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.

Jane Gastineau pic

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