Relics of the dead, collected and traded since prehistoric times, have a primeval hold on our psyches. The potency of the Lincoln assassination relics is compounded by the presence of blood, a common denominator that instantly humanizes our preeminent American icon. Are these talismans genuine or forgeries, and what can we learn from this process of discovery?

The Lincoln relics open a window into Civil War America, and reveal the compelling stories of men and women caught in the maelstrom of the assassination.

These tangible fragments of the past evoke the tragedies of Mary Lincoln, Clara Harris, and Henry Rathbone, and reveal Laura Keene's and Elizabeth Keckly's proud struggle for independence. They embody the opportunism of William Petersen, Charles Forbes, and Charles Gunther, and the idealism of Civil War veterans. Sensationalism, inaccuracies, and outright fraud undoubtedly compromise the historical record of these artifacts. The scientists' lens can help historians focus on the shards of original evidence amid this historical debris, revealing new facts that are more powerful than the enduring myths.

Mary Lincoln's ready-made cloak, "wet with blood" from the turmoil of Civil War America, is a fitting metaphor for a nation coming to terms with unprecedented violence and rapid industrialization.

Whether or not the investigators determine the origins of the stains on the Chicago Historical Society's cloak, they have discovered new avenues of exploration and revealed the intricate processes of historical and scientific authentication.

The Chicago Historical Society is grateful to the many organizations and individuals who have so generously contributed to the investigation, which has been characterized by an unusual degree of professional collaboration. Illuminated by the lamps of powerful microscopes, the fascination of the Lincoln assassination relics remains undiminished.

Cloak attributed to Mary Todd Lincoln. (CHS 1920.976); frock coat allegedly worn by Abraham Lincoln (CHS 1924.40).

The Lincoln assassination relics are an indelible record of tragedy and transformation. A profound sense of national disorder spurred the frenzied crowds that descended on Ford's Theatre and the Petersen's house, ripping paper from the walls and prying splinters from the floor. The mementos they hoarded included ready-made clothing and early semi-synthetic plastics, products of the industrial age that was rapidly altering America. While many relics were genuine keepsakes, others were manufactured for the brisk trade in Lincolniana that began with the commercialization of the president's funeral.

Mary Todd Lincoln in 1861 (ICHi-11228; wallpaper, keys, and molding purportedly removed from Ford's Theatre after Lincoln's assassination; White House drapery fragments collected while Lincoln lay in state in the East Room (CHS XA-1209).
The investigation of the Chicago Historical Society's cloak reveals the continuing fascination of the assassination relics.

They dip their napkins in his sacred blood;
Yea, beg a hair of him for memory,
And, dying, mention it within their wills,
Bequeathing it, as a rich legacy,
Unto their issue. (
TARBELL 251)

Abraham Lincoln, c. 1860, Alexander Hesler (ICHi-20265). "Deathbed" pillow fragment (right) and"death towel" (far right) attributed to Abraham Lincoln.
Frontispiece from Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, Elizabeth Keckly, 1868 (ICHi-30945).