Opinion My neighbor found Lincoln’s hair in his basement. I found a mystery.

Ledge King's collection of artifacts at his family home in Bethesda, Md. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
13 min

In decades of covering campaigns, I’ve seen plenty of historical relics: collections of rare buttons and bumper stickers, boxes full of yellowing convention passes. But none of that prepared me for the morning last fall when my dog was running around with her pack of neighborhood playmates, and my friend Ledge turned to me and asked a question so bizarre that for a moment I was sure I’d misheard him.

“Hey,” he said, “did I tell you I have John Marshall’s gallstones?”

Ledge King is a well-known reporter and editor who just joined National Journal. Although we’ve worked in the same business for decades, we got to know each other after we both adopted puppies during the pandemic.

John Marshall was the fourth chief justice of the United States, secretary of state under John Adams and his friend George Washington’s biographer. You can still visit Marshall’s house in Richmond, where any mention of bladder-related blockages is conspicuously missing.

I suppose someone who lived in a normal city, maybe Akron or Omaha, would have nervously laughed off Ledge’s question and started talking to someone else. But in Washington, where we practice what Abraham Lincoln called our “political religion,” we cling to creepy totems, proof that the Founding Fathers and their celebrated successors once walked among the living.

Sometimes those relics come in the form of a wrinkled diary or a presidential Bible, stored in backrooms at the Library of Congress. Other times they come to us through medical waste.

How Ledge came to possess what appear to be Marshall’s gallstones (actually bladder stones, if we’re being technical), along with some other macabre American artifacts that I’ll get to in a moment, is a story of the histories we hold on to — and some we wish we could leave behind.

The mystery begins in the 1950s, when Ledge’s mother, then in her 20s, befriended a young woman named Judy Haviland in Paris. When Ledge was born in 1963, Aunt Judy, as he came to know her, became one of his four godparents.

It’s fair to say that Aunt Judy’s life did not go as planned. Her acting career fizzled (its highlight, according to Aunt Judy, being a dalliance with the comedian Harvey Korman). She never married or had children. Increasingly cantankerous, she fell out with virtually all of her friends, including Ledge’s mother. In her last years, Aunt Judy lived alone in subsidized housing in Philadelphia, mostly watching TV.

For many years, her only frequent visitor was Ledge, who felt some lingering obligation toward his godmother and who dutifully showed up four times a year with a case of her favorite liquor. When she died in 2006, at the age of 75, he was the only one left to write her death notice, which included no survivors.

That’s how Ledge came to possess the few earthly possessions Aunt Judy left behind, along with her ashes and those of her parents, whom he never knew. He hauled a couple of her boxes back to Bethesda, dropped them in the corner of his basement and carried on with the business of building a career and raising three kids.

Until last summer, that is. That’s when Ledge had a conversation with one of his old prep-school teachers about how the man planned to dispose of his wife’s remains. Ledge recalled, with more than a little guilt, that Aunt Judy and her parents were still in the basement.

It was while Ledge was rummaging around for the ashes, preparing to drive to New England and scatter them in one of Aunt Judy’s favorite spots, that he discovered John Marshall’s extracted stones. They were encased in cotton and stored in a small jewelry box with a clear plastic window. Someone had labeled them in tight cursive letters. They lay atop a small pile of other collectibles.

At this point, you should probably understand that, despite being one of the least pretentious people I know in Washington, Ledge is the progeny of one of America’s oldest and most accomplished families. His given name is Ledyard Stevens Rhinelander King, and his ancestors include Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutchman to oversee New York, and the Puritan minister Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island, along with three witnesses to the Magna Carta. Another relative, Gen. Ebenezer Stevens, served on the Marquis de Lafayette’s staff and is depicted in a painting in the Capitol Rotunda.

Among Ledge’s inherited keepsakes is a lock of Washington’s hair, stowed in a safe-deposit box somewhere. He once called Mount Vernon to see if it was worth anything, but no one called him back.

All of which helps to explain why Ledge wasn’t especially awestruck by Aunt Judy’s box. While you or I might find it wildly out of the ordinary if the remnants of a Founding Father’s innards turned up in our basements, Ledge did not.

In fact, Ledge was so cavalier about this mystery that when I started badgering him, during his annual Turkey Day cookout, about what else might be in Aunt Judy’s box, he immediately marched downstairs to retrieve it, only to find that he’d somehow misplaced the whole thing. (Granted, we’d had a few beers by then.)

Several days later, he showed up to our puppy playdate not only with the Marshall stones, but also with something more ghoulish.

In another small box, visible through another plastic window, were several strands of hair. According to the label, they had been collected from the area around Abraham Lincoln’s fatal gunshot wound.

It started to rain pretty hard that morning, so Ledge had to tuck Lincoln’s bloodstained hairs under his jacket as we hurried home. But he invited me to stop by the house the following week, so we could go through the rest of the items together.

It was hard to make sense of the objects we pulled from Aunt Judy’s box as we sat at Ledge’s kitchen table. There was an ancient portable writing desk, inside of which we found a pair of glasses that probably dated back to the 1700s. There was a giant metal key to one of Philadelphia’s first jails and a shard of wood from the tree where William Penn signed his treaty with the Lenape tribe in 1683.

The only hint as to the provenance of these things — including a lifelike heart made in the 1700s by Abraham Chovet, a French pioneer in anatomical models — was that much of it seemed connected to Caspar Wistar, an 18th century Philadelphia doctor. Wistar wrote the first anatomy textbook in America. His great-nephew Isaac, a lawyer and Civil War general, endowed the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, housing a museum for rare medical artifacts.

Some of those artifacts, it seemed, had found their way to Aunt Judy’s shabby apartment. But how?

I immediately set about researching Wistar and the Haviland family, while Ledge went through a pile of letters and articles Aunt Judy had saved. From all of these fragments of history, we were able to piece together the bizarre story — mostly, anyway — of Aunt Judy’s box.

At around the same moment in the mid-1950s when Ledge’s mother and Aunt Judy were exploring the cafes of Montmartre, the Wistar Institute was undergoing a remodeling project. It fell to the museum’s curator to inventory its hodgepodge of specimens. You can imagine how relieved he must have been to receive an offer of help from an eager young anatomist, a man named Thomas Haviland — Aunt Judy’s father.

Aunt Judy would later claim, in handwritten notes, that the museum had slated many of its lesser items for destruction in the incinerator and that the curator had granted Haviland explicit permission to take them home. Maybe — or perhaps Haviland was told he could take home a few of the items and then got carried away.

What we can safely say is that Aunt Judy’s father had a fixation with historical totems, and he wasn’t in it for the money. At some point in the 1960s, according to a story that later appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Haviland saw an ad taken out by a collector of presidential memorabilia who was looking for rare artifacts related to assassinations. Haviland contacted the man and said he had in his possession the preserved brain of Charles Guiteau, President James Garfield’s assassin. (Whether this came from the Wistar collection or from some other source isn’t clear.)

Rather than try to sell the brain, however, Haviland had another idea: He would share the brain by literally cutting it in half. He asked only for five bucks, to cover the cost of the extra formaldehyde. The collector demurred.

We don’t know exactly how many items Haviland took from the Wistar collection, but it was enough to fill part of a rented storage unit in South Philadelphia. Maybe he visited the place from time to time. Maybe it was enough to go to sleep at night knowing that all of this history was his to possess.

Then Haviland died in 1986, followed soon after by his wife, and his daughter inherited all of his belongings, including everything in the storage unit. By then, curators from Wistar and the nearby Mütter Museum, where most of the collection had been moved, had apparently decided that Tom Haviland was a thief. They contacted Aunt Judy. They were particularly interested in getting back the Chovet heart that Ledge and I would later hand back and forth like a football in his kitchen.

In a handwritten memo to her lawyer at the time, Aunt Judy described herself as an “impoverished orphan,” a “well-educated gentlewoman fallen on hard times” and “owner of some discarded items once in the Wistar Museum.” She was willing to return the heart — but she considered herself its rightful owner. She cautioned her lawyer not to let on about any of the other relics she had inherited until the curators acknowledged her right to sell them. Apparently, this ended the conversation.

But Aunt Judy couldn’t afford to keep up the rent payments for her father’s storage unit. Soon the locker was forfeited and its contents sold at auction, vanishing into the sometimes shady world of antique collectors.

Not long afterward, some of the contents from the storage locker drew the attention of an FBI task force on stolen art. An ancient-looking glass bottle, acquired by a rare book dealer, was determined to be one of the earliest ever produced in America, sometime around 1750 — manufactured by Caspar Wistar’s grandfather, one of the country’s original glassmakers. After it appeared in an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, federal prosecutors determined that the bottle was worth as much as $200,000, according to a 2013 article in Antique Week, and that it had been stolen from Wistar six decades earlier by a “light-fingered curator.”

There’s a very Washington footnote to this story: For many years, until recently, Ledge’s next-door neighbor was Rod Rosenstein, who at this time was the U.S. attorney for Maryland. So as federal agents were turning their attention to the Haviland artifacts, one of the government’s top prosecutors was chatting with his neighbor by their garbage cans, neither of them knowing that a box of the missing relics sat 25 yards away.

I still can’t get Aunt Judy’s box out of my head. Unpacking its contents felt like an archaeological excavation into some weird recess of American history. Holding Lincoln’s plucked hairs in my hand, I felt like a medieval Christian pilgrim who had stumbled on fragments of the True Cross.

No one else, however, seems to care very much. When Ledge called Wistar to tell them what he had, it did not trigger some federal raid with helicopters and floodlights; in fact, officials at the institute seemed to have no idea what artifacts he was talking about, and no particular urgency about finding out. (They now say they are working with an archivist to verify the items.) When I called the Mütter Museum and described what we’d found to its executive director, Kate Quinn, she told me flatly: “It’s not anything we’re interested in.” The FBI task force that once hunted down a stolen bottle seems not to exist now, or else it’s moved on to other things.

It turns out that our 20th-century interest in gruesome medical curiosities, like so much else, didn’t survive into digital modernity. With all the oddity and grossness at our fingertips, on YouTube or Facebook or in aggregated clickbait, the Barnumesque collections of another era have been packed up and stowed away.

Wistar today is a medical research center specializing in cancer and genetics. The quirky museum endowed by its founding family seems to be something of an embarrassment. The days of showing off bladder stones and blood-soaked hairs — these grotesque totems that so captivated Tom Haviland that he would risk everything he had to possess them — have long since passed.

The question that remained, for me, concerned Ledge himself. Like any good reporter, Ledge has boundless curiosity for most things, and yet, when it came to the box, he was notably ambivalent. He had managed to avoid opening it for the better part of two decades. Even after he had fished out the ashes and turned up Chief Justice Marshall’s stones in the process, he had been reluctant to delve any further. I’d gotten the distinct impression that he was sorry he had ever mentioned the whole thing to me that day in the dog park.

Why hadn’t Ledge looked in the box all those years?

When I asked him this directly, he sighed and admitted that he hadn’t wanted to think about the remnants of Aunt Judy’s life, then or now. To me, the objects were physical connections to an American era that now seems almost mythological. To Ledge, they were the last vestiges of a family line that had ended in loneliness and ignominy, handed down from one generation to the next. All that remained of the world of Aunt Judy and her parents was an unbearably sad legacy, and it had come to rest in his basement, where the easiest thing to do was to look away.

We’re all collectors of something, whether we choose to be or not.