Saturday, April 15, 2017

My Private Tour of the Lincoln Library Vault in Springfield, on the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln's Funeral Train's Arrival in Illinois in 1865.

In March of 2015, when I judged for the Illinois History Day state finals for junior and senior High School student history fair projects and research papers, Pete Harbison, the Student Historian Program Coordinator, invited me to visit the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum to a private tour of the vault (which I found out later just doesn't happen) celebrating the 150th Anniversary of President Lincoln's Assassination on May 2, 2015, the date the Lincoln Funeral Train arrived in Springfield, Illinois.

When I arrived at the Lincoln Library, Pete and Dr. Samuel Wheeler, the Historian and Director of Research, Collections, and Library Services, were waiting for me. Dr. Wheeler was appointed in 2016 as Illinois State Historian until July 15, 2020, when the State fired him. 

The Inside Story of Abraham Lincoln’s Stovepipe Hats and the Downfall of Dr. Samuel Wheeler, Illinois State Historian.
Our first stop was the Library's research room. Here is where the public may request materials to study. Few books are on the shelves, so you must ask the librarian for the material you wish to see.
The thousands of Lincoln artifacts not displayed in the Museum are stored in the lower level of the Museum/Library. I was taken to a sub-level with 6 miles of movable, electronic filing shelves. I was told that most of the items stored here were waiting for research on the provenance of items.

The Preservation Department is a critical function of the Library. I was introduced to the staff and allowed to take photos as they worked on a different project.
This project was the removal of the scotch tape residue from a Lincoln document from the mid-1850s.
Another person was working on preserving the "Members of the House of Representatives of the thirteenth General Assembly of the State of Illinois" photo montage.

I was escorted into a small private conference room in the basement, where Sam left for a few minutes then came back pushing a cart with boxes and items on it. The painting and bronze statute below were in the conference room, along with some other historical artifacts that were never displayed to the public or were removed from the Museum for a change of exhibits.
I was privileged to photograph some of the items Sam brought out to show me, but not all of them. He told me that these were some of his personal favorite Lincoln items.

The first item is Lincoln's personal house key. The same house as the "Lincoln Home National Historic Site" at 426 South 7th Street in Springfield, where the Lincolns lived. I can just imagine Lincoln using this key every day!
The second item is Lincoln's travel shaving kit, which he took with him on his travels. Lincoln was clean-shaven when he began running for President. You see the kit open and the highly polished metal reflective surface (a crude mirror) Abraham would look into to shave. 
Lincoln grew a beard after receiving a letter from Grace Bedell, an 11-year-old girl from New York, in October 1860, a few weeks before the election. Lincoln responded to Bedell a few days later in a letter. Read the Letters Here.
Abraham Lincoln's first whiskers in 1860.
By growing a beard, Lincoln nearly bankrupted a young entrepreneur named Milton Bradley, who had a booming business selling daguerreotype photographs of the clean-shaven candidate. Bradley destroyed his supply of daguerreotypes and turned to designing board games to make a living. Milton Bradley invented his first board game, on a red-and-ivory checkerboard of sixty-four squares. He called it the Checkered Game of Life in 1860.

I was shown (no photos allowed) a beautiful Tiffany (from New York) heart pendant owned by Mary Todd Lincoln. On one side were perfect diamonds (of course - it's Tiffany, after all) covering the entire heart – on the reverse side was a single flawless heart-cut diamond, allowing you to view the spectrum of colors from the reverse side diamonds, making it nearly see-through. 

Now comes my favorite item. Again, no pictures were allowed. I saw a handwritten letter from Mary Todd Lincoln the day after Abe died, written on mourning stationery (black-bordered paper) where Mrs. Lincoln gives instructions (i.e., her last will and testament) about what she desired after her death. She thought her sorrow was so massive that she was going to die. 

The very first sentence stated that she should be in-state, in an open casket, for 48 hours. She was terrified of waking up after being pronounced dead after being buried.

Doctors some times didn't know if a patient was actually dead as medical technology wasn't very accurate yet. Sometimes, people were buried, by mistake, still alive (evendent by scratch marks or tattered fabric on the cover of the casket). To combat this issue with a backup system, people were buried with one end of a rope tied to their wrist. The other end of the tope was hooked to an above-ground bell. If the person awoke in the casket, they would pull on the rope, ringing the bell, summoning help to dig them up before they suffocated.
Hence the term"Dead-Ringer."

Last, but not least, I saw 1 of the 3 Lincoln surviving stovepipe hats. Dr. Wheeler told me they were researching the hat to determine its provenance. He told me it might be an early hat before Lincoln became President. It is made of beaver fur, whereas the other two surviving hats were silk-made. There were two worn spots on the brim where the fur had worn through. It is where Lincoln's fingers would grab the hat's brim to tip it in greetings.

Overall, it was a fantastic way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's assassination. Dr. Wheeler and I lunched at Maldaner's Restaurant, which opened in 1884. I met the owner, and he sat with us, discussing history. What a great day!


  1. Outstanding! Thank you for sharing. I just finished reading the book "Twenty Days" by Kunhardt & Kunhardt. Lincoln has always been a favorite reading subject for me. John J. Kornfeind originally from Freeport, Illinois site of the 2nd Lincoln Douglas Debate of 1858 and the resultant "Freeport Doctrine"

  2. According to there is no evidence for that origin of "dead ringer".

  3. Scratches found on the inside of coffins suggested that the occupants had erroneously been buried alive. To overcome this, a string would be tied to a finger of the person being buried and attached to a bell on the surface. If the bell rang, the person (who was obviously not dead) could be rescued. Of course, the resurfaced person would be identical to the person buried (it was the same person) and would be known as a dead ringer for the deceased.

  4. What an amazing opportunity you had to participate!
    Not only my favorite President but such interesting social tidbits about him and those time.
    Milton Bradley, the term “dead ringer”, how Mrs. Lincoln felt so devastated. Even to see the key!
    I LOVED going to see President Lincoln’s house every year with school and with my parents on our way to visit Belleville. I purposely would look for the loaf of bread in the kitchen and study the details of articles al dot to see if anyone moved them around. Thank you Neil! This was outstanding.

  5. Always an interesting read when Neal Gale posts the link. I find the key very cool and the story of the beard, I never heard that before. I remember making a Stove top hat in art class in grammar school.
    I’ll be using the Dead ringer info at work tomorrow.

  6. Very wise snd observant little 11 yr old girl. I got a chuckle out of that lol!! The description of the Tiffany jewel sounded absolutely beautiful!! I sure being an historian yourself, you were like a kid in a candy shop. Another great article. Thank Neil!

  7. Thoroughly enjoyed this piece. What a thrill it must have been to see the items and documents “from the vault.” Thank you, as always, for sharing.


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