On April 15, 1865, as surgeons in the White House conducted the autopsy on Abraham Lincoln’s body, the dead president’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, sent in a messenger requesting a lock of her husband’s hair.
The president’s physician, Robert K. Stone, reached over and clipped a lock from a spot near the head wound that had killed the chief executive and gave it to the messenger. Others in the room made the same request, and other locks were clipped, according to historical accounts.
On Wednesday, one of those specimens — which had been kept in a bank vault for almost a quarter-century — was donated by its owner to Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
The small sheaf of hair is framed along with a faded, stained, handwritten note stating that it was given by Stone to the Baltimore businessman and philanthropist Enoch Pratt.
“This is one of those special objects that gives you the chills when you see it,” said park superintendent Bob Kirby, according to a park statement.
He said it will become part of the collection in the new, state-of-the-art Gettysburg museum later this year.
The artifact is estimated to be worth $35,000 to $50,000, said Sam Small, one of the owners of the Horse Soldier, a military memorabilia shop in Gettysburg, who did an appraisal of the lock Friday.
But it may not always have been so valued.
At some point after Pratt received the hair, he sent it on to someone else. A note, which appears to be dated March 16, 1875, and which is part of the donation, looks like it’s addressed to a W.W. Johnson. His identity was not immediately known.
“I send to you a lock of hair from the head of President Abraham Lincoln, which you may perhaps find a place for,” Pratt wrote. Faded writing near the bottom of the note reads: “No use to me.”
It’s not clear who added that.
Numerous locks of Lincoln’s hair appear to have been cut after his the president’s death.
Washington, D.C., author and Lincoln scholar James L. Swanson has one that was cut by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton shortly after Lincoln died in the Petersen House, across the street from Ford’s Theatre, where he was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14.
The hair was intended as a keepsake for Mary Jane Welles, the wife of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and a friend of the president’s wife.
So many locks were said to have been cut from the president’s head that “he must have not had much hair left,” said Small.
The story of this lock becomes murky after Pratt gave it away.
The artifact disappeared from the records for decades until it surfaced in a small museum run by a John D. Lippy Jr. in Gettysburg, around 1945, according to Carol Metzler, secretary treasurer of Heritage Inns, whose owner, Thomas E. Metz, made the donation.
“We do not know where Lippy got the artifact,” she said.
Lippy ran the museum in the David Wills House, the dwelling where Lincoln stayed when he came to town to deliver the Gettysburg Address in November 1863, four months after the Civil War battle the previous July.
At some point the artifact passed into the hands of the original owner of Heritage Inns and then to the current owner. In 1987, it was placed in the vault for safekeeping, Metzler said.
Metz, 83, remembers seeing the artifact as a boy in the old museum and “felt very strongly that it should go back on public display,” Metzler said.
Small said: It’s the kind of thing, when you look at it, it takes people back in time. . . . You realize that this little piece of hair was taken from [Lincoln’s] head when he was assassinated.”
And the link back to 1865, the provenance, “is as iron-clad as you will ever see,” he said.