A battered old hat, a pair of stained gloves, a child’s silly rhyme — hardly the stuff of history.
Except that this hat is a stovepipe hat, the gloves are stained with a president’s blood and the rhyme was written by a young Abraham Lincoln.
All three items are part of an immense private collection put together by a Lincoln fan over 35 years. Now the collection is about to go public after being purchased for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The collection contains hundreds of letters and documents, but its strength is the array of personal, everyday items related to the 16th president, his wife and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
The presidential library’s executive director, Rick Beard, said it should help remind visitors that Lincoln was a real person with real problems who still managed to do great things.
“I think it’s very important to understand that there are indeed great men, but that these great men are human, that they have a complexity to them, that they’re not marble figures,” Beard said.
The hat’s brim shows two finger-sized spots where Lincoln continually touched it to take the hat off. Its band is stretched from his habit of stuffing legal papers inside to carry around with him.
Lincoln hated wearing gloves, Beard said, yet he always carried them. This particular pair appears to have been dropped on a red dirt road, but the stains are blood from Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865.
And the rhyme, neatly written in a childhood “sum” book for practicing math, shows a 15-year-old smart-aleck: “Abraham Lincoln is my name/ and with my pen I wrote the same/ I wrote in both haste and speed/ and left it here for fools to read.”
Acquiring the 1,500-item collection is “a coup” for the museum, said Daniel Weinberg, a Lincoln collector and owner of Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln Book Shop.
“They are wonderful collectibles,” Weinberg said. “People enjoy having a personal relationship with their historical figures. One can let ghosts arise when you’re looking at the hat, for instance.”
The collection was pieced together over three decades by Louise Taper, who said she grew interested in Lincoln after reading a book about the president.
“I loved it. I loved reading about his life and Mary, and I wanted to know what happened to his children and the children’s children,” she said. “That started it, and it just took off.”
The museum’s foundation is buying most of the collection, and Taper is donating part of it. Eventually, the foundation will give the collection to the museum so that the state owns it outright.
Neither Taper nor Beard would disclose the price, but Lincoln experts say the collection is likely to bring more than $20 million. Beard said no tax money is involved. Instead, the foundation is working with the city of Springfield to issue bonds to pay for the collection now, and private fundraising will pay off the bonds in years to come.
Parts of the Taper collection will go on public display in July.
Rather than focusing on some particular aspect of Lincoln, Taper acquired items from throughout his life. Many collectors were most interested in official documents or Civil War strategy, but not Taper.
“That didn’t appeal to me,” she said. “I wanted to know more about Lincoln — where he lived when he was young, and his parents and family, and how his relationship with Mary was, and their children.”
Her collection includes about 100 Mary Todd Lincoln letters, giving the Lincoln presidential library a total of 500 — out of only 600 in the world, Beard said.
Some of the letters recount Mary Todd Lincoln’s fight with Congress to collect her husband’s salary after he had been killed and to establish a pension for presidential widows. Taper said that fight set a precedent for Jacqueline Kennedy to receive a pension after John Kennedy’s assassination.
Initially, Taper kept her Lincoln items and other presidential collectibles at her Los Angeles home. The famed stovepipe hat was displayed on a cabinet in her living room.
But as the items grew in value, she had to keep them locked away, where even she could not enjoy them.
After working for years with Lincoln experts in Springfield and serving on the museum foundation’s board, Taper decided her collection should go to Lincoln’s hometown.
“I think Lincoln needed to go home. It was time. It was time for the world to see everything and other people to enjoy it,” she said.