Lincoln's Ford's Theater Rocking Chair

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James N.

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I recently returned from a trip to a place I'd heard about for a long time, Henry Ford's Greenfield Village and Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Now familiarly known only as The Henry Ford, this is a huge complex consisting of his large collection of original and reproduction historic structures and all the things that furnish them. The adjoining museum contains thousands of additional items, both small ( clocks and watches ) and HUGE ( a ca. 1940 Allegheny locomotive ), humble ( farm implements ) and heroic ( George Washington's camp bed ), all divided into appropriate collections or galleries. Among the various oddities, I was taken aback at this, which I instantly recognized and is one of the prized items in the museum.

Ford was fascinated by relics of the famous and powerful among America's heroes like Washington and his own contemporaries like Thomas Edison and Henry and Orville Wright. Of course, Abraham Lincoln should be represented in such a collection, and how better than by the rocking chair he was sitting in at Ford's Theater? A young docent was stationed nearby to tell visitors the story of the chair and how it came to be here. It seems the chair had been borrowed for the evening, so unlike other items in the theater that night was considered private property and was eventually returned to its owner, else Edwin Stanton might've ordered it destroyed. I remarked on the apparant bloodstain and was assured that was mainly from the hair tonic of the day and not the President's blood. ( He had fallen forward and into Mary's lap as I remember. ) The chair was acquired by the museum when it eventually came up for auction.

The other framed item displayed along with the chair is said to be a fragment of the costume dress worn onstage the night of the assassination by Laura Keene, star of the play Our American Cousin. ( Sorry for the poor quality of the accompanying photographs; my camera was having more than the usual trouble in the indirect lighting of the museum. )

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John Winn

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Thanks for the pictures. Way cool that you got to see that.

As for Laura Keene's dress, I don't know what the Ford museum says about it but I know it's seriously debated whether she had any contact with the president on the night of the assassination. She and one of her husbands made quite a bit about she having cradled the president's head but I've read (don't have any citations at hand) that such was more than unlikely. Still, a piece claimed to be hers is historic in its own right.
 
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My grandmother used to take me to Greenfield Village back in the late 50's and early 60's on a bi-weekly basis. I remember the Lincoln chair being roped of in a corner on the open floor and I'm pretty sure it had a folded shawl on the seat that Lincoln or his wife wore the evening of the assassination. Back then the shop at the museum used to sell original Confederate notes for next to nothing and unfortunately, after buying 2 0r 3 notes, I never thought they were that big of a deal so I never bought any more. I eventually traded them off for some baseball cards I wanted. I haven't been back to Greenfield Village since my grandmother died in the mid 60's however this thread has rekindled a desire to return there and once the weather turns decent up here I'll go.
 

James N.

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My grandmother used to take me to Greenfield Village back in the late 50's and early 60's on a bi-weekly basis. I remember the Lincoln chair being roped of in a corner on the open floor and I'm pretty sure it had a folded shawl on the seat that Lincoln or his wife wore the evening of the assassination. Back then the shop at the museum used to sell original Confederate notes for next to nothing and unfortunately, after buying 2 0r 3 notes, I never thought they were that big of a deal so I never bought any more. I eventually traded them off for some baseball cards I wanted. I haven't been back to Greenfield Village since my grandmother died in the mid 60's however this thread has rekindled a desire to return there and once the weather turns decent up here I'll go.
My visit was something of a farce weather-wise. We knew it was going to turn bad after a week of unseasonably warm temperatures I enjoyed while visiting War of 1812 and Custer sites around Monroe, Mich. and Toledo, Ohio; look for future threads. Stupidly the opening day of the entire season at Greenfield Village was on a Tuesday instead of Monday, during which we were indoors at the museum and its IMAX theater. Tuesday morning it was around 30 degrees with 3 - 4 inches of wet SNOW covering everything including the rented car. A cold north wind continued to drive down the temperature though thankfully all the snow eventually melted while we trudged through Greenfield hurrying from building to building.
 
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Thanks James. Here is a short piece of video I took early last year when I got my Kindle Fire. It shows just how small and intimate Ford's Theater is.
I visited it in August, 1964, on a graduation trip with my best friend Mike ( who I still vacation with now a half-century later! ) and the house as shown had yet to be restored. The basement had the Lincoln Museum in it and the boarding house across the street where he died was open for visitation, but the space now occupied by the theater was closed off. Sometime postbellum it had been converted into office space without properly shoring up the floors which eventually collapsed killing some of the workers; after that it was gutted and turned over to the NPS for use as a museum and eventually completely restored to its original configuration and appearance.
 

civilwarincolor

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A young docent was stationed nearby to tell visitors the story of the chair and how it came to be here. It seems the chair had been borrowed for the evening, so unlike other items in the theater that night was considered private property and was eventually returned to its owner, else Edwin Stanton might've ordered it destroyed. I remarked on the apparent bloodstain and was assured that was mainly from the hair tonic of the day and not the President's blood. ( He had fallen forward and into Mary's lap as I remember. ) The chair was acquired by the museum when it eventually came up for auction.
Thanks so much for the post. It sounds to me like the docent provided a much sanitized version of how the chair came to the museum.

After the assassination the theater was closed eventually purchased by the Federal Government for $100,000 including all contents (i.e. the chair). The chair originally was seized by the War department for protection as souvenir hunters began to ransack the theater for anything connected. The chair was placed into evidence at the trial of the conspirators and remained in the War department until 1867. At that time the Secretary of the Interior (O.H. Browning) requested the chair be transferred to his department, which it was.

The chair was then first publicly displayed at the patent office and exhibited until 1869 when they were transferred again, this time to the Smithsonian. The chair was placed in storage until 1893 when it was loaned to a Lincoln museum that had opened at the Petersen house where Lincoln had died. In 1897 it was returned to the Smithsonian and again placed in storage.

I have read, but cannot find details, that people were allowed to sit in the chair while it was on display at the patent office (and perhaps again) at the Petersen house. This use accounts for the damage to the seat & arms as well as the "hair tonic" that is often mistaken for blood on the chair.

Following the chairs return to the Smithsonian the curator, Theodore Belote, who was an ardent supporter of the Confederacy and much maligned Lincoln chose not to display an item that would show Lincoln as a martyr. Instead the chair languished until 1928 when Blanche Ford (widow of Harry Ford, brother of the theater owner John Ford) made a claim that the chair was not actually property of John Ford's and should not have been part of the sale of the theater. She contacted the Smithsonian and requested the chair be placed on display or returned to her.

Belote, being a Lincoln detractor, found this a very convenient way to disperse with the chair that he had despised anyway. He authorized the return of the chair and it was purchased for $2,400 by Israel Sack, a Boston antiques dealer for Henry Ford.

While I cannot prove it, I have suspected that Henry Ford (via Sack's) pressured Blanche Ford to lay claim to the chair so that it would again return to private hands and give Ford the opportunity to purchase it. I think Ford realized (and again this is my personal opinion, nothing else to go on) that the chair was legal property of the Federal Government and had more than 60 years. Since the Smithsonian (at that time) did not wish to display the chair he saw an opportunity to get it, but how?

By Blanche claiming that the chair was actually her husband's property (and not the theater's) there was a narrow window that would allow it to leave the Smithsonian. Using Israel Sacks (who's auction house still exists) as the conduit it kept the price from going out of control. My speculation here is that if people had realized that Henry Ford (one of the wealthiest men the the world at the time) was interested, the cost of the chair would have reached (for the time) record heights.

In 1929 the chair was delivered to the Henry Ford Museum where it has remained. The chair is sometimes shown with the shawl that Lincoln had to cover the wear on the chair.

You can see from my colorized version here that the chair was in terrific shape just after the assassination and that the stains in the upper/lower part of the chair are much smaller and barely visible (if at all). I have visited the Ford museum and they do a terrific job, but as with the bed that Lincoln died in (now on display in the Chicago History Museum) should be on display in Washington, either in their original locations, or in the Smithsonian.

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Thanks so much for the post. It sounds to me like the docent provided a much sanitized version of how the chair came to the museum...

I have visited the Ford museum and they do a terrific job, but as with the bed that Lincoln died in (now on display in the Chicago History Museum) should be on display in Washington, either in their original locations, or in the Smithsonian.
Possibly not so much "sanitized" as edited for time and "popular" consumption! I'll admit that from her version I got the idea the return was much closer in time to the assassination than the purchase by Henry Ford, but your speculation sounds highly likely. In fairness to Henry, once someone found out he was interested in a particular item the price was raised astronomically; I learned a good deal about his way of doing business in my several visits to and reading about one of his early ventures into this sort of collection/preservation regarding Longfellow's Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass. As far as the chair returning to Ford's Theater, that's probably unlikely and a bad idea since the theater is a current venue for productions in D.C. and unless the Presidential Box was given up for permanent display of the rocker it would be literally out-of-place anywhere else. I agree the bed could easily be returned to the Petersen House since it's a museum anyway, though I'm equally sure Chicago would never give it up.
 

civilwarincolor

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Possibly not so much "sanitized" as edited for time and "popular" consumption! I'll admit that from her version I got the idea the return was much closer in time to the assassination than the purchase by Henry Ford, but your speculation sounds highly likely. In fairness to Henry, once someone found out he was interested in a particular item the price was raised astronomically; I learned a good deal about his way of doing business in my several visits to and reading about one of his early ventures into this sort of collection/preservation regarding Longfellow's Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass. As far as the chair returning to Ford's Theater, that's probably unlikely and a bad idea since the theater is a current venue for productions in D.C. and unless the Presidential Box was given up for permanent display of the rocker it would be literally out-of-place anywhere else. I agree the bed could easily be returned to the Petersen House since it's a museum anyway, though I'm equally sure Chicago would never give it up.

I don't blame the docent, or the Ford Museum, they want a version of the story that is based on fact and makes their founder look good. I also think that Ford did a good thing (certainly for the time) by protecting this, as well as many other items from our past that America was ignoring. I was thrilled in my visit to the museum and Greenfield village to be able to walk from the Wright Brother's bicycle shop to Edison's laboratory. At the same time I found it sad that the people in the original locations are missing that part of their heritage.

Truth be told though, if Ford had not done this, much of those items may have just vanished, so without him there would be nothing. As for going through a middleman, if I was him, I would have done the same.

For the rocking chair, I agree that it would not be right to put it back in the President's box in the theater, it would be more appropriate (and accessible) in the museum basement along with all of the other memorabilia from the assassination. I do not expect that either the bed, or the chair will ever leave their current location or owners.

One last note on the bed, as I mentioned in my previous message the chair sold for $2,400 in 1929. The bed sold for $80! That was much closer to the time of the assassination, but still!

I can just imagine someone trying to offer it for sale on Pawn Stars - "Well it's nice, but I'm going to have to get someone to clean the blood off of it and then find some way to display it. It's going to take a lot of room in my store and I just don't have people coming in every day asking if I have the bed that Lincoln died in, so it's going to sit around a while. I'll give you $80, that's my top offer, take it or leave it."
 
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tdftdf

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Thanks for the pictures. Way cool that you got to see that.

As for Laura Keene's dress, I don't know what the Ford museum says about it but I know it's seriously debated whether she had any contact with the president on the night of the assassination. She and one of her husbands made quite a bit about she having cradled the president's head but I've read (don't have any citations at hand) that such was more than unlikely. Still, a piece claimed to be hers is historic in its own right.
I have also read about Keene cradling the president's head. There are conflicting reports from the eye-witnesses. The dress she wore, pieces of it with blood stains, have been preserved. I'd post a link, but i'm challenged to do so with this ipad of mine :-(
 

tdftdf

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Thanks so much for the post. It sounds to me like the docent provided a much sanitized version of how the chair came to the museum.

After the assassination the theater was closed eventually purchased by the Federal Government for $100,000 including all contents (i.e. the chair). The chair originally was seized by the War department for protection as souvenir hunters began to ransack the theater for anything connected. The chair was placed into evidence at the trial of the conspirators and remained in the War department until 1867. At that time the Secretary of the Interior (O.H. Browning) requested the chair be transferred to his department, which it was.

The chair was then first publicly displayed at the patent office and exhibited until 1869 when they were transferred again, this time to the Smithsonian. The chair was placed in storage until 1893 when it was loaned to a Lincoln museum that had opened at the Petersen house where Lincoln had died. In 1897 it was returned to the Smithsonian and again placed in storage.

I have read, but cannot find details, that people were allowed to sit in the chair while it was on display at the patent office (and perhaps again) at the Petersen house. This use accounts for the damage to the seat & arms as well as the "hair tonic" that is often mistaken for blood on the chair.

Following the chairs return to the Smithsonian the curator, Theodore Belote, who was an ardent supporter of the Confederacy and much maligned Lincoln chose not to display an item that would show Lincoln as a martyr. Instead the chair languished until 1928 when Blanche Ford (widow of Harry Ford, brother of the theater owner John Ford) made a claim that the chair was not actually property of John Ford's and should not have been part of the sale of the theater. She contacted the Smithsonian and requested the chair be placed on display or returned to her.

Belote, being a Lincoln detractor, found this a very convenient way to disperse with the chair that he had despised anyway. He authorized the return of the chair and it was purchased for $2,400 by Israel Sack, a Boston antiques dealer for Henry Ford.

While I cannot prove it, I have suspected that Henry Ford (via Sack's) pressured Blanche Ford to lay claim to the chair so that it would again return to private hands and give Ford the opportunity to purchase it. I think Ford realized (and again this is my personal opinion, nothing else to go on) that the chair was legal property of the Federal Government and had more than 60 years. Since the Smithsonian (at that time) did not wish to display the chair he saw an opportunity to get it, but how?

By Blanche claiming that the chair was actually her husband's property (and not the theater's) there was a narrow window that would allow it to leave the Smithsonian. Using Israel Sacks (who's auction house still exists) as the conduit it kept the price from going out of control. My speculation here is that if people had realized that Henry Ford (one of the wealthiest men the the world at the time) was interested, the cost of the chair would have reached (for the time) record heights.

In 1929 the chair was delivered to the Henry Ford Museum where it has remained. The chair is sometimes shown with the shawl that Lincoln had to cover the wear on the chair.

You can see from my colorized version here that the chair was in terrific shape just after the assassination and that the stains in the upper/lower part of the chair are much smaller and barely visible (if at all). I have visited the Ford museum and they do a terrific job, but as with the bed that Lincoln died in (now on display in the Chicago History Museum) should be on display in Washington, either in their original locations, or in the Smithsonian.

02964w.jpg
Thanks for the insight. I have often wondered why such a worn out looking chair would be used for the president.

In the early 90s, I made a trip to the Ford's museum - my highlight was of course this chair. Other highlights included a corked testtube (said to contain one of Thomas Edison's last breaths (saved per his request)), and I believe the limo JFK was shot in. In the mist of all these iconic items was a Ford Escort. What?!?! Turns out the Ford Escort was the all time best selling American car (at least at the time), and the Escort displayed was the first to roll off the assembly line (serial number 1 if I recall).
 
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civilwarincolor

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Thanks for the insight. I have often wondered why such a worn out looking chair would be used for the president.

In the early 90s, I made a trip to the Ford's museum - my highlight was of course this chair. Other highlights included a corked testtube (said to contain one of Thomas Edison's last breaths (saved per his request)), and I believe the limo JFK was shot in. In the mist of all these iconic items was a Ford Escort. What?!?! Turns out the Ford Escort was the all time best selling American car (at least at the time), and the Escort displayed was the first to roll off the assembly line (serial number 1 if I recall).
I have to admit it was a highlight of my trip the the museum as well. I have always had a keen interest in American History, but was not following the Civil War period specifically. At the time and did not realize that the chair was there. We really just went to see old cars.

That weekend they had a pre 1930 car rally and allowed owners to drive around in Greenfield village. It was great to see cars going back into the 1890's on the road driving around. Stumbling across the Lincoln chair (and Edison's last breath) was just a terrific bonus.

Still would like to see it back in the Smithsonian though.
 

tdftdf

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I have to admit it was a highlight of my trip the the museum as well. I have always had a keen interest in American History, but was not following the Civil War period specifically. At the time and did not realize that the chair was there. We really just went to see old cars.

That weekend they had a pre 1930 car rally and allowed owners to drive around in Greenfield village. It was great to see cars going back into the 1890's on the road driving around. Stumbling across the Lincoln chair (and Edison's last breath) was just a terrific bonus.

Still would like to see it back in the Smithsonian though.
I agree - it belongs in either the Smithsonian, or the museum in Ford's Theatre (same with the 'spool' death bed)
 
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