Lincoln's chair at Ford's Theatre took winding journey to Michigan

Abraham Lincoln was sitting in this chair at Ford's Theatre when he was assassinated.
Abraham Lincoln was sitting in this chair at Ford's Theatre when he was assassinated. (Courtesy Of The Library Of Congress)
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By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 9:24 PM

I grew up in Dearborn, Mich., home of the Henry Ford museum and Greenfield Village. Every time I visit the museum, I can't help but notice that one of the main attractions is the chair in which Abraham Lincoln was sitting that fateful night. I know money talks in a lot of circles, but can you tell me how a treasure like that escaped from D.C. and got into Henry's hands?

- Jim Donley, Bethesda

Some time before the April 14, 1865, performance of "Our American Cousin," Joe Simms, a Ford's Theatre employee, carried a lushly upholstered rocking chair into what was to become the presidential box. The chair belonged to theater manager Harry Clay Ford and was among items moved in to make the presidential party more comfortable.

After the assassination, Ford's Theatre was seized by the War Department. It was a crime scene, after all. Guards were posted on 10th Street and outside the ill-fated box. On April 22, Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana ordered the Army to remove the chair. Dana had heard that it had been "much clipped and mutilated by persons desirous of carrying away pieces of it as relics." (Dana also ordered the imprisonment of whomever had been in charge of securing the presidential box.)

After the trial of the surviving conspirators - at which the rocker was introduced as evidence - the question that would be asked many times was asked for the first time: What should be done with the death chair?

In January 1867, the War Department sent it to the Department of the Interior. Interior Secretary O.H. Browning acknowledged receipt of the chair, writing, "It will afford me satisfaction to have the Chair deposited in the proper place, among other relics, in this Department for safekeeping."

Soon after, the chair - along with the stovepipe hat Lincoln wore to the theater that night - were put on display at the Patent Office building. They were exhibited for only a year or two, and in 1869 the two items were delivered to the Smithsonian. They were kept in storage, their exact whereabouts a closely held secret.

In 1893 the chair was sent to a museum that Union veteran and Lincolniana collector Osborn Oldroyd opened at 516 10th St. NW, the house in which Lincoln died. There it stayed for the next four years. It was returned to the Smithsonian, where in 1902 it finally received an official accession number - 38912 - and was catalogued in the Department of Anthropology.

Lincoln's hat became the subject of a celebrated lawsuit when the descendants of Phineas Gurley, the minister who delivered the president's eulogy, sued to take possession of it. They said Mary Todd Lincoln gave the hat to the minister. Although that was apparently true, the Smithsonian was able to persuade a judge that the historical significance of the hat meant it should stay in the museum's custody. (It's on exhibit at the National Museum of American History.)

Wouldn't the chair be just as iconic? Perhaps, but it remained in storage. Then, in 1928, Blanche Chapman Ford, the widow of Harry Clay Ford, wrote to the Smithsonian. Was it true, she asked, that they had the chair, and if so, "Will you kindly tell me why it is not on exhibition?" She added that if it was not of use to the museum she would like to have it.

Smithsonian curator Theodore Belote responded that it was the museum's policy not to show objects "directly connected with such a horrible and deplorable event." Perhaps, but Brian Daniels, a Smithsonian Archives research associate who has studied the circuitous history of the chair and hat, thinks there was another reason: Belote, the racist son of Maryland slave owners, was not especially fond of Lincoln. He was happy to see the chair go.

"It shows how important curators are in the process of thinking about historical treasures," Brian told Answer Man.

In the spring of 1929, Blanche Ford's son George collected the chair. That December it was on the auction block, selling for $2,400 to Israel Sack, a Boston antiques dealer who conveyed it to Henry Ford for his new museum.

"This is the chair that embodies a transformative moment in time for America and indeed the world," said Christian Overland , vice president of the Henry Ford museum.

"It kind of is like the one that got away," Daniels said.

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