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Lincoln is assassinated at Ford's Theatre by John Wilkes Booth, April 14, 1865

Lincoln is assassinated at Ford's Theatre by John Wilkes Booth, April 14, 1865

On the morning of April 15, 1865, the day Abraham Lincoln died, someone emptied his pockets. These contents were put in a box which was then wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string. The box was then handed to Abraham’s oldest son Robert Lincoln who was at his father’s deathbed. Robert Lincoln then passed the box on to his daughter, Mary Lincoln Isham, who donated the box to the Library of Congress in 1937. Labeled “Do Not Open,” the mystery box was tucked away in a vault in the Librarian’s office and forgotten for almost four decades.

Finally, in 1975, then Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin decided to open the box. With staff looking on in eager anticipation, Boorstin untied the string, tore off the brown paper, and opened the box.

Lincoln assassination artifacts: contents of Lincoln's pockets the night he was murdered (left) and copy of a newspaper announcing the assassination (right)

Lincoln assassination artifacts: contents of Lincoln's pockets the night he was murdered (left) and copy of a newspaper announcing the assassination (right)

The night Lincoln was murdered at Ford’s Theatre, he was carrying: 

  • a pair of small spectacles folded into a silver case,
  • a pair of reading glasses,
  • a small velvet eyeglass cleaner (I can’t find above),
  • an ivory pocketknife trimmed with silver,
  • a large linen handkerchief with “A. Lincoln” stitched in red,
  • a tiny pencil ( I can’t find above),
  • a brass sleeve button,
  • a fancy watch fob, and
  • a brown leather wallet lined with purple silk. It contained a Confederate five-dollar bill bearing the likeness of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and 8 newspaper clippings Lincoln had cut out and saved. All of the clippings praised him. (2)
  •  These artifacts were put on display at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C, in 1976, the year of our nation’s 200th birthday and are still on view today. Though only everyday items, the contents of Lincoln’s pockets are among the items visitors to the Library most often ask to see.

    Here’s a close-up of Lincoln’s reading glasses, broken at the left hinge and mended with a bit of string. Frugal Abe wore rickety reading glasses while, in contrast, extravagant Mary had a collection of 300 pairs of gloves.

    Abraham Lincoln's reading glasses

    Abraham Lincoln's reading glasses

     

    (1) Freedman, Russell. Lincoln: A Photobiography. (New York: Clarion Books, 1987)
    (2) Fleming, Candace. The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary.  (New York: Random House, Inc., 2008)

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