Artifacts from Lincoln's assassination now displayed at Ford's Theater

September 28, 1990|By Gregory Spears | Gregory Spears,Knight-Ridder

WASHINGTON -- The painful evidence of Abraham Lincoln's assassination -- from scraps of towel stained with his blood to pressed flowers from his coffin -- have been put on display for the first time in decades in the newly remodeled museum in Ford's Theater.

Using material earlier thought too gruesome to display, the U.S. Park Service this summer replaced a display chronicling Lincoln's rise from rail splitter to president with a chilling examination of his assassination and its aftermath.

Locks of Lincoln's hair and the blood-stained shirt cuff of a doctor who treated Lincoln's wound now are on exhibit in Ford's Theater, where Lincoln was fatally shot during a performance of "Our American Cousin" on April 14, 1865.

Even 125 years after his death, many visitors say the exhibit gives them a fresh sense of loss.

"You go in here and you bless yourself," said George Popielarski, a Brooklyn, N.Y., lawyer who visited the museum this week. "You think about a man being assassinated. ... You do get a patriotic, religious feeling."

Last year, 800,000 visitors toured the theater or the Petersen House across the street, where Lincoln died in a cramped back bedroom at 7:22 the next morning without ever regaining consciousness.

The long knives of the conspirators and the stubby derringer that actor and Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth fired point blank into the back of Lincoln's head were on display before. But they have been brought out of a dimly lighted side room into the main exhibit space in the theater's basement.

The museum's earlier exhibit, which was in place for 20 years, downplayed Lincoln's assassination, said Frank Hebblethwaite, a museum technician who helped organize the new exhibit.

"People thought these things were too gruesome to be right out in the open, and yet [visitors] wanted to see them," Hebblethwaite said. Most of the artifacts in the permanent exhibit, which opened in June, have been in the archives for decades.

The upright cases in the basement of Ford's Theater detail Lincoln's assassination and track Booth's 12-day flight and eventual capture in a northern Virginia tobacco shed, in which he was mortally wounded.

The trial and execution of Booth's conspirators is detailed, along with the 1,600-mile procession of Lincoln's funeral train that bore his body back to Springfield, Ill., for burial.

"Part of what we're trying to show people now is exactly how big an event this was, an almost cataclysmic event in the history of this country," said Hebblethwaite.

Nearly one-quarter of the U.S. population at that time -- more than seven million Americans -- saw his funeral train, and one million filed past his open coffin at viewings in Washington; Baltimore; Harrisburg, Pa.; Philadelphia; Albany, N.Y.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Cleveland; Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis, Chicago and Springfield.

Artifacts of the tragic events became treasured relics passed down in families, Hebblethwaite said, and form much of the current collection of 6,000 items. Tickets to Lincoln's White House funeral, black tassels taken from the drapery over his coffin, even a handle from his coffin are on view.

The family of Dr. Charles A. Leale, the first doctor to reach Lincoln after he was shot, loaned his blood-stained shirt cuff to the museum.

"He said it was very sacred," said Leale's granddaughter, Helen Leale Harper Jr., of Pelham, N.Y. "As soon as he got back into his quarters he removed the shirt cuffs -- he just tore them right off -- and he saved them."

The black Brooks Brothers suit and overcoat Lincoln had on when he was shot were obtained for the museum from the descendants of a White House doorkeeper,

Ford's Theater National Historic Site at 511 10th St. N.W. and the Petersen House where Lincoln died at 516 10th St. N.W. are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Christmas. There is no admission fee. The theater is closed to tours when rehearsals or matinees are in progress, generally on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, but the Lincoln Museum in the theater's basement remains open. For more information call (202) 347-4833.

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