Saturday, May 12, 2018

Flashback: Lincoln relic or just old hat?

Abraham Lincoln, by Alexander Gardner (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     My former colleague, Ray Long, reports in the Tribune that the financially-troubled Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield is considering unloading some of its stuff. I've never been a fan of the library, which cast itself as more of a cut-rate Disneyland for downstate rubes than a serious institution dedicated to scholarship, and their intellectual laziness over their expensive piece of old haberdashery is a perfect example of why. Long puts its this way: 

        "The Taper collection included a beaver fur stovepipe hat that library officials are satisfied that Lincoln wore, though some critics are not convinced there is empirical evidence of an attachment to Honest Abe."   
      Which to my ear is a study in understatement, akin to, "Many critics consider 'Harry Potter' to be a work of fiction." The moment I heard the topper might be up for sale, I thought of this old column. Let's put it this way: were I you, I would think twice before spending too much for that hat. 

     People lie. They dissemble and prevaricate. They fool themselves and others.
     The history of fraud is long. One of the best passages in Loyal Rue's "By the Grace of Guile: The Role of Deception in Natural History and Human Affairs" involves the explosive popularity of holy relics in the Middle Ages: 

Response to the 'discovery' of these relics was so intense that even more spectacular finds followed: the staff of Moses, manna from the wilderness, the bodies of Samuel the prophet, St. Peter, St. Paul, Mary Magdalene, hanks of hair from the Virgin Mary, vials of her milk, blood from the birth of Jesus, pieces of the cross, the crown of thorns . . . eventually there were enough fragments of the cross about to build a battleship, and enough of the Virgin's milk to sink it.
     Just as those who "found" these relics had to deal with impolite questions—such as "How did Mary Magdalene's body come to be buried in France?"—so possessors of more recent relics go through contortions trying to justify their venerated objects. In the wake of Dave McKinney's stories in the Sun-Times, it has been joy to watch the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield shimmy, trying to escape the obvious conclusion: that no real evidence links the top hat they claim was worn by Lincoln to the 16th president. 
     Yes, it is his size, and yes, it comes from the Springfield hat shop that Lincoln patronized. But to accept that as proof of anything is to believe that every 7 1/8 hat sold in Springfield back then must have belonged to Lincoln. That's like saying that every sandal from Roman times was worn by Jesus.
     The library claimed, at first, the hat was given to an Illinois farmer, William Waller, during one of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. This ran into a problem when the Sun-Times pointed out a 1958 affidavit claiming that the hat was given to Waller "during the Civil War in Washington." Now they had two stories, a conflict, like the three churches that each claimed to own a head of John the Baptist.
     We need to remember that, as with holy relics, Lincoln memorabilia is an area famous for fraud and forgery—I once watched as the late Ralph Newman, a renowned Lincoln expert, dashed off a convincing Lincoln signature, to show how easily it could be done.
     In November, Dominican University gave a seminar, "Lincoln Fakes & Forgeries," where speakers addressed deception in the wake of a portrait that for decades was thought to be of Mary Lincoln but turned out to be a fake.
     "Not just paintings, but handwriting, photographs, printed documents, stories, and supposed family relics of the Lincolns have been passed off as authentic since Mr. Lincoln became president," the university noted. "Some of these items show chutzpah; some show greed; and some, a sincere yearning to be associated with greatness."
     These words were printed next to a photo of James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Lincoln Presidential Library, who spoke at the seminar. Thinking he must be an expert in this, I phoned him, and had one of the more unpleasant conversations I've had with anyone in recent years.
      "I've already said all I have to say," he snapped. He must be referring to his limp remark to Dave McKinney that the hat's provenance "cannot be proven or disproven."
      I hope they engrave that on the plaque. Cornelius did not sound like a confident man in proud possession of a national treasure. He sounded like a man running from truth.
     "If this hat came into my shop with that story, to be consigned, I wouldn't do it because I could not prove it," said Dan Weinberg, owner of Abraham Lincoln Book Shop.
      I can see why the Lincoln Presidential Library folks are snarly—they spent millions on an old hat whose link to the 16th president is at best notional. (The whispered, more-likely story is that the hat morphed into a Lincoln relic 50 years ago, during the Civil War centennial). That can't be helped now without going back in time, and the proper time travel technology just isn't here yet.
     What happens next is what worries me. The museum is committed to passing off the hat as genuine, perverting the idea of historic scholarship. We cannot tolerate that. My late colleague, Steve Neal, insisted that qualified professionals run the library. He fought to keep it from being a nest of George Ryan cronies. It is sad that it takes a Chicago newspaper, again, to remind them that, as tempting as it is to tap dance around their mistake, they risk turning the museum into a P.T. Barnum cabinet of dubious wonders. And once they go down that slippery road, the sky's the limit. If they display this hat as Lincoln's own now, someday they'll be displaying feathers from Lincoln's angelic wings collected in heaven. The millions wasted are still too cheap a price to sell our state's soul.
     "You have to be true to history if you're going to be in this business," said Weinberg.
     Do we honor Lincoln by fetishizing this expensive old hat? Or by being true to history?

                           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 27, 2013


  1. Neil - You have a lot of downstate readers who admire your writing. Lincoln himself was a downstater. As was Carl Sandburg. And Edgar Lee Masters. And David Foster Wallace. And right across the river was Samuel Clemens. A rural accent is often mistaken for a lack of cognitive precision. Urban people make this mistake at their own peril. Downstaters might be deficient in cynicism, but otherwise they do quite well in the wisdom department. Downstate "rubes"? I don't think so.

    Keep up the great work.

    1. Point taken Dennis, though I didn't mean that to be an indictment of the whole. If I, oh, say that an Al Capone museum is catnip for "ignorant Chicagoans nostalgic for 1920s gang murder" I am not implying that describes ALL Chicagoans. Besides, Lincoln himself was no sophisticate, as he would be the first to admit.

  2. I certainly agree that the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Library is a farcical organization, which paid too much for too little and richly deserves to go broke. However, my concern is more fundamental: why the hell do we care about the authenticity of these modern day relics. The relics of yesteryear were endowed (by the credulous masses) with magical powers. Surely, we 21st Century sophisticates don't think that a genuine Abe LIncoln hat will confer something Lincolnish on its owners that a faux hat would not. Likewise, with autographed baseballs and the like -- what earthly difference does it make if Babe Ruth signed a baseball or a scorecard or whatnot or if some flunky signed it? There's a bitcoinish flavor to this, don't you think. I pay a million for a Babe Ruth baseball so I can sell it to someone else for 2 million. But is there an intrinsic value to a baseball or a stovepipe hat beyond that? Or is it back to magic?


  3. Good to re-read this; Lincoln would surely approve.

    The answer to your question is, of course, that we should always be true to history. It's been struggle enough keeping the truth alive in our present; let's at least try to keep our history factual.


  4. They spent millions on that hat? Really? Whoever received those millions, he or she must be laughing his or her ass off.


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