History: The Missing Lincoln

Was Honest Abe suffering from a rare fatal disease? A bloody pillowcase holds the answer — if a dusty Northeast Philly museum will give it up

At some point thereafter, the GAR Museum lent Old Baldy to what’s now known as the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, a competing entity in Center City. But in 2001 the CWM had money problems, and threatened to abscond to Richmond, Virginia – capital of the Confederacy. Union Army descendants howled, and Philly sued to keep the museum here, with Vince Fumo (who else?) coming up with a proposed home near Independence Hall. Budget cutbacks scuttled that, so the museum’s holdings are currently in storage. Previously, the GAR Museum sued to get Old Baldy back. The case settled with CWM keeping the head so long as it was taken care of and on display. “The judge felt it would be better viewed downtown than in Frankford,” Schmincke says, scowling. Now the CWM seems to be in violation of that settlement. “We want to display it,” says Boyle. “We have his bridle and his bit,” Schmincke adds. “It would be nice to put them back together again.”

Meanwhile, the GAR has something better – Lincoln’s blood. Most institutions with samples have vetoed testing; in other cases, the samples may be contaminated. The GAR’s, though, is pure. “No one else’s head was on that pillowcase,” says Boyle.

“We’ll be the yardstick,” Schmincke says. “After this is over, the pillowcase will be the yardstick used to measure Lincoln.”

 

 

 

THE CIVIL WAR was our first – our only – full-fledged domestic war, invading our homes the way the dying president invaded Anna Petersen’s. It was a family matter, pitting father against son, brother against brother, which made it at once more intimate and more epic, with its echoes of Abraham and Isaac, Abel and Cain.

Once you go biblical, of course, Lincoln’s blood is — well, transubstantiated. Schmincke explains what Hermann Faber’s scrap means: “When I look at the pillow strip, Lincoln’s not standing here in front of me, but he’s still there. That’s him downstairs, even if he has no torso, no limbs.”

But that’s the trouble with DNA testing. Our 16th president was more than blood and bone. “Those who seek to understand Lincoln through an exploration of his physical life are doomed to disappointment,” Michael F. Bishop wrote in a review of C.A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln. He’s right. In the end, what testing may say about the pillowcase is far less interesting than what the collective urge for testing says about us, 200 years after Abe first took breath. If he had Marfan or migraines, if he suffered from depression or cancer, then he was like us. And, more important, we are like him, America’s great sad man.

Lincoln understood this, knew that his accessibility and gawkiness and grief were what bound the nation to him. “On January 1st every year, the White House was open to the public,” Schmincke says. “Lincoln would shake the hands of all the people who came in. They’d take souvenirs — cut down drapes, break off pieces of tables. It drove Mary Todd Lincoln crazy. But the president would tell her: ‘Mary, it’s their house.’”

The truth is, we all want a piece of Lincoln. We want him to be our great-great-grandfather, our fellow sufferer, our confidant, our friend. He was our first modern American hero, a kindred victim of this harsh world, tragic like Marilyn Monroe, like JFK, like Martin Luther King. He’s the original geek god, a tongue-tied backwoods boy who made it to the top. And as such, he represents the best of the American spirit, the unsettled, questing, never-resting impetus within us that insists on knowing what Britney had for breakfast, what Lindsay texted Sam last night, and what Honest Abe carried with him to his grave.

 

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  • Ken

    I’ve read several articles in the December 2009 issue. I am surprised at the number of misspelled and missing words. It is difficult to understand the meaning of an article if the reader has to guess at misspelled and missing words. Please do a better job of proofreading your articles. Thanks.