport in compliance with the somewhat vagabond lifestyle led by Mary and Tad after vacating the White House in 1865. Mary died in 1882. Tad preceded her in 1871. The Bible includes a couple pages of contemporary Carte de Visite photographs of the Lincoln family along with a few other disparate images from the Civil War and immediate post period. The inclusion of CDVs depicting Union Civil War Generals Grant, Sheridan, Burnside and Sherman alongside images of the US Capitol Dome under construction and George and Martha Washington could easily be construed as Tad’s version of collecting baseball cards.

IMG_7348The last three items of acquisition were perhaps the most important to me. I am a native Hoosier. I cherish the idea that Abraham Lincoln grew to manhood in the southern region of my home state. These three items offered a direct connection to Lincoln and Indiana. The first two items are innocuous in their relevance to Lincoln the Hoosier; the Lincoln family coffee grinder and Abraham Lincoln’s ice skate. IMG_7349

The ancient looking coffee grinder consists of a sturdy metal handle crank sprouting from the top of a wooden cabinet tower. The coffee maker’s tower was likely constructed by Abraham Lincoln’s father Thomas, a carpenter by trade. Hidden at the foot of the cabinet is a small drawer designed to catch the ground up remains of coffee beans. The Lincoln homestead in Spencer County was part of the western frontier when the family arrived in 1816. Many diaries and letters confirm the importance of coffee to Western pioneers. In his diary, Josiah Gregg, a frontier trapper, wrote about the pioneers’ love of coffee. “The insatiable appetite acquired by travellers upon the Prairies is almost incredible, and the quantity of coffee drank is still more so,” he wrote. “It is an unfailing and apparently indispensable beverage, served at every meal.” This innocent looking household appliance would have been one of the most cherished articles owned by the Lincoln family as young Abe grew up.

IMG_7346The next Indiana Lincoln item is an ice skate. The thick wooden shoe stand is shaped like an hourglass. The heavy iron blade is curled at each end like an ancient Crakow shoe. While no official reference exists of Lincoln the ice skater, the skate presents a romantic image of boyhood Lincoln at play on a frozen southern Indiana pond. Simply holding it in your hands brings a smile to your face.

The last item I purchased was the one I had resolved was heading back home to Indiana IMG_7350with me, at all costs. It is an ancient looking Colonial Era metal candle maker. During colonial times up to the Antebellum Era, candles were the main source of light during the long, dark, nighttime hours. Candles on the western frontier were made from beeswax and tallow (animal fat). The wicks were lain loosely inside the tube as the wax was poured in around them to harden.

IMG_7351Included with the candle maker is a framed certificate written and signed by Osborn Oldroyd reading: “This candle maker is from the Lincoln and Sparrow Cabin on Pigeon Creek Indiana (1818-1835) O.H. Oldroyd Washington April 9, 1901”. The certificate has a small brass diecut tab attached with the seal of the state of Indiana inset. It would be hard to find a more romantic artifact to illustrate Lincoln’s time spent in the Hoosier state. Young Abraham may well have learned to read by the light of a candle made in this, the Lincoln family candle mold. Stories abound of Young Abe the railsplitter reading by candle and fire light into the wee hours of the morning after a long day’s work in the fields.

The reference by Oldroyd to the “Lincoln-Sparrow” cabin is an obscure one, recognized by only the most astute Lincoln scholar. Elizabeth and Thomas Sparrow (Nancy’s maternal aunt and uncle), moved in with the Lincoln family at Pigeon (or Pidgin) Creek in 1817 a year before Captain Oldroyd’s certificate denotes. The Lincolns had just finished their cabin and moved out of their 3-sided lean-to, later known as the “half-faced camp”. The Sparrows were given the lean-to to live in while they built their cabin. Shortly after the Sparrows arrived, Nancy bought six milk cows to provide milk for the two families. In the fall of 1818, an illness known as “the milk-sick” swept the area. People at Pigeon Creek were dying from drinking milk. To be safe the Lincolns and Sparrows kept the children from drinking milk. However, the adults of both families drank it for almost two years before becoming sick. Lincoln’s “Angel Mother” and the Sparrows all died of the milk-sick. 9-year-old Abraham Lincoln never really got over the childhood loss.

So now you can see why these items were so important for me to bring back to Indiana. They belong here. Ironically, two days after I returned from my Iowa Oldroyd journey, I was visited in my home by WISH-TV 8 reporter Dick Wolfsie. Dick was on a visit to film a segment (which as of this writing has not aired) for a Saturday morning broadcast about collectors and their collections. The items were so new to me that they remained spread out on the kitchen counter with the original auction lot number tags attached.

Like me, Mr. Wolfsie was excited to handle the items. He was drawn in particular to the Lincoln Family Bible which was featured prominently in the segments. He was also drawn to the Lincoln ice skate. How could anyone not be drawn to Abe Lincoln’s ice skate? Dick’s only question was “Where is the other one?” The segments will air soon and can be viewed by going to Dick Wolfsie’s Channel 8 webpage and clicking on his profile and segment list.

A few days later, I received a phone call from representatives of the American Pickers crew. Seems that Frank and Mike were on their way to Indiana in search of stories and things to buy. I informed them that while I certainly had stories to share, I had nothing to sell. We took a mutual pass.

Oldroyd Part IVLastly, my wife treated me to a birthday trip to Springfield, Illinois in July. I traveled to the Lincoln home on an early Saturday morning to reflect while seated in front of the Lincoln home. Based on trips past, I’ve learned that the early morning hours are best. No school buses, tourists or fitness walkers / bikers to mar the scene. I have been coming to Springfield for many years. Of course, Abraham Lincoln is the reason for my visit. However, I never forget that Osborn Oldroyd lived in the house and operated his museum here for nearly a decade (1884-93). I’d asked several people, ranging from officials at the Lincoln museum to parks department employees, about Oldroyd in the past but always got a cool reception to my querie.

On this latest visit, I wandered over to the interpretive marker directly across the street and facing the Lincoln home. Much to my amazement, there he was. The newly placed plaque is dedicated to Osborn Oldroyd’s museum once housed there. I could not believe my eyes! At last, Oldroyd has received official recognition from the powers that be in Lincoln’s Springfield. Maybe things are looking up for Captain Oldroyd after all. I doubt that I’ll ever be prouder of a historical pursuit that I was that morning.

Abe Lincoln, Auctions, Gettysburg, Pop Culture

The Gettysburg Wax Museum Auction.

Wax MuseumOriginal publish date:  March 20, 2014

Seeking escape from the coldest, harshest winter in recent memory, I sought escape by attending a liquidation auction at an iconic baby boomer tourist landmark on the site of America’s greatest battlefield; The Gettysburg Wax Museum in Pennsylvania. Aware of my penchant for tourist traps and knowing that the museum was built the year I was born (1962), despite my reservations, she decreed “You’re going.”
Known as “The National Civil War Wax Museum”, the site at 297 Steinwehr Avenue opened April 19, 1962. That week Walter Cronkite took over as CBS anchorman, Bob Dylan performed “Blowin’ in the Wind” for the first time in Greenwich Village, the Boston Celtics won their fourth straight NBA championship, the Seattle World’s Fair opened and Indy 500 champion Al Unser Jr. was born (on the museum’s opening day). The original Museum featured 35 scenes containing over 150 individual figures highlighting the Civil War and Gettysburg. The museum’s purpose was not only to entertain but to educate.
IMG_0520On Saturday, March 15th the museum’s contents were sold to the public at auction. The sale included 95 Civil War wax figures and the accouterments used to illustrate each scene. In it’s half century of service the museum saw over 8 million visitors walk through the turnstiles, now lot # 265 in this very special auction.
Although I had been in the museum many times over the past 25 years, it was a shock to now see the building gutted and lain bare. Most of the auction lots were arranged in the scenes where they had “lived” for the past half-century. It seemed strange to now step into the scenes to get a closer view of the lifelike depictions from the pages of history. These forms thast were gazed upon by untold generations of visitors including presidents, diplomats, dignitaries and just plain folk from every walk of life.
I met 19-year wax museum employee Stephanie Lightner while walking the halls among the ghostly figures. She is the manager of the new museum that will soon be open there. Stephanie says the building was purchased by a New Jersey man who had grown up in Gettysburg and that the facility was being retooled to better accommodate a new generation of visitors. “We’ll be keeping some of the exhibits to display in the new museum,” said Stephanie. She said that the new owner kept all of the staff from the Wax Museum, always a good thing. The new museum, known as the “Gettysburg Heritage Center”, is set to open in late April but as Stephanie smilingly admits, “It might be Memorial Day at this point.”
IMG_0521As I finished perusing the auction lots, I halted at an area tucked away in a back corner of the hall. This dimly lit crook featured tiered shelves upon which rested approximately 40 disembodied heads. Some of the heads were recognizable to me; Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson. On a shelf nearby lay a pile of arms, legs and hands. Some of these body parts, in keeping with the brutality of the Civil War, were spattered with blood stains. Seeing these, I turned to my wife and said “Now these have the potential to go sky high.”
Officially, the auction featured 335 official lots but that number would balloon to over 400 by close of sale. The crowd quickly ballooned to standing room only. It was a strange mix of Civil War re-enactors, Harley dude’s and local Pennsylvania Dutchmen. I spotted a few ghost hunter types in the crowd as well, no doubt hoping to score a disembodied head, bloodstained arm or broken hand should the opportunity arise. I saw some familiar faces, among them Gettysburg’s former Abe Lincoln, Bill Ciampo, who told me, “I just came to see if there was a market for this stuff. When I sold my Lincoln wax statue, I sold it for $500 just to get rid of it.” Ciampo walked up to the Lincoln figures (the museum had three full Lincoln figures and one head) and said, “See, their chins are already drooping, that’s why I got rid of mine.”
IMG_0523The synchronicity of the moment was not lost on me as, outside just yards away, bulldozers busily cleared out the massive football field sized blacktop parking lot. It had once served the old visitor’s center (torn down in 2008) and Cyclorama building, built the same year as the wax museum and torn down in March 2013. In the past 25 years I watched as other tourist landmarks disappeared from the borough including the Lincoln Room Museum, The National Tower, and now, the Wax Museum.
Also among the crowd was Erik L. Dorr, curator and owner of “The Gettysburg Museum of History” at 219 Baltimore Street. Erik painstakingly maintains his fantastic personal collection of relics from the Battle and the pages of American history within the walls of his ancestral family home. “The house was built in the 1850s and has been in my family for four generations. It was extensively remodeled in 1867 and again in the early 1900s.” said Dorr.
On this day, Mr. Dorr was searching for additions to his massive collection. “I’m running out of room at my Museum now. I actually tried to buy the whole Wax Museum, including the contents, land and building. I thought it would be a fun experiment and I was getting financing in order but it didn’t fall into place fast enough and the museum sold.” says Dorr, “I would have kept the wax museum intact as much as possible while adding my collection to it.” Among the items he bid on and won were the Jenny Wade, George Armstrong Custer and John Wilkes Booth wax statues. He also bought many of the signs including the iconic interior entryway sign that lit up to indicate when the next group should enter.
“I bought most of the Jenny Wade booth with the idea of recreating it in my museum.” Dorr remarked. “As it stands now, I’ll have to display the statues one at a time because of space limitations.” Mr. Dorr reports that he is actively looking for a new space to house his collection, “I could get a place just outside of the town limits, but I want it to stay in the borough of Gettysburg.” Currently Dorr, the consummate historian, is busy making plans to attend the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy in early June as an invited guest. “They’re calling this the last reunion.” he says, “The trip is pretty brutal and most of the vets won’t make it to the 75th.” But that’s a story for a future column.
Seated nearby were a young couple whom I met by taking a photo of them proudly displaying their bidder number. Turns out this couple was Scott and Lori Hilts from Arcade New York. They live on an 1850s dairy farm and Scott has converted the barn into a museum dedicated to the battle of Gettysburg. In a familiar refrain, Scott admits, “I’m running out of room. It’s 40’by 80′, but I might have to expand.”
Scott, owner and operator of 2 funeral homes, proudly traces his roots back to Corp. John Christ of Co. E 136th New York State volunteer infantry who was wounded on the mystical third day at Gettysburg. “I bought the (Robert E.) Lee and (George) Meade figures because I felt they were the ones most identified with Gettysburg,” Hilts said, “but I bought some paintings and signs too. Since I bought the Lee-Longstreet conference painting, I went ahead and bought the General James Longstreet figure too.” He also bought a colorful Zouave soldier to represent the many ethnic troops that fought at Gettysburg and to honor his home state.
I asked Lori about Scott’s Gettysburg obsession and she explained that she was “fine with it and it keeps him out of trouble.” She admitted that when Scott told her of his plans to purchase a wax figure or two, she thought the idea was “strange” and her biggest fear was running into one of them in the middle of the night. “As long as they stay in his man cave, then I guess it’s all right.” Besides, Lori reports that she found a Steiff “center stitched teddy bear” the next day at an antique show in nearby New Oxford so, “It was a good tip for me too.”
Scott, an arduous collector whose specialty is images, letters and diaries of soldiers killed, wounded or held as POWs at Gettysburg, loves nothing better than researching every item he adds to his collection. Over the years I have found that it is often collectors like Scott who are most dedicated to the preservation, protection and promotion of history. Scott Hilts is one of those new breed “collector as curator / preservationists.”
By my count the auction grossed just over $ 100,000, a figure that does not reflect the 10% buyers premium. There were over 350 registered bidders from as far away as Los Angeles. You might think it would be one of the statues that brought the most money at the sale. But the top lot was # 317, a rare Singer sewing machine made in 1846, that brought $5775 and a round of applause from the crowd. The famous General figures, and those of Jennie Wade and Jesus Christ, all landed in the $1000 neighborhood. The Lincoln figures sold for upwards of $2000 each. But many of the lots receiving spirited bidding included the furniture, wall hangings, and artwork that adorned the scenes. Items that went largely unnoticed by museum visitors focused solely on the statues. Civil War military equipment and uniforms used to adorn the wax figures (swords, belts, hats, saddles, and bayonets) all sold well.
A personal favorite was the larger-than-life animated figure of Abraham Lincoln, for years the closing scene for the Museum. This figure moved ever so slightly to the cadence of The Gettysburg Address, or at least it used to. Now the figure looked rather sad, more resembling the Addams family Lurch character than our 16th President. The $ 2200 winning bid came via phone. I couldn’t help but wonder if the bidder would’ve been half as exuberant had they been there to view the statue in person. Oh, and that turnstile I mentioned before, it sold for $ 495. A pittance when you consider the aggregate humanity that hip-checked their way past its mechanical tentacles.
After the last lot was hammered down, I asked Erik Dorr if there were any surprises or regrets at the auction. “I thought most stuff went as expected, but some lots went higher than I would’ve guessed. I knew the Gettysburg lots would go high and recognized many local collectors in the crowd. But it seemed like they waited, bid on the lot they wanted, and left, which might’ve actually helped me.” Dorr said “I wanted to bid on one of the paintings or the Lincolns, but couldn’t justify the high price. I noticed that after the sale, all of the Lincoln statues were grouped together waiting for shipment. I suspect that they were all sold to the same bidder and that they might have actually sold for more had bidding continued.”
When I posed the same question to Scott Hilts, he responded, “I thought things went very reasonably, not cheap, but lower than I expected.” As for regrets, he says, “I wish I’d have bought the George Pickett figure. It only sold for $ 700. I should have bought more of the paintings too.” Scott offers perhaps the most touching observations of the day by saying, “I first came to this museum when I was 8-years-old. I brought my son Derron here when he was the same age. (Scott has 3 daughters too). Now Derron is graduating from Fredonia State University this June. My Great-Great-Grandfather was wounded where those bulldozers are working right now. In fact, he may well have received his wound right here where the museum sits. He was here that’s for sure.” Scott Hilts love for Gettysburg is deeply rooted.
IMG_0519Undoubtedly the happiest person in the room that day was a young woman named Kim Yates. She was hard to miss. Towards the end of the auction she bid on, and won, the last wax figure in the catalog. Suddenly, the previously sedate young lady began to scream wildly and jump around the room. One of the ringmen sidled over to me, after noting the look of obvious surprise on my face, and whispered, “She’s never bid in an auction before.”
Within moments, that same ringman rolled out those uncatalogued body parts. The Lincoln head sold for $330, then Andy Jackson’s head brought $275, followed by several more disembodied heads sporting powdered wigs sold for $ 250 each. Then it was down to the bloodied heads. Suddenly Kim Yates sprang to the front of the room and began bidding on the grisly remains faster than the ringmen could keep up with. After all was finished and the last lot hammered down, Kim told me, “I bought 6 heads, 4 torsos, a sword and a whole bunch of hands and arms.” Turns out that Kim runs a haunted attraction near Baltimore known as “Kim’s Krypt”, scheduled to open that very night. “My only worry is getting them back in time to display them tonight.” Who knew that props from one of Gettysburg’s most esteemed museums would someday end up in a haunted house? I told you those body parts would go crazy.

As you can see in this clip, I nearly owned this sign (the ring-man is pointing at me). Instead, it went to Eric Dorr’s museum in Gettysburg. A suitable place.

Auctions, Pop Culture

Roy Rogers Auction. Happy Trails for sale.

441Original publish date:  July 16, 2010

Roy Rogers. If you’re a baby boomer you think “King of the Cowboys”, if you’re a Gen-Xer or younger, you think chicken. Roy Rogers, born Leonard Franklin Slye on November 5, 1911, was an American singer and cowboy actor, as well as the namesake of the Roy Rogers Restaurants chain. He and his wife Dale Evans (known as the “Queen of the West”), his golden palomino Trigger, and his German shepherd dog, Bullet, were featured in over one hundred movies and The Roy Rogers Show. The show ran on radio for nine years before moving to television from 1951 through 1957.

Roy Rogers. If you’re a baby boomer you think “King of the Cowboys”, if you’re a Gen-Xer or younger, you think chicken. Roy Rogers, born Leonard Franklin Slye on November 5, 1911, was an American singer and cowboy actor, as well as the namesake of the Roy Rogers Restaurants chain. He and his wife Dale Evans (known as the “Queen of the West”), his golden palomino Trigger, and his German shepherd dog, Bullet, were featured in over one hundred movies and The Roy Rogers Show. The show ran on radio for nine years before moving to television from 1951 through 1957.  Rogers was well ahead of his time in many aspects. He was one of the first Hollywood stars to realize the power of his likeness and maintaining his image. Rogers endorsed everything from cap guns, cowboy hats and comic books to clothing brands, lunch boxes and fried chicken. His “Roy Rogers Enterprises” was created in the 1950s and every item Roy endorsed was personally approved and inspected by Rogers himself and carried his “Pledge to parents” attesting to its quality.So powerful was the Roy Rogers brand that Roy was able to open the “Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum” near their home in Apple Valley, California in 1967 before relocating to nearby Victorville on old historic Route 66 in 1976 and finally ending up in Branson, Missouri in 2003. The museum was filled with hundreds of one-of-a-kind personal mementos from Roy & Dale’s careers as well as at least one of every product Roy or Dale ever endorsed. It seems that Roy insisted on retaining at least one example of every item bearing his likeness over the years.

roy-rogers-dale-evans-773x1024Roy died on July 6, 1998 and Dale followed him on February 7, 2001, prompting the move to Branson. Sadly, the popular museum closed for financial reasons on Dec. 12, 2009. It seems that Roy’s demographic and interest in his life and career was dying with him. The museum was operated by Roy Rogers, Jr., known as “Dusty” to fans, whose decision to close the museum was like another death in the family. In a move that shocked fans, historians and preservationists alike, Dusty announced that the contents of the museum would be liquidated. What most people fail to realize is that Dusty is simply doing what his late father told him to. Roy often told his family that when interest in his career inevitably waned, sell the collection and close the museum.

According to the website: “The decision to close the Museum has come after two years of steady decline in visitors to the Museum. A lot of factors have made our decision for us. The economy for one, people are just not traveling as much. Dad’s fans are getting older, and concerned about their retirement funds. Everyone is concerned about their future in this present economy. Secondly, with our high fiscal obligations we cannot continue to accumulate debt to keep the doors open. This situation is one I have not wanted to happen. Dad always said, ‘If the museum starts costing you money, then liquidate everything and move on.’ Myself and my family have tried to hold together the museum and collection for over fifteen years, so it is very difficult to think that it will all be gone soon.”

The contents of the museum, 348 lots in all, were auctioned to the highest bidder by Christie’s auction house during a highly anticipated sale on July 14-15 in New York City. The auction included what many considered to be the centerpiece of the museum, Roy’s horse Trigger, a huge 15.3 hands high golden palomino. Perhaps the most famous horse in entertainment history, Trigger was featured in all of Roy’s movies and television throughout the 1950s. Born in 1934 on a ranch owned by Bing Crosby, Trigger entertained movie and television audiences for three decades. When Trigger died in 1965, Roy hired a taxidermist to mount the animal in a rearing position on two legs. Trigger was estimated to sell for $100,000-$200,000, the final gavel price was $ 266,000. In addition to the stuffed horse, the auction featured ornate western costumes, saddles, personal photos, musical instruments, awards and the Nellybelle Jeep from Rogers’ television show.


Dale Evans’ pearl-colored quarter horse Buttermilk, a light buckskin Quarter Horse with dark points that appeared in numerous films for over 30 years from 1941 to 1972, was estimated to sell for $30,000 to $40,000, it sold for $ 25,000, well below auction estimate and less than a tenth of Trigger’s gavel price. The Rogers’ German Shepherd Bullet was estimated to sell for $10,000 to $15,000. The final price was $ 35,000 and sold to the same man that purchased Trigger. Bullet was a master at knowing who the bad guys were, and always eager to bite a gun out of their hand or to tackle them when his human partners were outnumbered. He could run alongside Roy’s horse Trigger and keep up no matter where they went. The sale also included Roy’s back-up horse, Trigger Jr. with a pre-sale estimate of between $30,000 to $50,000. The second “other Trigger” was a registered Tennessee Walking Horse whom Roy himself called Trigger Jr. It sold for $ 18,750.

In case you’re wondering, the animal’s hides were stretched over plastic statue likenesses of each subject to obtain a realistic lifelike look. Although Trigger gained fame as Roy’s horse, his first screen appearance was as Olivia De Havilland’s mare in Warner Brothers pictures “The Adventures of Robin Hood” in 1938. In keeping with the “spirit” of the column, Roy’s beloved horse Trigger was the subject of a rather macabre incident that occurred after his death in 1965. It seems that after Trigger’s hide was removed for mounting, the remaining meat was illegally sold to several unscrupulous southwest eateries. Can you imagine the horrific prospect of eating a “Trigger Burger” ? The butcher responsible, John L. Jones, was sentenced to five years in prison.

Another highlight of the Rogers museum sale included another kind of horsepower, Roy Rogers’ personal automobile, a 1964 Bonneville convertible, adorned with collectible silver dollars and featuring door handles and a gear shift knob made from silver-plated pistols. The car’s interior is all hand tooled leather and features no less than 14 authentic guns, rendered non-firing by the designer, in its design. The hood ornament is a pair of 6 foot long Texas longhorns. It was estimated at $100,000 to $150,000 and sold for $ 254.500. The Willy’s CJ-2A Jeep “Nellybelle” used in the TV show from 1951 to 1957 to drive around Mineral City was also featured in the sale; it carried a pre-sale estimate of $ 20,000 to $ 30,000 and sold for $ 116,500.

Other items included in the auction were 60 pairs of cowboy boots, dozens of Roy & Dale’s cowboy hats and belt buckles, trophies, many of Roy’s pocket and wrist watches, musical instruments, paintings, countless movie posters and props,  household furnishings (including the Roger’s family dining room table) and tools. The sale of the collection from the defunct Museum was expected to generate about $1.4 million, with all proceeds going to the family. The sale generated just under $ 3 million.

Although the museum is closed and the contents now reside in private collections all over the world, reminders of Roy & Dale are not merely confined to their old movies, songs and television shows. Their Apple Valley, California home is the final resting place for both Roy and Dale and there are reminders of the Rogers family everywhere including roads and highways named in their honor. Roy and Dale created St. Hillary’s Episcopal Church, founded a home for boys, and took in some 20-40 foster children and raised them as their own. Yes, Roy Rogers was a savvy self-promoter, shrewd personal investor and slightly unorthodox lifetime curator of his own legacy and name. But it would seem that he actually lived the life and values his character portrayed on screen and in this case, Mommas, go ahead and let your babies grow up to be cowboys.4c40ce319e51c.image

Assassinations, Auctions, Creepy history, Criminals, John F. Kennedy, Politics

Lee Harvey Oswald and the death of Innocence. Part I

oswaldshot1Original publish date:   December 7, 2013

Fifty years ago this month, the death of innocence in America began. I believe its roots can be found in a single diary entry made on February 1, 1961 that reads: “Make my first request to American Embassy, Moscow for reconsidering my position, I stated “I would like to go back to U.S.” Nearly two weeks later, on February 13, 1961, the author of that diary entry officially notifies the Embassy that he wants to return to the United States. That disgruntled Cold War continental traveler was Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who killed President John F. Kennedy.
Indeed, a case can be made that the path to the death of innocence in America was paved by many events; the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the attack on Pearl Harbor, Watergate? However it was the death of JFK that changed America forever. True, three U.S. Presidents were assassinated before Kennedy, but these murders were perpetrated by men best described as “nuts with a cause.” Oswald killed Kennedy for one reason only; fame. Lee Harvey Oswald proved once and for all that one motivated, unknown man with a gun can change history forever. That single act shattered the myth of the invincibility of power and fostered an atmosphere of mistrust of authority that survives to this day.
The assassination of Kennedy is much too complicated to sort out in this simple article and I assume that all of the facts, theories and lore are well known to my readers, so I won’t debate the particulars here. The facts are that both men are dead and both men are forever linked by this one cowardly act. Kennedy was a true American hero; an accomplished author, legendary statesman and devoted father who deserves to be remembered for the way he lived, not the tragic way he died. Oswald is an American nightmare; the product of the original dysfunctional family, a disgraced Marine, a misanthrope who craved fame so much that he didn’t care who he killed to get it. The fact that Oswald’s name is known by millions of Americans disturbs me, but would delight the assassin immeasurably today.
Controversy followed Lee Harvey Oswald for all of his life and doesn’t appear to be waning nearly fifty years after he pulled the trigger. He very publicly supported Fidel Castro’s rise to power in the late 1950s. He defected to Communist Russia at the height of the Cold War in 1960. He changed his mind and returned to the United States, with a Russian bride, in 1961. He tried to kill right-wing Major General Edwin Walker in April of 1963. He killed millionaire President John F. Kennedy with a $ 20 mail order rifle in November of 1963. He was killed two days later in what was the first televised murder in the history of our country. For the next 3 decades he was the central figure in countless conspiracy theories revolving around the death of the President. His body was exhumed in 1981 when rumors persisted that he was not the corpse buried in his own grave. And most recently, his coffin was auctioned for @ $ 87,500 by a California auction house.

For saleLee Harvey Oswald assassinated John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 by firearm from the sixth floor of the Texas schoolbook depository in Dallas, Texas. Later that day, Oswald murdered Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit by shooting him four times on a Dallas street approximately 40 minutes after Kennedy. He was arrested while seated in the Texas Theatre a short time later and taken into police custody. On Sunday, November 24 Oswald was being led through the basement of Police Headquarters on his way to the county jail when, at 11:21 a.m., Dallas strip-club operator Jack Ruby stepped from the crowd and shot Oswald in the abdomen. Oswald died at 1:07 p.m. at Parkland Memorial Hospital-the same hospital where Kennedy had died two days earlier. A network television camera was broadcasting the transfer live and millions witnessed the shooting as it happened. After autopsy Oswald was buried in Fort Worth’s Rose Hill Memorial Burial Park.
In 1981, with widow Marina Oswald’s support, the grave was opened to test a theory from a conspiracy book alleging that during Oswald’s stay in the Soviet Union he was replaced with a Soviet double. The rumor claimed that it was this double, not Oswald, who killed Kennedy and who is buried in Oswald’s grave. The author charged that the remains, if exhumed, would prove it when a surgical scar Oswald was known to carry would not be found. Robert Oswald (brother of Lee Oswald) obtained a temporary restraining order halting the exhumation. Marina filed suit against Robert to allow the exhumation to proceed. Two days later citing emotional and financial burdens, Robert withdrew his opposition to the exhumation.
Backhoes began the process with the onset of sufficient daylight at about 6:30 am Central time on October 4th. The initial plan called for the removal of the entire concrete vault containing the casket. When the excavated vault was found to be cracked it was immediately obvious that the casket and body had suffered extensive water damage. The casket cover was noted to be severely weakened and one section had fallen in, actually exposing the remains to onlookers.
The casket was then covered by a cardboard lid and carefully slid onto a wooden platform placed in the trench alongside the coffin. The entire platform was then raised and placed in a waiting hearse for the trip to nearby Baylor University. The excavation took about two and a half hours, by which time the small crowd had turned into a large one including the morbidly curious and several members of the news media.
The remains arrived at Baylor and the examination began at 10:00 am. The casket was opened and it was obvious that the water that had so damaged the coffin had caused marked decomposition of the body as well. The exposed ribs crumbled with only mild pressure and the beige viscera bag containing the organs (placed in the bag after the original ’63 autopsy) was in full view.
Mortician Paul Groody, who had embalmed and buried Oswald in 1963, remained in the examination room long enough to identify the remains as those he had worked with. First, he observed rings on the hands of the body that were placed there by Marina Oswald. The rings, a gold wedding band and a red stone ring, were the same and seemed to be in the same position as he remembered. Secondly, Groody recognized the aforementioned viscera bag that was not in common use in 1963. Finally, Groody noticed that the clothes were those that he had placed on Oswald before he was laid to rest. After making his identification, Groody promptly left the examination room.
The identification would be made primarily using dental records. However, the team was aware of the craniotomy procedure performed on the skull of the deceased that would provide convincing proof of the identity of the corpse. The head was removed from the body in order to facilitate the examination by an incision near the second cervical vertebral interspace. The autopsy saw cut was indeed present providing the first confirmation of Oswald’s craniotomy procedure.
The teeth were cleaned and photographs and x-rays taken. Two forensic odontologists then charted the complete dentition independently and dental casts were made and a positive dental identification of Lee Harvey Oswald was therefore made. A news conference was held at about 3:00 pm to announce, “We… have concluded beyond any doubt, and I mean beyond any doubt, that the individual buried under the name of Lee Harvey Oswald in Rose Hill Cemetery is in fact Lee Harvey Oswald.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the decades that followed, conspiracy pundits raised identity questions based on the condition of the burial vault and coffin, claiming both had been tampered with, questioned the autopsy craniotomy with the charge that the head had been replaced, and questioned the identification by dental records after it was pointed out that Oswald had lost a front tooth during a high school fight (there is a photo of him in class with a gap-tooth smile, and many classmates remember the fight and the missing tooth) and that the exhumed skull had a full set of natural front teeth. However, Marina had made it clear to the media that she considered the exhumation issue closed.
The murder of John F. Kennedy proved once and for all that a disgruntled, motivated mental defective like Oswald can change the world by a singular cowardly act and bask, however briefly, in the reflected spotlight of their unwitting victim. In some circles, Lee Harvey Oswald has become a sympathetic figure. In truth, he’s a stone cold killer who ruined many lives.
Why do I feel it necessary to delve into the gory details of Oswald’s exhumation and subsequent body defilation? Because, for years I’ve watched film clips of a beloved President’s assassination being played and replayed on television and in movies, undoubtedly at times within eye-shot of his friends, family and loved ones, and I object. I think for once, the wages of Oswald’s crime should be made clear. Lee Harvey Oswald does not rest in peace.