In Touch With Lincoln's Last Hours

Gloria Swift, a Civil War expert and Ford's Theatre museum curator, with the greatcoat that Abraham Lincoln wore to the theater the night he was assassinated.
Gloria Swift, a Civil War expert and Ford's Theatre museum curator, with the greatcoat that Abraham Lincoln wore to the theater the night he was assassinated. "It is very chilling in some cases, knowing what you're handling," she said. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 7, 2007

The square-toed, goatskin boots that Abraham Lincoln had on that night at Ford's Theatre were worn down at the heels.

His long, black frock coat was unadorned. Its buttons were of plain gray metal.

And most of what he wore as he sat in the private box on Good Friday of 1865 comes down to us still stained with his blood.

Yesterday, under police escort, the National Park Service transported the assassinated president's clothing and other items from the Ford's Theatre museum to a Park Service storage center in Maryland, where they will remain while the theater undergoes an 18-month renovation.

But before the items went onto the shelves -- and out of public view for a year and a half -- curators provided an up-close glimpse of garments linked to one of the most tragic moments in American history.

One by one, Gloria Swift, a Civil War expert and the curator of the museum, opened the acid-free boxes in which she and others had packed the clothes Lincoln was wearing when he was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865.

Wearing white cotton gloves, she carefully removed the layers of white tissue in which the articles were placed.

The president's black silk tie emerged, with the trim bow in front. "Isn't that incredible?" Swift said.

Then came his black cotton vest, with six buttons and four pockets.

And his shin-high boots. "Aren't these beautiful?" Swift said. "Lincoln has a modern-day size-14 shoe." The president stood about 6 feet 4 inches tall.

Swift had meticulously removed the clothes from the life-size mannequin on which they are displayed in the museum.

"It was really neat to get the clothing off and really look at it," she said. Of Lincoln's black broadcloth pants, she said: "I didn't notice, we've got some bloodstains here on the knees, and I never noticed that, as it was in the [display] case." The thinking is that the president slumped forward after being mortally wounded in the back of the head, she said.

There are bloodstains, too, on the black, double-breasted frockcoat he wore that evening as he sought to relax, with the four anguished years of the Civil War coming to a close. The coat buttons are plain. "There's no adornment," Swift said. "There's nothing presidential. This is your typical well-dressed man's suit of 1865."

And blood is on the overcoat that curators think was over the president's shoulders or the back of his chair. The coat was made for Lincoln's second inauguration, Swift said. Embroidered in the black lining are an eagle, shields and the words, "One Country, One Destiny."

"It's almost undescribable," Swift said of touching Lincoln's clothing. "It is very chilling in some cases, knowing what you're handling."

"And it's also very exciting," she said. "Because to me the objects are a true connection to the past. . . . They're not just things. These are real items [linked] to a real story."

Pamela Beth West, director of the Park Service's 52,000-square-foot National Capital Region Museum Resource Center, where the artifacts will be kept, said: "We deal with this stuff day in and day out. And every once in a while you take that moment to pause, and you do something like this, and sometimes it's almost overwhelming."

Marius Horgos, a member of the moving crew from Interstate Worldwide Relocation and a native of Romania, said his palms were sweaty as he watched the clothing unboxed. "I've traveled a lot in Europe and the United States, too," he said. "But Lincoln is a very special figure. He freed the African American people. Even my voice is shaking."

Thomas Blichard, another member of the moving crew, said: "I've got two grandsons, and I'll be able to tell them both I've seen it with my own two eyes. This is a historical day for me."


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