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Lincoln Group Goes Behind the Scenes at the Smithsonian

By David J. Kent

Washington, D.C.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Lincoln Group of DC members at Smithsonian
Left to right: Rod Ross, Wendy Swanson, Debbie Jackson, Jon Willen, Ed Epstein, Craig Howell, Janet Saros, David J. Kent

Jon Willen is vice president of programs for the Lincoln Group of DC. He's also a docent at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. He recently had the opportunity to see some of the Abraham Lincoln-related artifacts and was so impressed tht he followed up by arranging a similar behind-the-scenes tour for other Lincoln Group members.

Because of space constraints in the staff areas, participation was limited to eight members of the LGDC board. We met at the Constitution Avenue entrance to the museum, where we were joined by curator Bethanee Bemis who guided us to a fourth-floor location that only a select group of Smithsonian curators are allowed to enter.

Upon entering the humidity-controlled room, we were instructed to sign into the visitor logbook and informed that photographs of the secure space were not allowed. Later we were allowed to photograph some of the artifacts directly but were told we could not post them online. Hence why this post does not contain photos of any of the amazing artifacts we were able to see.

And they were amazing. There were the life masks made from Lincoln's face in 1860 and 1865, showing how the strain of war had worn on him. We learned that the original plaster mask from 1865 was used only once, making the bronze mask (which we also saw) that was subsequently used to make additional copies. We also saw the pocket watch Lincoln wore through most of his presidency. The watch had an interesting story revealed only in 2009. With all the publicity of Lincoln's birthday bicentennial, a descendant of the watchmaker who periodically cleaned Lincoln's watch said there was a family tradition that he had etched something inside the watch casing. Opening the watch revealed that it was true! Not only was there one etched inscription with a date, there a second, and someone even scratched in "Jeff. Davis," a fact Lincoln surely did not know.

Both Jon and Bethanee noted that one artifact was their mutual favorite - the shirt cuff Dr. Leale cut off for posterity after coming to Lincoln's aid after he was shot in Ford's Theatre. Dried blood is clearly seen on the cuff.

Other items included a teacup from the infamous Lincoln china collection (probably rescued by a staffer the night of the assassination); an iron wedge Lincoln used in New Salem to split rails (up close you can see the initials "AL" Lincoln etched into the side); and wrist and ankle shackles used on the conspirators during their imprisonment and trial. One of the more macabre items were the heavy hoods used on the conspirators.

Afterward the hour-long tour, LGDC members posed in the main lobby of the NMAH for the photo shown above. Most of the group then enjoyed lunch in the basement cafeteria, where we discussed the many ongoing Lincoln Group of DC projects and brainstormed ideas for future events.

I want to thank Jon Willen for arranging this opportunity. We'll be looking for more chances to bring special events to a larger number of Lincoln Group members.

In fact, we have one coming up soon - all are welcome to join us for our annual holiday luncheon at Maggiano's Little Italy restaurant in Chevy Chase on Tuesday, December 5th! In addition to an amazing meal and some holiday cheer, we'll be joined by Lincoln and Booth expert Terry Alford, who will regale us with stories of how spiritualism entered both the houses of both families. Check out the events page and register (and prepay) for the luncheon now!


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