A Curious-Looking Hero Still Mesmerizes the Nation

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

His bloodstained clothes, stovepipe hats and goatskin boots have been saved. The bed and mattress on which he died have been kept, along with the things in his pockets the night he was slain, and the dime-size bullet that killed him.

After he expired, his body was transported across the country so people could see him one last time. Then, decades later, he was exhumed, and his coffin was cut open to make sure he was really there.

As Washington prepares to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth Thursday, Abraham Lincoln is venerated as a national saint -- part man, part myth.

The remaining bits of him, locks of hair and pieces of bone among them, are sacred. Things he said or wrote are cherished. But he's still a mystery. "He's approachable and unreachable at the same time," said historian Harold Holzer. Lincoln said he detested slavery but would maintain it to save the Union. He spoke often of religion yet never joined a church. At the peak of his prestige, he was silenced by assassination.

"He compels us to learn more, but there's always something we're not going to get," Holzer said.

It is all part of the country's unique obsession with the martyred president who is perceived, historians say, as the epitome of an American: Born of the wilderness, near Hodgenville, Ky., and self-schooled by candlelight. He grew to be the savior of the Union, the foe of slavery and then was sacrificed on Good Friday night of 1865.

On Thursday, ceremonies marking Lincoln's birthday will be held at his memorial on the Mall. Ford's Theatre, where he was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, will stage a gala public reopening after a multimillion-dollar renovation. And Congress will salute him in the Capitol Rotunda, where his body once lay in state on a pine board bier, which we have also saved for 144 years. Even now, almost two centuries after his birth, physical traces of him are everywhere.

The Chicago Museum of History maintains a Lincoln Relics Registry that includes a comb, bed and the two half-dollars said to have been placed over his eyes after he died.

Louise Taper, the renowned California Lincoln collector, recently sold part of her holdings for an estimated $20 million to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, in Springfield, Ill. "I still have tons more," she said. "There's something magic about him."

"I'm obsessed," she said, noting that she once owned one of his stovepipe hats and his bloodstained gloves from Ford's Theatre. "I have a Lincoln sculpture garden. I'm totally hooked."

Such is Lincoln's grip on the country that the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission estimates that 16,000 books have been written about him since 1865.

Even President Obama has been touched: He used the Lincoln Bible at his inauguration last month and had replicated part of Lincoln's pre-inaugural train journey to Washington.

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