Abe Lincoln, Creepy history, Gettysburg, Ghosts

Harry Houdini and Abraham Lincoln.

Houdini & Lincoln

Original publish date:  June 8, 2017

Magician Harry Houdini had a very unlikely boyhood hero. A hero adored by a generation before Houdini’s 1874 birth and a hero worshiped by generations hence. Harry Houdini’s hero was Abraham Lincoln. Houdini’s devotion to Lincoln could be found on stage during his shows. He traveled with a pet eagle named ‘Josephus Daniel Abraham Lincoln’ or ‘Abe Lincoln’ for short. Houdini’s eagle would materialize at the end of his Whirlwind of Colors routine culminating in a wild frenzy of scarves and other fabric pulled from a small container.
Houdini & birdIn Kenneth Silverman’s 1996 Biography “Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss : American Self-Liberator, Europe’s Eclipsing Sensation, World’s Handcuff King & Prison Breaker”, the author relays how Houdini referred to Lincoln as “my hero of heroes.” Houdini claimed to have read every book about Lincoln by the time he was a teenager. In William Kalush’s 2006 biography “The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero”, there is a story of young Houdini attending a seance where the medium produced a message from our 16th President. Houdini, Lincoln expert that he was, then asked a question to Lincoln via the medium and was puzzled when the answer that came back was not correct. This encounter led to Houdini’s early discovery that most Spiritualists were fake.
amd_houdini_originalAs he grew older and more financially secure, Houdini began to amass a personal collection of Lincoln memorabilia, particularly letters and autographs of the Great Emancipator. He also collected handwritten letters of every member of the assassin John Wilkes Booths family, several in response to letters sent by Houdini himself. Spending much of his adult life on the road, in hotels and traveling for days on ships and trains, Houdini became a prolific man of letters. One such letter survives that illustrates his desire and devotion to add to his Lincoln collection, despite the constraints of his vagabond lifestyle.
The letter is written on the magician’s personal “Lettergram” form that featured two portraits of Harry at the top. It was written in Milwaukee on September 20, 1923. Houdini’s pictorial Lettergram began with a printed message reading, “Please pardon any incivility in this letter. It has been rushed to you under stress of business and written in the dressing room. Therefore all formalities like Dear Sir, Dear Madame. etc. have been omitted, not to be curt or brusque; but that it is deemed better to let you hear from me in a lettergram of a few words than not at all.” The Lettergram was sent to Anton Heitmuller, a Washington businessman who billed himself as “Specializing in Selling Collections of Autographs, Manuscripts, Historical Broadsides and Curios”.

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Houdini lettergram to Anton Heitmuller.

Heitmuller was peddling artifacts related to John Wilkes Booth along with a collection of items of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was imprisoned for treating Booth’s broken leg after the assassination. Heitmuller saw a promotional opportunity for both he and Houdini in showing these materials; Houdini showed some interest but being at the height of his career, found it hard to find time to get to Washington to see the artifacts. Houdini’s typed letter reads, “I am on the road for the next four months, and there is a possibility of my reaching Washington about March or April. It all depends upon booking possibilities. Just rushing this to you to give you an outline of my route.” The note was signed in pencil by Houdini. Whether or not the meeting, let alone a purchase, ever took place is unknown, but the lettergram illustrates Houdini’s desire to acquire Lincolnania and the lengths he would go to find it.
Houdini became a friendly acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln. In one instance, a spirit medium claimed to possess authentic spirit photographs of Abraham Lincoln. Houdini sent copies of the photos to Robert Todd Lincoln and debunked them by proving that the images were manipulated from known photos of his father taken while Mr. Lincoln was still very much alive. To further prove his point, Houdini produced photos of himself alongside Mr. Lincoln.
houdini-lincolnOn Feb. 13, 1924, a day after the 115th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Houdini typed out a letter to Mary Edwards Lincoln Brown, the grand-daughter of Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards, Mary Lincoln’s sister. The letter, written from the dressing room of the State Lake Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, reads: “My dear Mrs. Brown: Enclosed you will find a Spirit Photograph of your renowned ancestor, and although the Theomonistic Society in Washington, D.C. claim that it is a genuine spirit photograph, as I made this one, you have my word for it, that it is only a trick effect. Mrs. Houdini joins me in sending you kindest regards, Sincerely yours, Houdini.”
M2014.128.703.27_150415-P1Furthermore, Houdini also produced ‘fake spirit messages’ from Lincoln during his lectures to debunk spiritualism. Many spiritualists attempted to back up their fake photos and messages by claiming that Abraham Lincoln himself was a devoted spiritualist who had held seances in the White House. As proof, they cited a piece of British sheet music, published while Lincoln was President, which portrayed Honest Abe holding a candle while violins and tambourines flew about his head. The piece of music was called The Dark Séance Polka and the caption below the illustration of the president read “Abraham Lincoln and the Spiritualists”.
Actually it was Mary Lincoln who consulted a series of mediums in a desperate attempt to contact their dead son Willie, who died in the White House. Houdini naturally pointed out that President Lincoln was in attendance for only one such “call to the dead” and then solely to support his grieving wife. After the seance, Lincoln gently guided Mary over to a window that looked out over Washington and pointed to the lunatic asylum with a warning that if she didn’t stop this foolishness, she would end up there.

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Houdini and Magician Harry Cooke.

Clues to Houdini’s admiration of Abraham Lincoln can also be found in a couple of the magicians he associated with. One was a former Civil War veteran named Harry Cooke who first took up magic as a means to entertain his fellow soldiers in camp. Legend claims that Cooke once showed Lincoln an escape from a piece of rope and the president was so impressed he put him to work as a Spy for the Union Army. Cooke kept a two dollar bill given him by Mr. Lincoln on another occasion when he was performing before the president and his cabinet. Amazingly Cooke was also present in Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was assassinated. Harry Cooke and Harry Houdini knew each other well and Houdini considered the elder magician as an early mentor. Many historians credit Cooke as being the first escape artist in America. Houdini, of course, became America’s greatest escape artist.

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Magician Signor Biltz and Harry Houdini.

One final connection between Houdini and Lincoln is magician Signor Blitz. During the Civil War, Blitz performed at hundreds of Union Army Hospitals. His act was made up of several parts, including magic, ventriloquism, plate spinning and the command of trained birds. Blitz was apparently one of the first performers to use a dummy during his ventriloquism thereby setting the stage for future generations. His favorite trick was the Bullet Catching act (snaring a gun fired bullet between his teeth). However, a number of close calls persuaded the magician to remove it from his show. The final straw was when an audience member took out a six shooter and yelled “if you can catch one, you can call all of them!”. Fortunately, Blitz was able to stop the man from shooting.

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Mary Lincoln with her sons Willie (left) and Tad (right).

Blitz once performed at a July 4th function where Lincoln and his son Tad were present. The incident took place near the Summer White House on the grounds of the Old Soldier’s Home in the Rock Creek section of DC, today it is known as Lincoln’s Cottage. Lincoln often used the cottage during the summer months to escape the brutal foggy bottom heat of the Executive Mansion. In early July of 1863, President Lincoln took a break from his duties to watch a rehearsal of the upcoming July 4th parade. Numerous people stood along the street watching the rehearsal, among them Signor Blitz.
The sly magician reached out and produced a bird from the hair of one of the girls in the parade. The rehearsal parade came to a sudden stop and now all eyes were on Blitz. Thinking fast on his feet, the magician quickly produced an egg from the mouth of a child standing nearby. Blitz had no idea that the child was none other than the President’s son, Tad Lincoln. Blitz was soon formally introduced to the President and one of the most remarkable impromptu conversations of the Civil War ensued. Lincoln surprised the magician by saying,”Why, of course, it’s Signor Blitz, one of the most famous men in America. How many children have you made happy, Signor Blitz?” The magician answered “Thousands and tens of thousands”. The President then dolefully replied, “While I fear that I have made thousands and tens of thousands unhappy. But it is for each of us to do his duty in this world and I am trying to do mine.”

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Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg.

This exchange took place just as the Battle of Gettysburg was winding down. Lincoln had not yet heard news about the outcome of the battle. What neither knew was the Union victory at Gettysburg, combined with the siege conclusion at Vicksburg, had just turned the tide of the war for the Union. Of course, Houdini was keenly aware of the connection between Blitz and Lincoln. After Harry Houdini died on October 31, 1926 in Detroit, Michigan, he was buried in Machpelah Cemetery in New York City. About a hundred yards away is the grave of Signor Blitz.

 

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Harry Houdini grave at Machpelah Cemetery in New York City.
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Signor Biltz grave at Machpelah Cemetery in New York City.
Abe Lincoln, Museums, Presidents

Abraham Lincoln’s Librarian: Jane Gastineau.

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Original publish date:  July 18, 2019

The Hoosier Lincoln community is losing a shining light in Fort Wayne next week. Jane E. Gastineau, Lincoln Librarian of the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection (LFFC) housed at the Allen County Public Library is retiring on July 31st. Jane closes her twelve year stint of meticulously cataloging, documenting and digitizing Abraham Lincoln and all Hoosiers owe her a heartfelt thank you.

Jane steered the Fort Wayne Lincoln ship through perhaps its most turbulent time; the acquisition of the Collection by the State of Indiana. The assemblage represents a world-class research collection of documents, artifacts, books, prints, photographs, manuscripts, and 19th-century art related to Lincoln. Like many involved in the Hoosier Lincoln community, I recall the announcement (in March 2008) that the Fort Wayne Lincoln museum would close and watched with acute interest for word of its final disposition. Would it be sold at auction? Would it be acquired by a wealthy collector? Or would it remain in Indiana?lincolnnationallife2-storer

The Lincoln Financial Foundation, owner of the collection, was adamant on two points. First, the organization wanted the collection to be donated to an institution capable of providing permanent care and broad public access. Second, the collection would not be broken up among multiple owners. In other words, this collection which had been built over so many decades was not for sale and would remain intact. This came as a relief to Lincoln fans all over the country. However, the question of where it would land remained indeterminate for some time and not without controversy.

I recall visiting with James Cornelius, former curator of Lincoln artifacts at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield Illinois, back in early 2009. Although my research visit was in no way connected to the Lincoln Financial collection disposition question, since I was a Hoosier, Dr. Cornelius, whom I admire, could not resist asking me how it happened. I had to inform him that I really had no idea and could not even begin to offer an explanation. Jane Gastineau cleared that question up for me.

lincolnnationallife-storer“The advantage of our facility, aside from it being in Indiana, was our technical ability. We could have any object or artifact digitized, on the web and available to researchers in no more than three days.” That may seem like a given to researchers nowadays, but a decade ago, most research facilities were still working with copy and fax machines; not exactly on the cutting edge of the digital universe.

In December of 2008 those conditions were met when one of the largest private collections of Abraham Lincoln-related material in existence was donated to the people of Indiana. Today the Collection is housed in two institutions, the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis and the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne. This allows the Collection to live on in its entirety, available to the public in various exhibits at all times. And, especially in my case, the digitized LFFC is available on-line to researchers 24-7.

To date the LFFC has 15,219 items available in full text through Internet Archive and have had 5,373,223 views of that material since late 2009. The library collection has 4,907 photographs and 3,021 documents/manuscripts online. Most importantly, additional manuscripts and transcriptions are being added weekly as they are processed. Lincoln programming at the library is also taped, and there are 51 programs viewable online at https://archive.org/details/allencountylincolnprograms.

I recently spent a couple days in Fort Wayne researching Lincoln. I found Jane Gastineau hard at work deciphering, transcribing and cataloging the Lincoln collection. Depending on the day (or the hour) Jane may be working on Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary, their son Robert or, just as often, any number of the researchers and volunteer catalogers from generations prior. Seems that 210 years after the Great Emancipator’s birth, there is still plenty of work to be done within the Lincoln genre.

“Standards of best practice re: collection building, collection record keeping, and professional conflict of interest have changed over the decades. That means that some of the practices (of early Lincoln collector/curators) may look sketchy to us, but they were acceptable at the time. Some of the older practices also make tracking provenance a bit tricky and occasionally impossible, which is frustrating for us. Hopefully we’re doing better so that those who come after us won’t find us sketchy.”

Facebook-Friends-of-lincolnAccording to Gastineau, “I work entirely with the part of the collection housed at the Allen County Public Library. The LFFC is supported by an endowment under the Friends of the Lincoln Collection of Indiana. The Allen County Public Library provides our space and supports programming at the library, but all other financial support (salaries, travel for conferences, supplies, digitizing expenses, acquisitions, etc.) are paid through the Friends endowment.”

She continues, “There are two of us that work fulltime with the collection. I moved with the collection from The Lincoln Museum (where I had been collections manager) to the library on July 1, 2009. I know the collection pretty well—though we’re still finding things we didn’t know we had—and I’ve learned a great deal about Lincoln and those surrounding him and “collecting him.” But I don’t consider myself a Lincoln expert and certainly not a Lincoln scholar. I just know a lot about him—and I admire him.” Jane is quick to point out that, “I’m not a solo act.” She’s had three coworkers over the years—Cindy VanHorn (who came with Jane from the Fort Wayne Lincoln Museum) and is currently working part time with the portion of the LFFC housed at the Indiana State Museum; Adriana Maynard Harmeyer who left to join the Archives/Special Collections at Purdue University and Jane’s associate Lincoln-librarian (and editor of the LFFC’s Lincoln Lore publication) Emily Rapoza.

Although Jane truly loves her job, she is looking forward to retirement. For now, the librarian has no plans to return to her old post, even as a volunteer, simply because, “I don’t want my successor to feel like I’m looking over his/her shoulder and judging whether things are being done right. I had my time here, and I think my coworkers and I accomplished a great deal with organizing and documenting the collection and making it widely accessible. But now I need to stay out of my successor’s way. I work with an amazing collection, and there’s always something new to discover or a new problem to solve. This job has let me work as a librarian, an archivist, a program planner, a program presenter, a creator of exhibits on site and online, a researcher, a reference for researchers, a tour guide, an instructor for interns. It’s been a great twelve years.”

When asked what she will miss the most, Jane states that she will miss the “everyday discoveries”. Whether she is learning something new from a tour guest, researcher or from the collection itself, Jane smiles widest when she makes a new discovery. While escorting me on a special tour of the LFFC holdings on display in the climate controlled, secure vault hidden deep within the library, Jane relayed the story of one such discovery made some time ago, quite by accident.

IMG_5527“For whatever reason, it was a slow day and I was poking through some uncatalogued material from the James Hickey collection. I ran across this scrap of paper.” At this point Jane removes the protective jet black cover from a locked case at one side of the room to reveal several documents written and signed by Abraham Lincoln himself. She directs my attention to a small note in the familiar handwriting of our sixteenth President. “Read it,” Jane states, “See if you notice the one word that makes people chuckle when they see it.”

“There is reason to believe this Corneilus Garvin is an idiot, and that he is kept in the 52nd N.Y. concealed + denied to avoid an exposure of guilty parties. Will Sec. of War please have the thing probed? A. Lincoln May 21, 1864” Jane reveals that the word “idiot” in Lincoln’s note never fails to elicit a giggle, “But that word doesn’t mean what they think it means. Idiot was the way they described intellectual disabilities back then.”

Jane explains that she googled the soldier’s name and learned that this note, along with 60 other supporting documents found with it, were the key to a mystery that ultimately led to a book by an Irish historian named Damian Shiels who also authors a blog called “Irish in the American Civil War”. Jane states that Shiels “had pieced the Garvin story together from newspaper accounts and pension records in the US National Archives. His post included the information that Garvin’s documents had been offered for sale in the 1940s and requested that, if anyone knew where the documents were, he be informed. So I emailed him that we had the docs and digitized them and put them online in our collection so he could use them. In 2016 he published a book titled “The Forgotten Irish: Irish Emigrant Experiences in America,” and the story of Catharine and Cornelius Garvin is the first story—about 12 pages.”

Shiels reveals, “During the Civil War, many freed slaves and young men were abducted from their families, and purchased by the Union in order to replace men who sought to avoid warfare for various reasons. In 1863, a widow by the name of Mrs. Catherine Garvin of Troy, New York, was informed that her son, Cornelius, was missing. In efforts to connect with her lost son, Mrs. Garvin not only searched the camps and hospitals where her son was believed to be, she brought her story to local politicians, newspapers, and suddenly the story of the missing boy “Con” began to receive attention. Mrs. Garvin’s story became such a sensation that it received attention from President Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln’s interest in this story was a result of the sympathy that he felt towards Mrs. Garvin and the story of her son being sold to war. Due to his sympathetic nature, on April 18, 1864, Lincoln wrote in a telegram to Colonel Paul Frank of the 52nd Potomac, the regiment in which it was believed that Cornelius was fighting. In the telegram sent from the Executive Office, Lincoln wrote, “Is there, or has there been a man in your Regiment by the name of Cornelius Garvin? And if so, answer me so far as you know where he now is.”

“Despite Lincoln’s efforts to connect Mrs. Garvin with her son, Lincoln’s telegram never received a response form Colonel Frank. However, it was suggested that Garvin’s Captain, Capt. Degner, not only neglected to search for Cornelius, but threatened his privates in aiding Mrs. Garvin, or anyone involved in the investigation with information. Colonel LC Baker placed Captain Degner under arrest until more evidence was found, but there are no further records of charges brought against Degner.”

Jane Gastineau’s chance discovery, in effect, helped solve the ages-old mystery. According to the Lincoln Library webpage, “In the summer of 1863, Cornelius Garvin (b. 1845), a resident of the Rensselaer County Almshouse, was sold as a substitute into the Union army by the home’s superintendent. Eighteen-year-old Cornelius was mentally disabled in some way and had been declared an incurable “idiot” by the Marshall Infirmary, located in Troy, N.Y. He had then been placed in the county almshouse by his mother, Catharine (d. c1896), because she could not care for him at home. When Catharine went to visit her son on September 7, 1863, the superintendent informed her that Con was in the army and showed her the money he had received as payment for the boy. Catharine wrote later, “It was very cruel to sell my idiot son.” Catharine Garvin spent the rest of the 1860s looking for Cornelius. Although he was thought to have been enlisted in the 52nd New York Infantry Regiment and an official army investigation was conducted, she never found him or learned his fate. She ultimately accepted the likelihood he was dead, as the army investigation had concluded. She applied for and received a survivor’s pension from the U.S. government. Catharine continued to live in Troy, N.Y., until around 1890 when she returned permanently to Ireland. Because she was an American citizen, she continued to receive her pension until her death in County Limerick around 1896.”

One of Jane Gastineau’s favorite observations while researching are the many “rabbit holes” she finds herself traveling through when it comes to Lincoln. The note she discovered is a perfect illustration. And those rabbit holes promise to continue for researchers long after she vacates her position. In fact, another example can be found within her research that was of particular interest to me. Col. L.C. Baker, the officer mentioned above, was none other than Lafayette Curry Baker. Baker was recalled to Washington after the 1865 assassination of President Lincoln and within two days of his arrival he and his agents had made four arrests and had the names of two more conspirators, including assassin John Wilkes Booth. Before the month was out, Booth along with Davey Herold were found holed up in a barn where Booth was shot and killed. Baker received a generous share of the Goverment’s $100,000 reward. Yes Jane, there are indeed a great many rabbit holes to explore wherever Lincoln is involved.

Photos of various Lincoln items on display in the vault at the Allen County Library.

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Robert Todd Lincoln’s schoolbook.

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Tad Lincoln gets a sword and a uniform per his father’s order.

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Mary Todd Lincoln
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Rare mourning letter sent to Tad Lincoln after the assassination of his father.

 

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Robert Todd Lincoln
Abe Lincoln, Presidents

Robert Todd Lincoln checks in.

http://weeklyview.net/2019/06/13/robert-todd-lincoln-checks-in/Robert Todd Lincoln ‎February ‎25, ‎2011 photo

Original publish date:  February 25, 2011  /  Reissue date June 13, 2019

Anyone who reads my column regularly knows that I have a love of odd, unusual history relics, ghost stories and collectibles. I spend a lot of time at antique shows, flea markets, libraries and historic buildings and about once a year, I stumble across something that speaks to me and ultimately reveals a deeper story than I ever imagined. I recently acquired an item, and a story, that I’d like to share with you. It is a personal check dated December 17, 1920 from the New York City bank account of Robert Todd Lincoln, the only surviving child of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln.
Finding a cancelled check from a long forgotten bank account of a dead celebrity is not as rare as it sounds. There exists a thriving underground market of dealers in checks and official documents from famous, or infamous, personalities from every field you can imagine. Think of it, most people save their old checks and if you’re a collector, what better way to authenticate a signature than on a check?
As with most Hoosiers, I share a certain fascination with Abraham Lincoln and the many sites, stories and memorabilia associated with him. I have long tried to decipher the complicated relationship between Robert Todd Lincoln and his parents. Aside from being Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln (August 1, 1843 – July 26, 1926) was an accomplished lawyer, US Ambassador and Secretary of War for Presidents Garfield and Arthur. In fact, most historians consider Lincoln to be our country’s second most effective Secretary of War behind only Jefferson Davis. Yes the same Jefferson Davis who opposed his father during the American Civil War as President of the Confederacy.
Robert Lincoln studied at Harvard University from 1861 to 1864 and much to the embarrassment of his father, Mary Lincoln prevented her son from joining the Union Army until shortly before the war’s conclusion in 1865. He briefly held the rank of captain, serving in the last weeks as part of General Ulysses S. Grant’s immediate staff and never saw actual combat. He was in the room at Appomattox when Lee surrendered.
Lincoln’s distant relationship with his father was due in part to the fact that Abraham Lincoln spent months on the judicial circuit during Robert’s formative years growing up in Springfield and later Robert was away at college when his father attained the White House. Although Abe was proud of Robert and thought him bright, the two lacked the same strong bond Father Abraham had with Bob’s younger brothers, Willie and Tad. There can be no doubt that Robert deeply admired his father and he wept openly at his deathbed.

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Mary, Robert, Abraham and Tad Lincoln.

Following his father’s assassination, in April 1865, Robert moved with his mother and brother Tad to Chicago, where Robert completed his law studies at the University of Chicago. Robert was admitted to the bar on February 25, 1867. In 1868, Robert Lincoln married Mary Eunice Harlan, the daughter of Iowa Senator James Harlan, a close friend of Abraham Lincoln. Senator Harlan is perhaps remembered for an 1865 incident as Secretary of the Interior under President Andrew Johnson, when he found a copy of Leaves of Grass on Clerk Walt Whitman’s desk (left there as the poet was making revisions) and found it to be morally offensive. “I will not have the author of that book in this Department”, he said. “If the President of the United States should order his reinstatement, I would resign sooner than I would put him back.” Robert and Mary had two daughters and one son: Mary “Mamie” Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln II (nicknamed “Jack”) and Jessie Harlan Lincoln.
After his father’s assassination, Robert’s life continued to be connected to sadness and tragedy. After all, Robert was invited to accompany his parents to the Ford’s Theatre but declined (citing what we would today call “Jet Lag” from his trip home from the war front) and instead he went to bed early at the White House. He was informed of the shooting just before midnight and was at his father’s bedside when he died. No doubt, the decision not to accompany his parents haunted him for the rest of his life. Not only for the supposed inability to protect his father, but also for the prospect that he too might have died in the attack.

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Mary, Willie, Robert, Tad and Abraham Lincoln.

In 1875, perhaps rashly and ill-advised, Robert had his mother Mary committed to a psychiatric hospital in Batavia, Illinois. Mary’s eccentric behavior has been well documented. Nevertheless, Robert tasted the sting of public criticism and rebuke for the first time in his young life. The incident led to a profound estrangement between Bob and his mother and the two never fully reconciled.
Coincidentally Robert was was just a few feet away when President James Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau at the Sixth Street Train Station in Washington, D.C. on July 2, 1881. Lincoln was serving as Garfield’s Secretary of War at the time and cradled the President’s body on the railroad platform as medical personnel arrived on scene. Later, on September 6, 1901, at President William McKinley’s invitation, Lincoln was at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, where the President was shot by Leon Czolgosz. From then on, Lincoln would politely refuse all Presidential invitations with the comment “No, I’m not going, and they’d better not ask me, because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.” However, he did attend the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922 in the presence of President Warren G. Harding. Harding was dead within a year.
Lincoln’s son Abraham Lincoln II , aka “Jack”, died in London at the age of 16 from blood poisoning after a freak infection set in following surgery to lance a boil under his arm. Jack was originally buried in the Lincoln Tomb in Springfield, Ill. but his mother (coincidentally named Mary) had Jack’s remains dug up and re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery after her husband Robert died in 1926. The cycle of sadness followed Robert after his death as Jack’s body was removed from the President’s tomb, where it had rested near his illustrious grandfather for 40 years, and removed to Arlington. Robert himself had expressed his intentions to be buried next to his father and son in Springfield, but for unknown reasons, his wife changed the plans. The empty crypts of both men can be found in the President’s tomb in Springfield to this very day. As a final irony, Jack’s name was not added to his father’s Arlington memorial until 1976.

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Lincoln’s great-grandchildren Robert Todd Lincoln (Bud) Beckwith and Mary “Peggy Lincoln Beckwith.

Of Robert’s remaining children, Jessie Harlan Lincoln Beckwith (1875–1948) had two children, Mary (“Peggy”) Lincoln Beckwith [1898 – 1975] and Robert (“Bud”) Todd Lincoln Beckwith (1904–1985). Robert’s other daughter, Mary (“Mamie”)Todd Lincoln (1869–1938) had one son, Lincoln Isham (1892–1971). Isham married but never had children. Peggy, who was rumored to be a lesbian because she smoked cigars and wore men’s pants, also never married or had children. Her brother Bud married three times but had no heirs.
That is where my personal story begins. As it happens, the 1920 Robert Todd Lincoln check that I purchased was also signed by Bud. This intrigued me as I knew little or nothing of Bud Beckwith and wondered why the check would be signed by both men.
Bud was an attorney and self described “playboy” who often listed his profession as “gentleman farmer of independent means” rather than lawyer. He served in the Coast Guard during World War II, which resulted in a lasting hobby of boating and sailing. To say that “Bud” Beckwith was eccentric is like saying water is wet.
At some point, Bud Beckwith realized that he was the last heir to the Lincoln name, the last direct link to the martyred President. In this role, he realized he was now the repository of the everyday Lincoln papers and mundane family belongings perhaps unworthy of museum stewardship but valuable just the same. Among those were the cancelled checks of his grandfather. Bud decided to forever link his name with that of his illustrious namesake by counter signing some of the checks that were left to him with his full name, “Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith” beside the fountain pen signature of “Robert Todd Lincoln”. He would sometimes send these checks out to autograph collectors who wrote asking for signed mementos from Bud or his family.

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Brentano’s Bookstore as Robert Todd Lincoln would have known it.

My check was written by the son of President Abraham Lincoln on December 17, 1920. It was made out to “Brentano’s” bookstore in New York City for nine dollars and seventy cents. It is easy to imagine Secretary Lincoln walking into Brentano’s on that Friday evening one week before Christmas before heading back to his estate, “Hildene”, in Manchester Center, Vermont. Was he buying books to give away as Christmas presents or to read on the 4 hour train ride home to Hildene? Perhaps he was buying books about his father?

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Brentano’s Bookstore Scene from Seinfeld

And Brentano’s? Well, if you are a fan of the “Seinfeld” TV show, you know Brentano’s. It was the setting for the 1998 episode titled, “The Bookstore” in which George is accused of taking an expensive art book into the bathroom causing the book to become forever “flagged” as unreturnable. Jerry also catches his Uncle Leo shoplifting in the store. As you can imagine, pop culture fanatic that I am, I was thrilled to establish my own personal link between Abe Lincoln and the iconic computer age television sitcom.

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Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower and Robert Todd Lincoln “Bud” Beckwith.

The last living person with a direct link to President Abraham Lincoln, Robert’s namesake grandson Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, aka “Bud”, died alone in a nursing home in Saluda, Virginia (about 45 miles from the Confederate Capitol of Richmond) at the age of 81 on December 24, 1985 at around 6:05 pm. Nearly 65 years to the day after my check was signed. History lives my friends. You can touch it, dream about it and in many cases buy it and make it your own. My suggestion? Go and visit your local antique store, there are many fine shops and malls around Irvington, the Indianapolis eastside and all the way out to Greenfield and beyond on the Historic National Road. You just never know what you might find. History awaits you.

Abe Lincoln, Assassinations, Auctions, Museums, Politics

Abraham Lincoln’s Hat Needs You!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.