A pocketful of memories of Lincoln

July 18, 1995|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Correspondent

Washington -- Six score and 10 years ago, as the great man lay dying, an anonymous mourner carefully emptied his pockets -- perhaps suspecting their contents might offer some insight into the long, lean figure who had just led his country through a Civil War.

Surely, he must have realized the irony: The only money Abraham Lincoln had on him that night was a Confederate $5 bill.

Yesterday, in the basement of the theater where Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday 1865, those items -- the bill, a pair of eyeglasses, a pocketknife, a cuff button, a linen handkerchief, a wallet, a handful of newspaper clippings, a watch fob -- were put on display for only the second time ever.

"The common possessions of this very uncommon man," as National Park Service Chief Historian Dwight Pitcaithley referred to them yesterday, were handed to Lincoln's eldest son, Robert Todd, after his father died in a house across the street from the theater. In 1937, they were presented to the Library of Congress by Robert's daughter, Mary Lincoln Isham. There they remained under lock and key, stored inside a leather box and exhibited only during the American Bicentennial celebration in 1976.

"From the Pockets of a President," displayed inside a climate-controlled glass case under subdued lighting, marks the first time the items have returned to Ford's Theatre since their owner was murdered. And while the exhibit is only set to run through October, the staff at Ford's is happy to plug what has been an oft-mentioned gap in their basement display.

"We get a lot of questions about these objects," said museum curator S. Marshal Kesler. "People say they ought to be here. They'll say, 'You've got the suit, you've got the gun.' "

The items proved a big hit with the 200 tourists and invited guests at Ford's yesterday. "It's like actually touching the past," said Bert Hebb, who was visiting from Harper's Ferry, W.Va., "like going into a time machine."

Robert White of Baltimore, a collector whose holdings include another wallet owned by Lincoln (the one on exhibit at Ford's is in such good shape, he said, because Lincoln had received it as a birthday present just two months before his death), said people feel more impassioned about history when they can actually see it. No written word, he said, can have the same impact.

"I got all A's in history in high school," he said, "thanks to a teacher who taught us about President Grant by bringing in his hat to show us."

The Ford's Theatre items are themselves nothing special, but jibe well with an American mythology that has turned Lincoln into the quintessential folk hero. Only the handkerchief is monogrammed, the name "A. Lincoln" stitched in red thread. The eyeglasses are like thousands of pairs manufactured at the time, although this pair, repaired with a piece of string, retains a certain poignancy -- like many who wear wire-rimmed glasses, Abraham Lincoln had the screw that holds the frame together fall out, and was forced to improvise. The watch fob, without an accompanying watch or even chain, suggests a man loath to throw anything out that may someday come in handy.

The newspaper clippings -- copies of five of the eight found inside the wallet are on display -- probably speak most eloquently of the man. Predictably, some include news of the war, including details of Sherman's march on Atlanta. And several suggest that Lincoln, who often had been vilified for his handling of the war, liked to keep good news close at hand: There's an account of the declining morale among Confederate soldiers, a letter in which a disgruntled Confederate soldier asks that he be "banished" to the North, and an article by British reformer John Bright reporting that only Southern sympathizers among the British support Gen. George McClellan, the man Lincoln beat when he was re-elected in 1864.

Another suggests that Lincoln may have been a bit insecure and liked to be reminded that some people thought he was doing a good job: An account of a Philadelphia speech by famed minister Henry Ward Beecher has him saying, "Abraham Lincoln may be a great deal less testy and willful than Andrew Jackson, but in a long race, I do not know but that he will be equal to him."

Rev. Beecher's comparison of Lincoln to the revered Old Hickory, the paper reported, was met by "a storm of applause that . . . seemed as if it would never cease."

Over a century later, the passion Americans feel for Abraham Lincoln lingers. Witness Kevin Walsh, an excited 8-year-old from San Francisco who visited Ford's Theatre yesterday with his father, Dan.

"He was the president of the United States, I think," Kevin said when asked about Abraham Lincoln. "He got shot while sitting down. His wife was sitting on a couch I saw. He died in a house across the street, although he was only there about 10 seconds."

"That's 10 hours," his father corrected him with a smile. Kevin, he said, "is so overwhelmed by all this, he can't stand still."

LINCOLN EXHIBIT

What: "From the Pockets of a President"

Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. N.W., Washington

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through October

Admission: Free

Call: (202) 426-6924

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