Textile Experts Say Lincoln's Coat Shouldn't See Light of Day

Before President Abraham Lincoln's clothes were stored in September 2007 for Ford's Theatre's renovation, museum curator Gloria Swift provided another glimpse of his blood-stained coat.
Before President Abraham Lincoln's clothes were stored in September 2007 for Ford's Theatre's renovation, museum curator Gloria Swift provided another glimpse of his blood-stained coat. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 19, 2008

The exhibit would be haunting: the famous bloodstained overcoat President Abraham Lincoln was wearing at Ford's Theatre the night he was assassinated, placed on display under protective glass in the lobby of the renovated theater for the world to see.

Visitors could view it up close. Passersby could glimpse it from the street 24 hours a day. And the coat, its lining embroidered with the phrase "One Country, One Destiny," would be a moving symbol of the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth next year.

But now some textile conservators are worried that the hallowed garment might be too fragile to return to full-time display when the theater reopens in February, and instead ought to be sheltered for the good of posterity.

Light and gravity can doom historic clothing, they say. And the Brooks Brothers coat, like other Lincoln garments, had been on almost continuous display from the time they were acquired in 1968 until Ford's was closed for renovation last year, officials said.

"It might be that it's time to put these things away and not to exhibit them to the public if there's any hope of saving them for future generations," said Cathy Heffner, president of Textile Preservation Associates, who said she examined the clothes for the National Park Service last month.

The concern illustrates an ongoing debate over the display of national treasures: the desire to preserve items for posterity vs. the right of citizens to experience them.

"At what point do you take an artifact and . . . just lock it away in a dungeon and never let anyone see it?" asked Paul R. Tetreault, the theater's producing director. "What value does it have if in fact the people who actually own it never get to see it?"

For now, the National Park Service and the Ford's Theatre Society, which jointly operate the site on 10th Street NW, said plans to display Lincoln's overcoat in the lobby and his frock coat, pants, waistcoat and tie in the new theater museum in the basement have not changed.

"We are still proceeding forward as planned," Tetreault said. "We are taking every precaution out there."

Lincoln was shot in the head at Ford's on April 14, 1865, by actor John Wilkes Booth, who was angry that the South had lost the Civil War. The president died the next morning in a house across the street.

The clothes are said to have been given by the widowed Mary Todd Lincoln to Alphonso Donn, a former District police officer who served as a White House doorkeeper.

Mrs. Lincoln often gave away clothing and other personal items after a loved one died as a part of her grieving, experts have said.


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