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.

Abe Lincoln, Presidents, Sports

The Abraham Lincoln Handball.

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Original publish date:  September 20, 2018

Abraham Lincoln is in the National Handball Hall Of Fame. What, you say? There’s a national handball Hall of Fame? Well, I don’t know if such an entity exists or whether the 16th president is enshrined there. But if it does and he ain’t…he should be. I do know that Lincoln is inducted into the wrestling Hall of Fame, but that’s another story.
Serious Lincoln fans have likely heard a reference to the “alley by the journal office” a few times over the years but may not know much about it. Abraham Lincoln was known to be a sportsman for most of his life in an age when organized sports were hard to find. Undoubtedly, you’ve heard about Lincoln’s prowess as a wrestler and extraordinary strength as a young man. He was known to “roll ten pins” (bowling) and play billiards and chess but admitted that he never excelled at any of them. Mr. Lincoln engaged in these games for exercise and amusement, both physically and mentally. During play he routinely regaled those present with jokes, western anecdotes and stories which made him popular with opponents and teammates alike.
z Railsplitter1.previewLikewise, you may have heard that he was a handball player, as have I, but details have always been hard to find. The game of handball was much better suited to Lincoln. At 6 feet 4 inches tall, his long legs and gangly arms served the rail splitter well. Muscles honed while wielding an axe as a youth were kept tight and toned as an adult. Lincoln milked his own cows and chopped his own wood even though he was a successful, affluent lawyer with little time to spare.
In the years before Lincoln was elected president he was a successful Springfield lawyer and often played handball in an alley by the Illinois state journal newspaper office to ease his stress load. The paper occupied a three-story building at 116 N. Sixth Street. The building next door immediately south was a three-story building that housed a store operated by John Carmody. The next building south was known as the Logan building, owned by Judge Stephen T. Logan.
The large vacant lot between these two buildings was the site of the storied impromptu handball court used by lawyer Lincoln and his friends. The brick walls of the Carmody store and Logan building formed at the front and back walls of the handball court and the other two sides were enclosed by wood fences standing 6 to 8 feet high. The fences also had wooden bench seats for visitors watching the matches or for players waiting their turn to take on the winner.
z lincoln hbThe term handball really didn’t exist in Lincoln’s day. It was called a “game of fives” by Abe and his contemporaries. When Mr. Lincoln went to town, he frequently joined with the boys in playing handball. In the Springfield version, players choose sides to square off against one another. The game is begun by one of the boys bouncing the ball against the wall of the Logan building. As it bounced back, and opponent strikes it in the same manner, so that the ball is kept going back and forth against the wall until someone misses the rebound. ‘Old Abe’ was often the winner, for his long arms and long legs served a good purpose in reaching and returning the ball from any angle his adversary could send it to the wall. The game required two, four or six players, spread equally on each side. The three players who lost paid 10 ¢ each, making 30 ¢ a game. So as you can imagine the games got pretty serious.
z FivesCourt clerk Thomas W.S. Kidd spoke of Mr. Lincoln’s love of the game: “In 1859, Zimri A. Enos, Esq., Hon. Chas. A. Keyes, E. L. Baker, Esq., then editor of the Journal, William A. Turney, Esq., Clerk of the Supreme Court, and a number of others, in connection with Mr. Lincoln, had the lot, then an open one, lying between what was known as the United States Court Building, on the northeast corner of the public square, and the building owned by our old friend, Mr. John Carmody, on the alley north of it, on Sixth street, enclosed with a high board fence, leaving a dead wall at either end. In this ‘alley’ could be found Mr. Lincoln, with the gentlemen named and others, as vigorously engaged in the sport as though life depended upon it. He would play until nearly exhausted and then take a seat on the rough board benches arranged along the sides for the accommodation of friends and the tired players.”
In May of 1860 the most noteworthy game of handball in our country’s history took place on this court. The Republican National Convention, held in a woodframe building specifically designed for use known as the “wigwam”, had kicked off in nearby Chicago on May 16th. The Whig party had imploded, the free soilers were migrating and the anti-Catholic populists from the Know Nothing party were flocking to the Republican Party with its anti-slavery message. Even though this promised to be a raucous convention, the eventual GOP nominee, “Abram Lincoln”, decided to stay home and play handball instead. According to Lincoln he, “was too much of a candidate to go to Chicago and not enough of a candidate to stay away.”
Most Lincoln scholars agree that Abe played handball all three days of the convention (May 16 – 18) to relieve stress while waiting for news to arrive by telegraph at the Illinois state journal newspaper offices. The last day of the GOP convention, Friday, May 18, 1865, Lincoln rose bright and early and headed downtown. Although nervous and anxious, Lincoln greeted neighbors and friends on the streets and on the square around the Illinois Capital Building.
At 8:30 a.m. Lincoln nervously visited the second floor office of lawyer James C Conkling located at 119 S. Fifth Street. Mr. Conkling had just returned from Chicago and Lincoln was anxious to hear any news from the convention. Conkling told Lincoln to relax, assuring him that he was sure to be nominated that day. Lincoln however, was not so confident and told Conkling, “Well, Conkling, I guess I’ll go back to my office and practice law.” But here is where the narrative takes a mysterious turn.
Lincoln did not arrive back to his law office until just before 10 am. We know this from accounts of the many well-wishers, friends and supporters who were waiting the arrival of their candidate on the corner of Sixth and Adams on the square. Shortly after ten, Edward L Baker, one of the editors of the Illinois state journal, appeared at the office of Lincoln and Herndon with two bulletins in his hand. The first one announcing that the delegates were filing back into the wigwam; the second, that the names of the candidates for president had been presented to the chairman of the convention.
The initial news was not good. When voting for the nomination began, William H. Seward led on the first ballot with 173 1/2 votes. Lincoln was a distant second tallying 102 votes. There were 465 delegates at the convention, making 233 votes necessary for the nomination. Simon Cameron received 50; Salmon P. Chase got 49, Edwin Bates had 48. Witnesses claimed that, upon hearing the news, Mr Lincoln threw himself upon a horsehair couch in the office without expressing any opinion on the news. By all accounts, Lincoln was very guarded in all of his statements that morning.
After a few minutes, Lincoln arose from the chair and said: “The dispatches appear to be coming to the Journal office… Let us go over there.” When the Lincoln entourage arrived at the foot of the stairway leading to the telegraph office on the north side of the public square, Lincoln said: “Let’s go up; it must be about time for the second ballot.” The results of the second ballot were coming across the tickertape as Lincoln entered the room. The telegraph operator handed the news to Mr. Lincoln. On the second ballot, most of the Pennsylvania delegation jumped over to Lincoln, putting him in a near-tie with Seward (184 for Seward and 181 for Lincoln). Although silent, witnesses remember a look of satisfaction appearing on Lincoln’s face.
News soon arrived that on the third ballot many additional delegates switched to Lincoln, and he won the party’s nomination. Lincoln was nominated and would be elected the nation’s 16th president. He appointed Seward Secretary of State, Cameron Secretary of War, Chase Secretary of the Treasury, and Bates Attorney General.
But where was Lincoln from 8:30 am to 10 am? His longtime friend and bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon was the first to say that Lincoln was playing handball during that period. Henry Wirt Butler confirmed that he was engaged in a game with the candidate at Mr. Lincoln’s request while awaiting news from the convention. When young Mr. Butler was born, Lincoln was a practicing attorney in Springfield living at the home of Mr. Butler’s parents. He had just finished reading the Life of William Wirt and suggested that the baby be named after the former U.S. Attorney General. When the boy whom Lincoln had named grew to be a young man he became a favorite of the Great Emancipator’s and read law for some time in his office. It should be noted that Wirt was barely 20 years old and Lincoln was 51 at the time of the game.
z 1891 - Bloxham FivesLincoln’s friend, Dr. Preston H Bailhache, recalled a handball game played on a court built by Patrick Stanley in an ‘alley’ in the rear of his grocery in the Second Ward, which is still standing. “I have sat and laughed many happy hours away watching a game of ball between Lincoln on one side and Hon. Chas. A. Keyes on the other. Mr. Keyes is quite a short man, but muscular, wiry and active as a cat, while his now more distinguished antagonist, as all now know, was tall and a little awkward, but which with much practice and skill in the movement of the ball, together with his good judgment, gave him the greatest advantage. In a very hotly contested game, when both sides were ‘up a stump’ – a term used by the players to indicate an even game – and while the contestants were vigorously watching every movement, Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Turney collided with such force that it came very near preventing his nomination to the Presidency, and giving to Springfield a sensation by his death and burial. Both were badly hurt, but not so badly as to discourage either from being found in the ‘alley’ the next day.”
2516a4fa5cb6c7cf47acacefaa2aeb93Another eyewitness was the unofficial gatekeeper of the Handball Court, William Donnelly, a nephew of John Carmody. Years later, Donnelly offered this account to a reporter, “I worked in the Carmody store and usually had charge of the ball court. I smoothed the wall and leveled the ground. I made the balls. Old stockings were rolled out and wound into balls and covered with buckskin. Mr. Lincoln was not a good player. He learned the game when he was too old. But he liked to play and did tolerably well. I remember when he was nominated as though it were yesterday. It was the last day of the convention and he was plainly nervous and restless.”
Donnelly continues: “He played handball a good deal during every day of the convention, evidently to relieve the over-strained mind. I was standing down in front of the Carmody store when Edward L. Baker, Charlie Zane (Judge) and one or two others brought word from the telegraph office that he was nominated. It was the bulletin showing the result of the third and last ballot. I naturally followed the crowd upstairs to the editorial room on the second floor. The stairway was in the alley outside the building. The telegram was read and then handed to Mr. Lincoln who read it out aloud again. After a lot of hand shaking, we returned to the street below. Mr. Lincoln appeared anxious to get away. When he came to the entrance of the ball court, the players gathered round, congratulated him and pledged him their support.”
The account continues: “He thanked them, looked at the telegram he had in his hand and said: there’s a little woman over on eighth Street that will be glad to hear the news; if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go and tell her. He then left for home. I can see him now as he went away. He leaned forward and walked mighty fast. The boy that went with him had to run almost to keep up with him. Mr. Lincoln never came back to the court or played handball after the day he was nominated. I did not vote for Mr. Lincoln in 1860. There were only three Irishmen who did. They were called Irish Republicans and were regarded as curiosities.”
z kidsJohn Carmody recalled another handball game: “An incident took place, during one of those games, which I have retained clearly in my memory. I had a nephew named Patrick Johnson who was very expert in the game. He struck the ball in such a manner that it hit Mr. Lincoln in the ear. I ran to sympathize with him and asked if he was hurt. He said he was not, and as he said it he reached both of his hands toward the sky. Straining my neck to look up into his face, for he was several inches taller than I was, I said to him, ‘Lincoln, if you are going to heaven, take us both.’”
For years a myth circulated that Abraham Lincoln was playing handball when he was notified that he had received the nomination for President. Obviously that legend must be filed alongside the myth that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address on the back of an envelope on the train ride to Gettysburg. Neither story is wholly true but there is a grain of truth in each. Lincoln was playing handball at the time the delegates in Chicago were voting and he edited the Gettysburg address on the train.
Historians confirm that Abraham Lincoln never returned to that handball court after that day. Years later, President Lincoln spoke about his athletic prowess on the night of his reelection as President in 1864: “For such an awkward fellow, I am pretty sure-footed. It used to take a pretty dextrous man to throw me.”
z sm hbIn October of 2004, the Smithsonian Institution displayed Abraham Lincoln’s handball as part of their exhibit “Sports: Breaking Records, Breaking Barriers.” It’s small (about the size of a tennis ball), dirty and well worn and really, really old. The ball has “No. 2” stamped on the side but it is unclear if the stamp was on the ball when Lincoln handled it or if it was stamped on the side for reference years later. It came from the Lincoln Home in Springfield, where Lincoln lived with his family from 1844 until 1861.
The ball was found in the 1950s in a dresser drawer when Lincoln’s Springfield home was being restored. Smithsonian officials say the descendants of one of the men who played handball with Lincoln donated it to the Lincoln Home. A contemporary newspaper article verified that the ball was indeed one of those used by Lincoln to play handball in the alley. Personally, I have my doubts about the provenance of the Smithsonian’s Lincoln handball, but, for the purposes of this article, we’ll leave that alone for now.
There is one footnote about that handball you won’t find in the Smithsonian’s official literature. On May 18, 1860, while Lincoln was having a friendly neighborhood game of “fives” to calm his nerves, just a few blocks from the Wigwam, on the second night of the convention, the McVicker’s Theater just a few short blocks away was opening “Our American Cousin” -the play Lincoln would be watching at Ford’s Theater his last night on Earth.
z 6603301_3_lAlthough Assassin John Wilkes Booth was not in the production, he would appear at the McVicker’s 4 times in different productions between 1862 & 1863 while Mr. Lincoln was in the White House. Ironically, the McVickers Theatre was the very first place where actor Harry Hawk began theater work as a call boy, or stagehand. Hawk was the actor on stage alone at the moment of Lincoln’s assassination and likely uttered the last words Mr. Lincoln ever heard. Who knew a well worn piece of leather sports equipment could have so many connections?