Creepy history, Criminals, Museums, Pop Culture

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

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Original publish date:  July 12, 2018

Recently I was fortunate enough to take a tour of an American treasure housed within the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore, Maryland. What, you ask? An American treasure in a medical examiner’s office? Yes dear reader, let me share with you a story about the coolest display you’re ever likely to find in any government office, anywhere. This is the story of the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.” On the fourth floor, room 417 is marked “Pathology Exhibit” and it holds 18 dollhouses of death. These meticulous teaching dioramas, dating from the World War II era, are an engineering marvel in dollhouse miniature and easily the most charmingly macabre tableau I’ve ever seen.

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Frances Glessner Lee

These dioramas were created by Frances Glessner Lee (1878–1962) over the course of 5 years between 1943 and 1948. Glessner Lee was a pioneer in the burgeoning field of forensic science and a trailblazer for women’s rights. She used a sizable inheritance to establish a department of legal medicine at Harvard Medical School in 1936. She donated the first of the Nutshell Studies in 1946 for use in lectures on the subject of crime scene investigation. Glessner Lee named her studies nutshells because they were designed to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.” She instructed her students to study each scene methodically by “moving the eyes in a clockwise spiral” before drawing conclusions based on visual evidence. Crime-scene investigators had 90 minutes to study each diorama.
I was fortunate to have Bruce Goldfarb, Special Assistant for the Office of the Chief M.E., as my personal tour guide. Bruce, a former EMT, newspaper writer and accomplished author many times over, knows more about the Nutshell Studies than any one else in the Clipper City. “There are 18 dioramas in our collection and another is housed in a museum in Littleton, New Hampshire.” Bruce says, “Glessner Lee was an heiress to the International Harvester fortune and a dedicated model-maker. Each diorama cost as much to make as a full sized house.” Each model cost about US$3,000–4,500 to create which, when calculated for inflation, translates to $ 40,000 to $ 60,000 today.

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Photo by Rhonda Hunter.

Each exquisitely detailed miniature diorama (1 inch equals 1 foot or a 1:12 scale) depicts a different true crime scene and are so well done that they are still used for forensic training today. Bruce explains, “These are not famous crime scenes. They are local scenes chosen by Frances to tell a story using composites of actual court cases. They are designed to teach young investigators how to examine and preserve a crime scene properly.”
11-11-28 Nutshell StudiesHoused in impressive looking wood and glass locked cases, they are not unlike the ancient penny arcade mechanical machines recalled by every baby boomer’s childhood. Except these scenes are populated by dead bodies, gruesome instruments of death and startling realistic blood spatter patterns. The scenes take place in attics, barns, bedrooms, log cabins, bathrooms, garages, kitchens, parsonages, saloons, jails, porches and even a woodman’s shack. Sometimes, it’s easy to determine the cause of death, but look closer and conclusions are tested. There is more than meets the eye in the Nutshell Studies and any object could be a clue. Every element of the dioramas-angles of minuscule bullet holes, placements of window latches, discoloration of painstakingly painted miniature corpses-challenges the powers of observation and deduction.
99percent_5Bruce says, “Look at the miniature sewing machine (about the size of your thumbnail) it’s threaded. There is graffiti on the jail cell walls. The newspapers (less than the size of a postage stamp) are real. Each one had to be printed on a tiny press, the newsprint is immeasurably small. The Life magazine cover is accurate to the week of the crime. The ant-sized cigarettes are hand rolled and burnt on the end. Amazing!” Bruce, who came to the M.E.’s office in 2012, says that although he’s been over every inch of each diorama, he is still making new discoveries.

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Bruce Goldfarb and Alan E. Hunter

Bruce credits a recent exhibition of the Nutshell Studies at the Smithsonian for reinvigorating interest in the displays among the public. The dioramas were exhibited at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum in Washington, DC from October 20, 2017 to January 28, 2018. When I asked if they would ever be put on public display again, Bruce answers quickly, “Never. That is the last time they will be available to the general public. This is a classroom, not a gallery. The studies won’t leave this room again.” He continues, “The Smithsonian people really helped in our preservation efforts. They had expertise far beyond our knowledge.” Bruce especially credits Smithsonian conservator Ariel O’Connor for her expertise, “Ariel is the only woman to have entered the Apollo 11 capsule and only the 6th person overall. She was lowered Tom Cruise / Mission Impossible style into the capsule to retrieve a bag left under the seat by Neil Armstrong.”

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Frances Glessner Lee’s diploma.

As informative as Mr. Goldfarb is on the dioramas, his eyes really light up when it comes to the artist. He explains “Lee was the first female police captain in the U.S. and is considered the mother of forensic science.” Lee’s original commission as captain hangs nearby on the wall. Bruce delights in telling the story of how a woman co-opted traditionally feminine crafts to advance the male-dominated field of police investigation and to establish herself as one of the founders of “legal medicine”, what we now call forensic science. “These studies are not puzzles waiting to be solved. They are designed to teach police officers to handle, observe and assess crime scenes. Frances wanted the investigator to get a sense of who these people were by deciphering the residual clues found in the surroundings.”
primary_298The Nutshell Studies made their debut at the homicide seminar in Boston in 1945. It was the first of it’s kind. Bruce says, “Frances’ intention was for Harvard University to do for crime scene investigation what they had done for their famous business school. When Frances died in 1962, support evaporated and by 1966, the department of legal medicine at Harvard was dissolved.” When asked how the displays made the trip from Harvard yard to Baltimore, Bruce states, “That’s a good question. When Harvard planned to throw them away, longtime medical examiner Russell S. Fisher brought them here in 1968. Fisher was a legend and a former student of Frances Glessner Lee. Fisher was one of the doctors called in to examine John F. Kennedy’s head wounds.”
Each study includes a descriptive crime scene report placard (written by Lee to accompany each case) containing a general outline of the crime, parties involved and date. But the solutions remain a secret. One such placard reads: “Robert Judson, a foreman in a shoe factory, his wife, Kate Judson, and their baby, Linda Mae Judson, were discovered dead by Paul Abbott, a neighbor.”

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Photo by Rhonda Hunter.

One model shows farmer Eben Wallace hanged in a hay-filled barn. One depicts a man shot to death in a log cabin, another shows a charred body in a burnt home, another, a body splattered face-down on the sidewalk outside a three-story apartment complex and still another reveals the decomposing body of “Mrs. Rose Fishman,” found in a pink bathroom in 1942. The scenes are accurate to the tiniest of details, including the appropriate lighting. “Frances was very ingenious in her lighting choices. There were no LED lighting options available. She used turn signal bulbs, Christmas tree lights, flashlight bulbs, anything she could find. Sometimes it came down to the color of the bulb or a particular paint color to achieve appropriate mood lighting.” says Bruce. “The blood pools and spatter are actually finger nail polish, which took us forever to figure out.”
While perusing these fascinating dioramas, it’s easy to forget where you are. Researchers who work in the $43 million Forensic Medical Center call the state-of-the-art facility the “Bat Cave.” It is the largest free-standing medical examiner’s office in the country and home to some 80 full-time employees, many of them pathologists, who analyze death in minute scientific detail, much like the Nutshell Studies themselves. Here, the state of Maryland learns the facts behind thousands of deaths each year.

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Bruce Goldfarb

I inform Bruce that the last time I was in Baltimore was on April 15, 2015 during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. It was 3 days after the tragic death of Freddie Gray that sparked Civil Rights protests in the city and all across the country. My visit this time came just 3 days after the Capital Gazette newspaper shootings in Annapolis. Bruce pauses, shakes his head slightly and says, “Yes, we were very involved in the Freddie Gray incident and we’re working on the Capital Gazette shootings downstairs right now.”
In a typical summer, the M.E.’s office receives 13 to 18 bodies each day (more than 8,000 per year). It is the sole medical examiner’s office for the entire state. Homicide accounts for about 14 % of deaths, suicide for 12 % and accidents for 27 %. The first floor of the building serves as a garage that can be transformed into a mass casualty center. A large classroom on the fourth floor, with banks of desks and communication connections, can become an emergency command center during disasters. It’s like a hospital where patients are getting a physical exam, one day too late.

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Each investigator is given a penlight to examine the diorama closer.

Bruce says the Nutshell Studies are an integral part of the M.E.’s popular 5-day homicide seminar every April. The seminars are limited to 90 people and are routinely filled to capacity. He reveals that the courses are likely to be expanded this October. “The seminars are not pass or fail, they are designed as a team exercise. Each team member is paired up with strangers. They are conducted the same way that Frances did them back in 1945. Each graduate receives a ‘Harvard Associates in Police Sciences’ diploma and a class photo. Historically, police officers and journalists do well.” Bruce says with a wry smile.

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Photo by Rhonda Hunter.

However, the Nutshell Studies are not the only visual aids created by Frances on display in the M.E.’s office. The walls of the entryway to room 417 are lined with 48 incredibly realistic looking bullet wound patterns and the conference room has 3 life-size heads with bullet wounds, slashed throats and a reconstructed face. Cases contain cremated remains, shoes worn by people struck by lightning, exploded oxygen tanks and even a motorcycle helmet from a crash victim who died in an accident. But wait, there’s more.
Bruce asks, “Would you like to see the Scarpetta House?” Accompanied by official tech advisers Kris & Roger Branch and my photographer wife Rhonda, I answered “Absolutely” even though I had no idea what lay in store for us. Bruce explains that the Scarpetta house is an enclosed space decorated like a typical model home complete with a swing set and wooden deck “outside”, a furnished living room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and laundry room “inside.” It was donated by novelist Patricia Cornwell and the facility is named after Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell’s medical examiner heroine. Her books, including 24 novels in the Scarpetta series and 2 non-fiction books on Jack the Ripper, have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.

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The Scarpetta House.

It should come as no surprise that the Scarpetta house is incredibly accurate in every detail. Cigarettes on the kitchen table, cereal boxes on the counter, trash in the trashcans: it looks like someone just stepped out to get the mail. Bruce notes that a few years ago, the M.E.’s office used bloody mannequins to recreate death scene scenarios for investigators to solve, but now they use live volunteers to portray the dead.
“We have local makeup artists with ‘Special FX’ experience from TV and movies come in to apply the Moulage make-up. And they look very realistic. We’ve even had some celebrities come in to portray dead people. It’s like a bucket list thing with them.” Bruce continues, “Last year my brother came in and portrayed a suicide victim. His family asked him not to take the makeup off when he was finished so they could see it. I drove him home (in the passenger seat) with a gunshot wound (complete with dripping blood) to the right temple. I even pulled in to the 7-Eleven and parked. Nobody even raised an eyebrow. He warned me that if I got pulled over for speeding, he was gonna play dead and let me explain it.”
I must admit that by this time in our visit, the investigation bug had bitten our little group. The four of us were now spread out in the Scarpetta house in search of our own clues. And although the facility had been cleaned up after last Spring’s class departed, upon closer examination, blood spatter evidence remained in those hard to reach places found in normal household scenarios. For example, the space between the toilet & sink, the bathtub grout and that pesky space between the fridge and the cabinet. Rhonda notes that there was no toilet paper in the bathroom but the empty roll remained on the holder. “That is a crime in itself,” she states. While in the kitchen, Bruce pauses before saying, “Oh yeah, don’t open the fridge” before walking out of the room. Although tempted, we took his advice and left it alone without ever knowing exactly what was inside of it.

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Photo Courtesy Forensic Medical Center State of Maryland. 

Viewing the Nutshell Studies in this information age of virtual reality, it becomes easy to appreciate them as works of art and popular culture over and above their importance as forensic tools. Lee’s hyper-real dioramas are designed to re-train people to see. It becomes obvious that Frances Glessner Lee’s genius for story telling by using simple materials was both exacting and highly creative in her pursuit of detail-knitting tiny stocking by hand with straight pins, writing minuscule letters with a single-hair paintbrush, and crafting working locks for tiny windows and doors. Exacting details, easily overlooked.
What may be most overlooked in her dioramas is the subtle social commentary found within these complex cases. Her subversive velvet touch challenges the mores of femininity, questions domestic bliss and upends the traditional ideals for dollhouse miniature modeling, sewing, and other crafts considered to be “women’s work” back in the day. Often, her models focus on society’s “invisible victims” and feature victims (women, the poor, and people living on the fringes of society) whose cases might be overlooked or tainted with prejudice on the part of the investigator. She wanted trainees to recognize and overcome any unconscious biases and to treat each case equally, regardless of the status of the victim.
So much of today’s culture is digital, and the Nutshell Studies are three-dimensional. You can’t really understand it from a flat page; you have to see it to believe it. And if that isn’t enough, Bruce Goldfarb is in the final stages of a book about Frances Glessner Lee. “Why not? I know her as well as anyone and it’s a story is worth telling. ” Bruce says. I’m sure that Bruce’s book will sum it up quite nicely…in a nutshell.

 

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Alan E. Hunter and Bruce Goldberg.  Photo by Rhonda Hunter.

 

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Art, Civil War, Gettysburg, Museums

General James Longstreet at Gettysburg. Part III.

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Gettysburg Longstreet Monument Sculptor Gary Casteel and Alan E. Hunter.

 

Original publish date:  June 22, 2018

Any student of history knows that Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War. Up until 2:00 pm on July 3rd 1863, when General James Longstreet ordered General George Pickett out of the woods along Seminary Ridge, the South still had a chance. Pickett’s charge would fail miserably and less than 2 years later, the war for Southern independence was over. But the battle to restore both men’s reputations had just begun. As detailed in parts I and II of this series, that battle was waged by the General’s widows and would last well into the 20th century.

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Longstreet and his former Union adversaries in Gettysburg.
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Enlargement of the William Tipton image. Civil War commanders (from left)
Joshua Chamberlain, Daniel Butterfield, James Longstreet and one-legged Dan Sickles
 pose in Gettysburg on July 3, 1888. Sickles lost his leg at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.

After the General died in 1904, his widow Helen Dortch Longstreet, known as the “Fighting Lady,” spent the next half century fulfilling a promise made to her husband that “in the future, so long as I shall live, whenever your war record is attacked, I will make answer.” In 1939, as the founder of the Longstreet Memorial Association, she arranged to have a statue of her late husband placed at Gettysburg. The proposed Longstreet memorial would be created by sculptor Paul Manship and a scale model of the statue was unveiled at the site dedication event in July, 1941. The sample statue featured General Longstreet on a horse (with one foot up) urging his men forward with a wave of his hat held in his outstretched arm. At 12 feet high and 12 feet wide, it was placed atop a base of red marble and would be surrounded by stone seats for viewing.

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1940 Paul Manship model of James Longstreet Memorial at Gettysburg: never placed.

However, after a photo of the proposed statue was published in a local newspaper, the National Park Service wrote a letter to Mrs. Longstreet voicing a concern: “There is one feature that has caused considerable local comment and one I feel to be of sufficient importance to be called to your attention…The position of the horses’ feet in each of the existing equestrian statues now in the park tell a story. This fact is widely known and has become one of the items of which the visiting public likes to check. 1. Both feet of the ground: Rider died in action. 2. One foot off the ground: Rider wounded in action. 3. All four feet on the ground: Rider unscathed. As far as I have been able to determine this uniformity of position is but a happenstance. However, it is true within the park.”

 

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Helen Dortch Longstreet

Mrs Longstreet replied: “This will thank you warmly for your constructive criticism of the model of the proposed equestrian statue of General Longstreet for the Gettysburg field. I am forwarding it to Mr. Manship, the sculptor, who will, I am sure, will appreciate it as sincerely as I do. I know it is Mr. Manship’s intention to make the Longstreet Memorial the noblest on the Gettysburg battlefield and to correspond in every respect with the magnificent memorials already there.” And that is where the question remained until December 7. 1941. The bombing of Pearl Harbor changed everything and put the brakes on the Longstreet memorial plans at Gettysburg.

 

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Helen Dortch Longstreet (center) at the original site set aside by the National Park Service for the Longstreet Memorial, October 27, 1939. Park Superintendent James R. McConaghie (left of Mrs. Longstreet) and sculptor Paul Manship (right of Mrs. Longstreet). Little Round Top can be seen behind them.

With the coming of World War II, raising funds to build the Longstreet monument seemed pointless in the face of homefront shortages and War Bond fund raising rallies to fight the Axis. After the war, interest for Civil War monuments evaporated. Although Mrs. Longstreet’s efforts to raise funds for her husband’s monument continued, her health declined rapidly. By the mid-1950s, Mrs. Longstreet developed “mental problems” and in 1957 she was placed in Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia. She remained institutionalized there until her death on May 3, 1862. Three years later the Soldiers and Sailors of the Confederacy monument would instead be placed on the original ground selected for the Longstreet memorial.

 

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Helen Longstreet (left) with actress Mary Pickford and UCV Commander Julius F. Howell at the Gettysburg groundbreaking ceremony for the Longstreet equestrian statue on July 2, 1941. National Park Service Dr. J. Walter Coleman is at the left.

The Longstreet memorial remained forgotten for the next 30 years until pop culture and history collided to rekindle the legend of General James Longstreet. Ken Burns 1990 PBS documentary miniseries on the Civil War changed everything. Suddenly the Civil War was brought to the forefront like never before. Then came the 1993 movie Gettysburg which detailed the complicated men and ideals of this highly misunderstood period of American history. One of those most affected by the tarnished legend of Longstreet was a Sanford, North Carolina state forestry service heavy-equipment operator named Robert C. Thomas.
Thomas was moved to action after reading a 1990 book, “Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History”, written by Dr. William Garrett Piston, editor of North and South magazine and Professor at Southwest Missouri State University . Thomas shared the book with fellow Civil War enthusiasts and together they decided that Longstreet’s time was overdue. In June 1991, Robert & Joe Thomas, along with Ray King, Bill Bates and Sion Harrington formed the Longstreet Memorial Fund Committee. This band of dedicated activists began selling mugs, T-shirts, tote bags, pens and cross-stitch portraits of the general at re-enactments across the country to raise funds for a proper monument to honor General James Longstreet. Gettysburg sculptor Gary Casteel was enlisted to craft a monument for placement in Pitzer Woods on Confederate Avenue on the battlefield.

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The former Hall of Presidents & First Ladies Museum-Now Gary Casteel’s Studio.

As fate would have it, during a late April trip to Gettysburg, I happened across the studio of Mr. Casteel. My habit is to wander the battlefield on early fog wrapped mornings before the tour buses role in while my wife Rhonda sleeps in. Last year, the Hall of Presidents and First Ladies wax museum was closed and all of the figures were sold off. The 363 lots sold in a January 2017 auction for a total of $217,409. If you’re interested, as am I, the average cost of a wax president was $3,088 while the average cost of a wax first lady figure was $437 proving that the wage gap transcends the pages of time. The top three highest-selling presidents were Abraham Lincoln ($9,350); Teddy Roosevelt ($8,800); Ulysses S. Grant ($6,820). Mary Todd Lincoln sold for $990 while Rosalynn Carter hammered down at a mere $247.50.
While relaxing atop my sunny perch on the Hancock equestrian monument base (across from the Evergreen cemetery gatehouse) I noticed that the old wax museum had undergone a facelift. So I wandered over to take a peek at the new digs and quite happily stumbled across the studio of none other than Gary Casteel, the sculptor of the Longstreet monument. i could hardly contain my excitement. I had heard stories about that monument for years since it’s 1998 installment and unveiling and immediately altered my travel plans in hopes of meeting this accomplished artist. It was well worth the wait.
Rhonda and I ventured over to the studio (at 789 Baltimore St. in Gettysburg) and much to my amazement, we were greeted by the artist in the flesh. Gary Casteel is the epitome of a southern gentleman. He speaks in measured tones that bespeak his West Virginia birthright. When I hear a West Virginia accent, I think of General Chuck Yeager. Tom Wolfe said it best in his book “The Right Stuff” when he described it as: “a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness” that seems to draw the listener in and immediately put them at peace. Phrases like “Oh my” frame words like Riv-ah, He-ah and Nev-ah to form sentences with genteel insight rarely heard in Hoosier land.

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Sculptor Gary Casteel in his Gettysburg studio.

Classical music fills the air of Gary Casteel’s studio and adds to the importance of the moment. Gary’s studio, adjacent to the entrance to the National Cemetery, is sparkly clean and meticulously organized. Not at all like certain media portrayals would lead you to believe an artist’s studio should look like. There is no tortured artist at work here my friends. This is the workplace of a practiced hand that is straight as a preacher and as long a memory. One look at Gary’s work and that attention to minute detail is easily discerned. Although his work appears effortless, it is obviously the result of decades of difficult training and practice.
Gary Casteel grew up in the coal mining region of West Virginia and resolved early to become a sculptor while attending grade school there. Contrary to the stereotypes of the region, from an early age, he listened to classical music on the radio, devoured the works of William Shakespeare and idolized Michelangelo. In Gary’s own words, “through marriage, divorce, military service, occupation transfers, relocation, business ownership or family strife, I stayed true to my commitment to become a sculptor.” The Longstreet commission was the culmination of a lifetime dream for sculptor Casteel.
“My point of view has always been that heroes are larger than life. They are to be physically and mentally looked up to.” says Casteel. “In my youth, I was reared with ideals of heroes such as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Robert E. Lee, George Patton. Now as a middle aged man with more than half a century of experience, living in an age of of hero deterioration and downfall, I choose my Icons with more wisdom. Longstreet, the General, was larger than life.” Gary Casteel decided that the memorial to Longstreet should be larger than life as well.
Unlike most monuments at Gettysburg, Casteel’s Longstreet rests at ground level and is not perched upon a lofty pedestal. The General is shown astride his favorite horse, Hero. Longstreet is pulling hard at the reins as Hero’s hooves dig into the soft Pennsylvania soil. The General’s attention is directed towards the copse of trees, the focal point of attack, mere moments before his troops would emerge from the treeline behind him. The field has become known as Pickett’s Charge and the copse of trees is forever referred to as the high water mark of the Confederacy. General Longstreet’s steely gaze is forever fixed on the target his men would never attain and one he never believed was attainable in the first place.

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Jamie Longstreet Paterson-The General’s Granddaughter at the dedication.

Longstreet's grandaughterI asked Mr. Casteel if it was true that Longstreet’s granddaughter attended the unveiling ceremony. He answered quickly, “Oh yes. Jamie Longstreet Paterson attended the dedication ceremony. We brought out a ladder and she climbed up to get a better look at the General. I was worried because she was 67-years-old but more worried when she started to cry,” said Gary. “I thought, oh my, we may have a problem here. When she came down, I realized they were tears of joy as she said, ‘I never thought I would look him in the face’.” Sculptor Casteel’s Longstreet memorial was one of the last monuments erected at the Gettysburg National Military Park. It was dedicated on July 3, 1998, the 135th anniversary of the end of the battle of Gettysburg. Jamie Paterson Longstreet died six years later on August 4, 2014.
IMG_3339It should be noted that Casteel is not only an accomplished sculptor, knowledgeable historian and well versed art scholar, he has deeper personal roots in the Civil War and Battle of Gettysburg itself. Casteel says that his own family had two ancestors -brothers in fact- who actually fired at each other from opposing sides during the Battle of Gettysburg. “I call him Uncle Bill and he placed his rifle against that stone wall and fired our way from right over there” as he points out his studio window. Casteel is currently hard at work on several pieces for the proposed National Civil War Memorial. “Did you realize that there is no national monument to the Civil War?” he asks.

 

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Me inside Gary Casteel’s studio.

z 31398193_1822681077763147_4410866842453671936_nGary guides us to a loose leaf binder containing images of the large sculpture medallions he has created for the museum. Lincoln, Lee, Jefferson Davis, and John Wilkes Booth are just a few of the completed images resting on the drying racks in the back of Gary’s studio. Gary remarks, “I asked Ed Bearss (Chief Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service), who serves on the museum board, why there was no plaque for Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Hero of Gettysburg’s Little Round Top) in the selection. He responded, ‘Gary, no one ever heard of Chamberlain before Gettysburg or afterwards for that matter.” Yes, talking with Gary Casteel gives new perspective to an old subject and promises to make a visit to his studio an unforgettable memory.
If Longstreet had died in battle, he undoubtedly would have been placed among the South’s greatest heroes, with monuments located everywhere he led men into battle. But after the death of Lee in 1870 and Pickett’s death five years later in 1875, Longstreet became the living scapegoat for the South’s defeat at Gettysburg. Gary Casteel’s statue has helped alter that view. Sometimes all it takes a new perspective from an old school craftsman to help cast things in a new light.

 

Abe Lincoln, Indianapolis, Museums, Politics

Mike Pence & The Abraham Lincoln Mallet.

Pence Lincoln Mallet

Original publish date:  February 14, 2016.

Tuesday February 9th was an especially busy day for Governor Mike Pence. It was also an especially happy day for our state’s history-loving Chief Executive. That afternoon, he proudly watched as his protege, Lt. Governor Sue Ellspermann, became president of Ivy Tech Community College. Governor Pence then introduced his pick to replace her, former state Republican Party chairman Eric Holcomb. Historic events for our state to be sure, but the Governor’s wide grin that afternoon was due mostly to an event he presided over at the Indiana State Museum earlier in the day.
That morning, Governor Pence unveiled the most important personal artifact ever discovered directly connected to Abraham Lincoln, the Hoosier. The rough-hewn handled relic is referred to by the State Museum as “Abraham Lincoln’s Mallet, 1829.” It was put on display at ISM on Lincoln’s birthday (February 12th) and will remain on view at the museum throughout 2016 to coincide with our state’s 200th anniversary celebration. It was the crescendo of a 188 year journey made almost entirely in secret. So secret that Governor Pence himself was kept in the dark about it until shortly before the unveiling.
z mallet 1The primitive looking hammer seems perfectly matched to the muscular 20-year-old young man who wielded it back in 1829. The mallet is made from the trunk of a tree cut from the virgin timber forest that once populated Spencer County, Indiana. No doubt Thomas Lincoln cut the tree from the unbroken forest surrounding the family cabin for use by his young son Abraham in splitting wood. Those famous “rail splitting” images we all remember from our history books? Well they all picture Honest Abe using this mallet.
State museum Chief Curator Dale Ogden points out that the mallet on display is about one half it’s original size. “It was originally twice this size in diameter. The mallet had a longer handle. The tool saw heavy use and the damage presumably occurred in the course of normal, everyday usage.” Ogden continues “The mallet is an extremely rare and important find that connects Abraham Lincoln to his Hoosier roots and to the rail-splitter legend.”
“This artifact was originally a splitting maul used by Lincoln to drive iron wedges into logs creating split rails for fencing. The maul head, made from a tree-root ball, eventually split in half,” said Steve Haaff, Spencer County resident and foremost expert on Lincoln furniture made in Indiana. “Rather than discard the tool, Lincoln repurposed it into a bench mallet he used to drive pegs into furniture and other fixtures. Lincoln discarded the long handle and relocated a shorter grip into the remaining portion of the maul to create a mallet.”
z mallet 4Before Governor Pence dropped the curtain to reveal the relic, he took off his jacket to reveal rolled up shirt sleeves in a workingman’s fashion to honor the Indiana Railsplitter. “I thought it was appropriate for the occasion,” the Governor explained. Staying in the moment, Pence harkens back to a predecessor by repeating Governor Otis Bowen’s quote, “Lincoln made Illinois, but Indiana made Lincoln.” He made sure to mention his trip to Southern Indiana a couple days before to bury another predecessor, Edgar Whitcomb, who died February 6th. Make no mistake about it, Mike Pence loves Indiana history.
Pence, a history major at Hanover College, could barely contain his excitment as he removed the cover hand-over-hand as if he were climbing a rope. When the cloth cover became stuck on top of the case, Pence was the one to dislodge it. Amid the awe inspiring big reveal, it was Pence himself who scurried to hastily gather the material now piled on the floor in front of the priceless relic and stow it safely, yet reverently, away behind the case. After his official duties were concluded, Mike Pence quickly slipped into a role that was obviously more pleasing to him; that of being a fan of Hoosier history.

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Steve Haaff and Governor Mike Pence.

According to Steve Haaff, the mallet descended through the family of Barnabus Carter, a neighbor of the Lincolns. Haaff explains that he has discovered nearly a dozen and a half original pieces of furniture attributed to Thomas Lincoln and his young apprentice Abraham. Most of the pieces are done in the Federal style but some are quite primitive. “Lincoln made this furniture for his neighbors and priced it according to what they could pay,” says Haaff. Dale Ogden expounds on Haaff’s statement by saying “If a person had $ 5 and a chicken, Thomas Lincoln made a piece of furniture equal to that price. If they had $ 5 and a pig, the quality appreciated accordingly.”
Of those 18 pieces, Haaff believes that half are in museums and half in private homes. Haaff is still turning up pieces today. “The stories behind the furniture are as much fun as discovering the furniture itself. Often, the owner is still using the furniture in their home everyday.” says Haaff. “The University of Michigan has a Lincoln cabinet in their office, not on display, but in their office. The staff had screwed in little gold cup hooks underneath the cabinet to hang their coffee cups from!”
In an attempt to unravel the mallet’s secret journey, I spoke with one of the family members present at the unveiling press conference. Tom Vicki explains that he first learned of the mallet’s existence from his cousin Keith Carter, the Gr-Gr-Gr-Great Grandson son of Barnabus. “I was told that the mallet was a family secret known by only a few. It had been kept hidden for 175 years in the basement ceiling of the Carter’s Richland, Indiana home.” Vicki continues, “It then traveled to Rockport for a few years before it ended up here. 187 years in the same family and Spencer County’s best kept secret the whole time”
z mallet 2The mallet most closely resembles a carnival strongman’s prop,or Thor’s hammer, but a closer examination immediately reveals it’s cryptic secret. Above the handle’s stem lay the initials “A.L.” with a year date of “1829.” Steve Haaff explains that the initials and date are not carved as one may surmise, but rather they are metal inlays. Haaff states, “Thomas Lincoln was a carpenter and Abe was his only apprentice. Thomas hoped that his young son would follow him into carpentry, but Abe Lincoln wanted to be a blacksmith. These metal pieces were inserted into the mallet by Abe Lincoln himself.”
z lincoln_logoISM’s Ogden further explains, “He didn’t put those initials and that date into the mallet because he was Abraham Lincoln, he put them there to mark the tool as his own. He was just a Hoosier farm-boy at the time with no idea he was on his way to becoming a legend.” Ogden, whose fervor for Lincoln is rivaled by few, explains the mallet’s secret by identifying it as the only known item that ties Abraham Lincoln to Indiana. “The Lincoln’s were Indiana pioneers, they arrived here just a week before we were made a state in the Union. While they were not poor, they were also not wealthy.” says Ogden. “The Lincoln family used everything they owned, in most cases using it all up. When they moved to Illinois in 1830, they couldn’t take everything with them and this mallet was among those things left behind. Whether Abe gave the mallet to his neighbors, or whether the Carter family simply picked it up from the pile of discards is debatable. But we’re certainly glad it survived and are delighted to be able to display it for our guests.”
Mr. Ogden, a subject of past articles, has an innate ability to blend history with current events. He presides over one of the foremost state-owned collections of Lincoln artifacts and memorabilia with an exuberance that borders on fanaticism. The bulk of the ISM collection was obtained from the Lincoln Financial Life Insurance company who began collecting all things Lincoln in 1915 and opened their museum in 1931. The museum closed in 2008 and for a time, the fate of the collection was in doubt. “There was talk of selling the collection at auction.” says Ogden. “One rumor had the collection being bought up by Donald Trump for display at one of his Casinos.”
z mallet 3Ogden explains that the ISM was fortunate to obtain the collection and although it is vast and comprehensive, he says that the question he got the most from visitors was, “Where is the Indiana material? and I always had to reply, There is no Indiana material. This mallet changes all that. Those railsplitter legends were all we had. This mallet confirms that folklore and brings all of those stories together.”
Steve Haaff talked about young Abe Lincoln’s subservient role to his father Thomas. “When Lincoln returned to Indiana in 1844 to campaign for Henry Clay for President, he visited a house of a neighbor who he knew to have a piece of furniture that Lincoln and his father had created.” Haaff continued, “As they passed, the buildings he knew were mostly gone. His wagon passed an empty, neglected saw pit and Lincoln remarked that this was where he and his father hand sawed the planks used to make his mother’s coffin.”
z-lincoln-abraham-youthLincoln’s mother Nancy died of milk sickness in October of 1818. Haaff states that the planks were made from a log from the leftovers pile used to make the family cabin. “Thomas made the coffin while 9-year-old Abe sat nearby and whittled the pegs for his mother’s coffin.” His mother’s death, and that of his beloved elder sister Sarah’s death 10 years later, devastated Lincoln and laid the foundation for the depression that haunted him for the rest of his life. No doubt, Thomas and Abraham made the coffin for Sarah too.
Although it can never be proved and is purely conjecture on my part, is it not hard to imagine that Lincoln may have used this very mallet in performance of those sad tasks. Maybe during one of those moments of melancholy in 1829, Lincoln carefully memorialized his ownership by carefully hammering in the pieces of metal he felt would hold significance to him in the future. Lincoln had issues with his years growing up in Southern Indiana and even deeper issues with his father. Thomas Lincoln never met his grandchildren, did not attend Abe & Mary’s wedding and Lincoln did not attend his father’s funeral in 1851. So, when the fog of depression cleared from 21-year-old Abraham Lincoln’s tortured soul, maybe he left that mallet behind on purpose. Now it is on display at the Indiana State Museum for you to go visit, examine and daydream about Lincoln the Hoosier.

 

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Governor Mike Pence and Alan E. Hunter
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, Assassinations, Museums

Osborn Oldroyd-Keeper of the Lincoln flame. Part III

z osborn-oldroydOriginal publish date:  July 20, 2017

In the past two columns I’ve introduced you to Osborn Oldroyd, king of all Lincoln collectors. Over the years, I have chased Oldroyd from Springfield, Illinois to Washington D.C. to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and most recently to Marshalltown,Iowa. In Gettysburg, I purchased a collection of Oldroyd memorabilia assembled over two decades by a former Abraham Lincoln impersonator named Bill Ciampa.                                                   The collection of over 300 items included photos, postcards, books, literature, brochures, business cards, certificates and even a paperweight. But the bulk of the assemblage consisted of letters written to Oldroyd spanning the time he spent living in the Lincoln family home in Springfield to his move to the “House Where Lincoln died” across the street from Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.           Granted, the letters were a bit picked over by the time they landed in my lap. Gone were the letters from the big names associated with the life and death of Abraham Lincoln that Oldroyd quoted in his many books about our sixteenth President. There was no U.S. Grant, Andrew Johnson, Mary Lincoln, Winfield Hancock or George Meade, although Oldroyd was known to have corresponded with all of them. But there were a couple famous, albeit obscure, personalities from the Lincoln Era that remained. I recognized a letter from suffragette and women’s Temperance leader Frances Willard as well as another from T.M. Harris, a Brigadier General who served on the Lincoln Conspirators trial in Washington, D.C. Harris wrote the forward to one of Oldroyd’s books.

There was a fascinating letter from Ferdinand Petersen, son of the owner of the House where Lincoln died, who was present the night Lincoln was assassinated. The letter was written in October of 1913 by Ferdinand to Oldroyd in an effort to clear up several myths that had plagued his family for years about that tragic night. “It makes me tired as the youngest man living of the very few left who were there at the time…I own and still have the pillow cases on which President Abraham Lincoln died and I have mostly all of the pictures that were in the room at the time and…I do not wish to sell them to the Government either nor any relic I have…Someday I’ll hand them over to the government for preservation.” Ferdinand also makes it a point to dispel the rumor that the Petersen house was ever a rooming house, “it was a home”.

z Louis-WeichmannAnother of the letters, dated Dec. 10, 1902, touched me personally because it was written by the sister of Louis Weichmann, the main government witness at the trial of the conspirators. Weichmann lived in Mrs. Surratt’s boarding house and many believe it was Weichmann’s testimony that got Mary Surratt hung. Weichmann moved to Anderson Indiana after the trial and founded Anderson business college. He is buried in Anderson’s St. Francis cemetery in an unmarked grave. “Dear Sir-I am sending you a copy of Sundays Indianapolis Journal containing a confession of one of the conspirators of President Lincoln….With best regards from our family, I remain Sincerely yours, Mrs. C.O. Crowley Sister of the late L.J. Wiechmann.” Curiously, Mrs. Crowley misspelled her own maiden name in her letter.

There is an amusing letter dated April 9, 1906 from Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury to Oldroyd: “It is requested that the flag in which J. Wilkes Booth caught his spur, and which was loaned to you for temporary use in the house in which President Lincoln died, be delivered to the bearer for return to the Treasury Department.” It’s easy to imagine Oldroyd’s dismay at the prospect of returning such an important artifact from his museum. More so, it intonates that this may not have been the first request for return.

However, it was the letters from common, everyday people that proved to be the most fascinating. The letters began in 1869 while Osborn was just an average autograph seeker and continued through to 1929 after Oldroyd sold his collection to the US Government and just months before he died in 1930. Several of the letters are from prospective customers wishing to obtain a copy of one of Oldroyd’s many books or souvenirs about Lincoln. Many of the letters were sent by visitors to his Lincoln museum. They extol the hearty virtues of Oldroyd’s collection and his superior tour guide skills. (Funny, most of these are from women leading me to believe that Captain Oldroyd was an unashamed flirt.) Still more are from folks wishing to send Oldroyd some cherished family Lincoln memento for display in his museum. All of the letters offer a fascinating glimpse into the life of Osborn Oldroyd.

Two of the letters hail from the Hoosier state. One written in 1929 from L.N. Hines, President of Indiana State Teachers College (modern day ISU in Terre Haute): “I always remember my wonderful visit with you a year ago last February. I hope that I may be fortunate enough to come your way again before long.” and the other from a man in Larwill, Indiana written in 1926: “We have in our possession (sic) a campaign button of Lincoln & Hamlin. Would you care to have it among your other relics? Resp. Burton R. White”

The others, well, they’re from all over. They address Oldroyd variously as Colonel, Uncle, Cousin, Father, or Captain. A Boston lawyer writes: “I send you, herewith, a ticket of admission to the ‘Green Room’ (at the White House) on the occasion of President Lincoln’s funeral, April 19, 1865.” A York, Pennsylvania museum curator writes: “We have…a wooden short sword made out of the table that ‘Peanut Johnny’ used in front of Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot. It was ‘Johnny’ who held Booth’s horse.”

A Chicago businessman writes, “I want you to know how keenly I appreciate the kindness and courtesy which you showed me while in your museum. I count the hours spent there and with you, as the most pleasent (sic) and profitable ones of my weeks visit to our capitol.” A famous Washington DC female lawyer writes, “I have a friend who is in limited circumstances who has a very small lock of President Lincoln’s hair-which she wishes to dispose of-It occurs to me that you must know persons interested in Lincoln relics who might like to purchase this. It was given to Miss Gardner’s father Alexander Gardner, photographer to the Army of the Potomac by the undertaker who prepared Lincoln’s body for burial.”

Over the past several years, I feel like I’ve traveled in the footsteps of Oldroyd many times. I’ve experienced his highs and his lows. I’ve struggled alongside him as he labored to gain legitimacy for what Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert referred to as “Oldroyd’s Traps”. I agonized with his quest to sell his priceless collection to the United States Government (far below value) that took years to finalize. I think I understand him better now and, after three articles, you should too.

I think my feelings may best be summed up in a letter found in the collection that has become one of my favorites: “Washington, D.C. May 2, 1926. Dear Father Oldroyd: Accept hearty congratulations! I am glad I have lived to see your long years of effort rewarded, and your dream of sixty-three years come true. Very Sincerely, Kathie.” That letter sums it all up for me. Besides, my mother-in-law’s name is Kathie and I kinda like her too.

In the few years that have passed since I first wrote this series, a few things have changed. I have continued my pursuit of all things Oldroyd by picking up a few things here and there. I spent a weekend at the Lilly Library (on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington) to examine a small group of letters and documents written by, or belonging to, Osborn Oldroyd. The library was created in the late 1950s by Josiah Kirby “Joe” Lilly Jr. (1893 – 1966) grandson of Pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly. The Lilly Library, named in honor of the family, houses the university’s rare book and manuscript collections.

Lilly was a prolific collector of rare books and Indiana historical memorabilia. His collection included a First Folio of the works of William Shakespeare, a Gutenberg Bible, a double-elephant folio of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, the first printing of the American Declaration of Independence (the Dunlap Broadside), and a first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane. Lilly’s gold coin collection is in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. In a November 26, 1954 letter to I.U. President Herman B Wells, Lilly outlined his intention to donate the bulk of his collection to the university. IU announced the donation, which the New York Times estimated at over $5 million, on January 8, 1956. Lilly’s donation eventually totaled over 20,000 books and 17,000 manuscripts, including over 350 oil paintings and prints.

z IMG_9951Included within that collection was a group of several dozen items that once belonged to Osborn Oldroyd himself. This included correspondence from Anderson’s Louis Weichmann to Oldroyd about shared information for books about Abraham Lincoln both men were simultaneously working on as well as photos and several handwritten eyewitness accounts of the assassination of President Lincoln. My personal favorite was a pencil drawing of Lincoln Conspirator Lewis Thornton Powell drawn by Crawfordsville, Indiana’s General Lew Wallace.

While most people recall General Wallace as the author of Ben Hur, many forget that he had other claims to fame including nearly single-handedly saving Washington DC from capture by Rebel General Jubal Early’s troops at the Battle of Monocacy in 1864. He would later be appointed Governor of the New Mexico territory during Billy the Kid’s exploits and also served as a member of the Lincoln assassination conspirator’s trials. General Wallace made the drawing of Powell during the trial while sitting just a few feet away from the man who nearly killed Secretary of State William Seward. Powell would be hanged for his crime. No doubt this single item is the reason these particular Oldroyd items ended up at the Lilly Library.

What I came away from, after my Springtime visit to IU’s Lilly Library, was an even deeper understanding of the passion that must have driven Osborn Oldroyd’s pursuit of Lincoln Memorabilia. It became easy to understand the euphoria that surely overcame Oldroyd as he received, opened and read these personal accounts written by people connected to Mr. Lincoln. Viewing these priceless relics also reinforced the value of Osborn Oldroyd’s obsession. For without them, precious details and specific memories of historic events would have been lost forever. And thanks to Mr. Lilly, these particular objects are henceforth and forever available for viewing by all Hoosiers at the Lilly Library in B-town. Little did I know that this Springtime visit to my alma mater was just the beginning of a journey that would occupy the next month of my life.
Next week: part IV of “Osborn Oldroyd-Keeper of the Lincoln Flame.”

Abe Lincoln, Museums, Politics

Osborn Oldroyd-Keeper of the Lincoln flame. Part II

Oldroyd Part 2Original publish date:  July 13, 2017

Abraham Lincoln collector and self-appointed curator of the Lincoln legend, Osborn Oldroyd, was not the type of man to stay down for long. After being unceremoniously kicked out of the Lincoln home in Springfield, Illinois in 1893, he soon found a new home for his “Lincoln museum” in Washington, D.C. In typical Oldroyd fashion, “Captain” Oldroyd now set up his “Lincoln museum” in the Petersen House, the home where Lincoln died located across the street from Ford’s Theater. As before, he set up his displays on the first floor and lived with his family on the second floor. One thing changed for Oldroyd though; this time he actually paid rent.
The move was not without controversy as critics charged that Oldroyd’s new museum featured artifacts he pilfered from the Lincoln home in Springfield. “He pretty much cleaned house when he moved out”, says Dr. James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln Presidential library and museum in Springfield, “He removed property including the cast iron stove once cherished by Mary Lincoln along with the cradle she used to rock three of the four Lincoln boys in. He also removed a lot of the original wallpaper.” It would take researchers decades to decipher the original wall coverings from the Lincoln era; even longer to recreate them. They have all been painstakingly restored today.
According to the official 1992 Lincoln Home report, “By the time Oldroyd had been removed as custodian, the home had suffered irreversibly significant damage, with irreplaceable historic fabric removed and discarded without either a trace or documentary record of its appearance. After Oldroyd, the Lincoln Home would truly never be the same home known by the (Lincoln) family for their 17 years in Springfield.” In defense of Col. Oldroyd, this report was written nearly a century after the Oldroyd’s moved out of the house.
1Ironically, the same year that Oldroyd moved to the Peterson house, Ford’s Theatre, where John Wilkes Booth had shot Abraham Lincoln, collapsed. The building, closed since the President’s death, operated as an office until June 9, 1893 when the interior of the historic building collapsed. Twenty-two clerks died in the tragedy and sixty-eight others were seriously injured. Within a year the damage was repaired and the former theatre was remodeled for use as a government warehouse.
A well-known German-American attorney, Louis Schade, purchased the Petersen House in 1878 for $4,500. He used it as his home and office space for his newspaper, The Washington Sentinel.Frustrated by nonstop visitors, Louis Schade sold the Petersen House to the Memorial Association of D.C. In 1896, this group then hired Oldroyd to live there and showcase his extensive display of Lincoln-related objects. The price for viewing his Lincoln memorabilia collection, you guessed it, twenty- five cents. In 1917, he wrote and published “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln”, detailing the murder and death of his hero. The book became an overnight best seller.
What makes this particular Oldroyd book (he wrote several) so fascinating is the fact that Odroyd actually walked the entire John Wilkes Booth escape route, over 100 miles, on foot. Along the way, he stayed in homes, barns and buildings wherever he could find them. In some case these buildings had connections to the participants involved in that tragic night. He brought along his early Kodak box camera to record the buildings and scenes as Booth might have seen them. We owe a great debt to Oldroyd for this singular pursuit in particular as the landscape was rapidly changing and the buildings were literally melting into the ground.
In 1925, in failing health, Oldroyd decided to sell his collection of Lincoln memorabilia, including rare books, photographs, mementos, and Lincoln’s original furniture, to the United States government. Oldroyd’s passion for the sixteenth President and collecting Lincoln memorabilia was the focal point of his life. After years of offers and counter-offers, the government finally purchased the entire collection for the sum of $50,000 in 1926. Thirty years later Congress put the Oldroyd Lincoln collection on public display at Ford’s Theater. Here the “Oldroyd Lincoln Memorial Collection” found its permanent home and there it can be seen by the public, free of charge, to this day.
oldroyd-rathboneThe May 2, 1926 Washington Post announced the purchase with a banner headline reading, “Gets Storehouse of Lincoln Relics: Government Action Assures Preservation of Oldroyd Collection Here.” The newspaper column reported, “Captain Oldroyd has been gathering the collection for 63 years, having started on this patriotic work of love for his chieftain soon after he was released from service in the internecine strife (Civil War). Mr. Oldroyd is now 80 years old. Having for years been a student of Lincoln, acting as guide for his collection all through its formation, Capt. Oldroyd has become a rich source of Lincoln traditions. Passage by Congress of the measure authorizing the purchase of the Oldroyd collection, 3, 000 authentic Lincoln mementos now on display in the historic Petersen House where the martyred president died, will preserve for future generations making pilgrimages to Washington a great store house of materials identified with Lincoln tradition.”
Sadly, Oldroyd had only a short time to enjoy the financial success gained from the purchase of his beloved collection. In February of 1929, he applied for a pension, citing “bad age and senility”. At the time, his health was so feeble that he could scarcely write his own name on the designated form. Oldroyd passed away on October 8. 1930. His devoted wife Lida died four years later. They are buried side-by-side in Rock Creek Cemetery not far from Abraham Lincoln’s summer White House at the Old Soldiers home.
Lida A Oldroyd 2What became of the pilfered Lincoln home artifacts? During a near forty year period between the 1950s and late 1980s, the Lincoln Home got back the disputed 25 items from Ford’s Theater that Oldroyd had allegedly removed without permission. “The items were well preserved. For the most part, these were all utilitarian items that might have been used everyday by the residents of the home during the years before preservation became a priority.” says curator Cornelius “An argument could be made that if not for Osborn Oldroyd, these items might have been lost forever.”
Even today, the benefits of Oldroyd’s work are still showing up. In 2006 the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum purchased a “unique” 1858 ambrotype photograph of Lincoln once owned by Oldroyd. “It is the first example of a ‘Photoshopping’ job done on Lincoln that we know of,” says Cornelius. The ambrotype was of an 1854 daguerreotype photo of Lincoln that had been altered. That original daguerreotype was lost in the great Chicago Fire, which makes the ambrotype even more important. “Thanks to Oldroyd for preserving it,” says Cornelius.
My fascination with Osborn Oldroyd rests squarely on the supposition that without collectors like Oldroyd, who knows how much of history might have been lost? After all, while alive, Lincoln was not at all the God-like figure he is today. In fact, it was touch and go with Lincoln at times. There seemed to be no middle ground with Old Abe, you either loved him or you hated him. It was only after his death that he ascended into legend and secular sainthood. To a man like Oldroyd, credit must be given for recognizing Lincoln’s greatness immediately. Without question, a Lincoln collection started in 1860 could have no peer. Add to that Osborn’s natural curiosity and acquisitional ferocity, his collection must have been astonishing. Then to have the opportunity, and charismatic ability, to reside in two of the most important homes in the Lincoln panoply, well that may well be the ultimate commentary on Oldroyd himself.
As for his hawkish, carnival sideshow way of promoting the Lincoln legend by leading boisterous tours accentuated by occasional loud-talking within the hallowed walls of the Lincoln home itself, it must be remembered that Oldroyd was a man of his times. Operating during an era that brought us promoters like P.T. Barnum whose famous credo “there’s a customer born every minute” resonates clearly in the present day vernacular. Barnum’s self proclaimed charge was to find ways to draw new customers in an era when competition was fierce and people could become bored easily. Knowing this, its easy to understand the reasoning behind Oldroyd’s reputed shameless self promotion. After all, he had to keep the museum doors open.
In the end, Osborn Oldroyd was a man who fought hard for his country’s cause in the Union army and afterward did everything in his power to preserve the honor and memory of his hero and commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln. Did he step on some toes and ruffle a few feathers in the process? Sure, but as Abraham Lincoln himself once said, “Perhaps a man’s character was like a tree, and his reputation like its shadow; the shadow is what we think of it, the tree is the real thing.” Three months before his death at the age of eighty-eight, Oldroyd took pen in hand to write an expression of heartfelt gratitude to a well wisher in the form of a poem: “Words of cheer and handclasps warm, fragrant flowers and music’s charm, Reminiscences of days gone by, Ah, surely none so blest as I.”

Next week: part III of “Osborn Oldroyd-Keeper of the Lincoln Flame.”

Abe Lincoln, Museums, Politics

Osborn Oldroyd-Keeper of the Lincoln flame. Part I

OLDROYD Part IOriginal publish date:  July 6, 2017

In the seven years since I ran parts I and II of this article, much has changed. Osborn Oldroyd has remained the windmill I tilt at and he has never strayed far from my side. I will share the “new” developments about this man in part III of this series. But first, let me reintroduce you to Captain Oldroyd.
As a fan of history, I find myself drawn to characters who populate the sidelines of historic events in a way that sometimes threatens to overtake the subject itself. Anyone familiar with my musings knows that I am, like many a homegrown Hoosier, a fan of Abraham Lincoln. If Lincoln had never been born, literature would surely have created him. In November of 2010, I traveled to Springfield, Illinois on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s election to the Presidency in search of the man who I believe to be the original keeper of the Lincoln flame.
I met with historian James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln Presidential library and museum. The state-of-the-art museum opened in 2005 and featured as it’s principal speakers President George W. Bush and a then little known Illinois Senator named Barack Obama. However, this is not the first Lincoln museum in Springfield, Illinois. There was an unofficial version housed in the Lincoln Home from 1884 to 1893 created by Civil War veteran Osborn Oldroyd, a man as quirky and controversial as the museum he created.
When Oldroyd began collecting Lincoln items in 1860, Honest Abe was still very much alive. Oldroyd was among the first Americans to attempt such an undertaking, a collection he himself described as “books, sermons, eulogies, poems, songs, portraits, badges, autograph letters, pins, medals, envelopes, statuettes…anything related to the man”. In many cases, it is Oldroyd’s collecting habits we have to thank for the preservation of priceless Lincoln relics. However, to some, he was as much historical huckster as hero. It was Oldroyd’s “P.T. Barnum” sideshow approach that continues to rankle Lincoln scholars to this day.
Eccentricity ran in his genes. The evidence can be found in the very first thing he owned: his name. His parents, William and Mary, named their son “Osborn Hamiline Ingham Oldroyd” so that his initials would spell the name of their beloved home state, Ohio. Sergeant Osborn Oldroyd was only nineteen years old when he enlisted with the 2Oth Ohio Volunteer Infantry on October 15, 1861. He was mustered out of the army on July 19, 1865. During his years in the Union Army, he was a careful diarist keeping day-by-day observations of the war. His 1885 book, “A Soldier’s Story of the Siege of Vicksburg” gives a sixty-five day account of the Vicksburg Campaign. Oldroyd re-enlisted after the Vicksburg campaign but his chronic asthma made him unfit for duty. Following the war, Oldroyd returned to Ohio and was made Steward of the National Soldiers’ Home in Dayton. Friends lovingly referred to him as ‘Captain’ or ‘Colonel’ while others simply called him ‘Ozzie’.
Oldroyd found his life’s calling when he attended memorial services at Lincoln’s Tomb on the 15th anniversary of the president’s death just a few months after his arrival in Springfield in 1880. He came up with a plan to build a Memorial Hall in Springfield to display his growing collection of Lincoln memorabilia. Within two years after that first visit, Oldroyd wrote a 500-plus-page book, containing excerpts from Lincoln speeches and writings, as well as anecdotes and memories collected by Oldroyd from Lincoln’s friends and contemporaries, to raise money for the Memorial Hall. Book sales were fairly good, but Memorial Hall was never constructed.
Oldroyd croppedDuring his early years in Springfield, he ran a succession of failed businesses. All the while, Oldroyd was moving his family ever closer to the Lincoln Home at Eighth and Jackson streets. The Oldroyd family first lived at 1101 South Seventh, then 500 South Eighth Street (immediately south of the home) and then, in 1883, when the Lincoln Home became available to rent, Oldroyd moved his family in before the last occupants had completely moved out. At that time, Lincoln’s only surviving son, Robert, owned the home and reluctantly charged Oldroyd $25 per month rent. Contemporary accounts claim that Robert Todd Lincoln agreed to the idea of a museum as long as it was free to the public, a stipulation in place to this day.
Oldroyd could not believe his luck. He immediately began to arrange his nearly 2,000 piece Lincoln collection on the home’s first floor, while he and his family lived on the second floor. On April 14, 1884, the 19th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, he opened the ” Oldroyd Lincoln Memorial Collection” museum. Admission was 25 cents, although later in his life Oldroyd denied ever charging admission. According to the Illinois State Journal “The reception at the Lincoln residence last night was a brilliant affair. Mr. Oldroyd has been at work for years on this matchless collection, and it is believed its equal does not exist in the United States. At last his labors have been crowned with success, and the hundreds of people who thronged the rooms last night are loud in their praise.” z 9c5921de875bf4f37876d22de69952c0--illinois-state-historic-homes
Oldroyd, ever the promoter, found creative ways to publicize his museum while at the same time filling the public’s desire to own Lincoln artifacts. He sold photographs of his collection for 25 cents and a box of “Lincoln relics” for 75 cents. These boxes contained bits of the Lincoln Home and grounds: pieces of brick, shingle, ceiling plaster, elm tree, apple tree, lath, joist, and floor that Oldroyd claimed he saved during house repairs. In an ominous portent of things to come, two years after moving into the home of the man he adored, Oldroyd began stiffing the man’s son when he stopped paying rent in 1885. Robert Lincoln, a lawyer, was reluctant to attract public attention to the matter. He refused to pursue legal proceedings against Oldroyd even after no rental payments arrived for two years.
Not only did Robert feel he was being used, but “he was not happy with the way Oldroyd had turned the home into a sort of carnival sideshow, selling pieces of it and putting other things into it that had not been the Lincolns’,” says James Cornelius. “Robert referred to Oldroyd as a deadbeat and called the exhibits in the house traps.” Even though Oldroyd wasn’t paying rent, he continuously schemed for a way to live rent-free in the home with his collection indefinitely. Behind the scenes Oldroyd lobbied Illinois legislators to acquire the Lincoln Home for the state and let Oldroyd and his museum remain in it. The legislature’s first two attempts to ask Robert Lincoln for the house failed because Lincoln’s eldest son said he wasn’t ready to part with the home just yet. The third time was the charm. In 1887 the legislature succeeded and Robert deeded the Lincoln Home to the state of Illinois. Robert insisted on only two provisions; that his father’s home “be kept in good repair” and that it be”free of access to the public.”
Osborn Oldroyd was appointed custodian of the house for a salary of $1,000 per year (just under $ 25.000 today) and was allowed to continue living in the home rent free. He was also allowed to keep his museum as long as he didn’t charge admission anymore. Ever the operator, Osborn made up for that loss of income by allowing several of his in-laws to move in and charging them rent. The records don’t reveal whether Oldroyd ever paid Robert the two years of rent he owed, but I highly doubt it.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor the next five years “Captain” Oldroyd kept the Lincoln Home and added to his Lincoln collection. At one point, reports claim that Robert Lincoln was furious when Oldroyd allegedly displayed a photograph of John Wilkes Booth in the home, reportedly on the fireplace mantle. Some sources claim that Robert protested and in 1893, when the Illinois state political tides shifted, Robert had Oldroyd unceremoniously ousted as custodian. The new governor put one of his own men into Oldroyd’s former position as political patronage.
The Illinois State Journal, writing nearly 9 years to the day after its first article on Oldroyd, criticized the move by saying, “The removal of Captain O. H. Oldroyd…means that the Lincoln Home will be stripped of the features of most interest to visitors, which are the personal property of Captain Oldroyd, and…the new custodian…will have nothing to show to those who visit the Home.” Nothing, that is, but the Lincoln home itself. In the July 1888 issue of Harper’s magazine, Charles Dudley Warner wrote after a visit to the home that he could not find Lincoln’s “sense of personality there… although the parlor is made a show-room and full of memorials, there is no atmosphere of the man about it.” Oldroyd, it appears, had wedged himself into the very fabric of the home and many citizens felt that without his passion and guidance, the Lincoln home would eventually fail in its pursuit to attract the steady stream of visitors so carefully courted under the “Captain’s” care. But Oldroyd, ever the huckster, had other plans for his unmatched collection of Lincoln memorabilia.
Next week: part II of “Osborn Oldroyd-Keeper of the Lincoln Flame.”