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

Schmincke, 50, looks like Henry VIII, jowly and fair, with cropped reddish hair. Six years ago, Pep Boys laid him off after almost two decades; his wife, a nurse, went back to work while he played Mr. Mom. “Now the kids are in school,” he explains, “and while they are, I have four or five hours to spend. This” he gestures around the GAR Museum — “is where I’m at.”

This year, Sotos’s DNA quest, coupled with the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, led reporters from Fox News, CNN, NBC, NPR, French radio, the Inquirer, the Washington Post and the Associated Press to the museum in Frankford, all asking about what board member Andy Waskie, a Temple prof, once called “the Shroud of Turin of the Civil War” Hermann Faber’s scrap. And, subsequently, to a visit from an MIT spectral analyst who confirmed the age of the linen and that it’s spotted with blood, and board meetings to debate the pros and cons of testing, and fiber experts to decide if testing is safe. It’s a lot of responsibility. But the GAR board isn’t fazed. “This is history,” Boyle says. “It’s who we are. You have to be dedicated.”

You have to be a little more than dedicated, though. You have to be obsessed.


THE GRAND ARMY of the Republic was the VFW of the War Between the States, a fraternal organization for Union soldiers after they returned home. In the late 1800s, it was as powerful as the UAW and the AARP would later be; it endorsed presidents, lobbied for legislation, set up retirement homes, and in 1868 established May 30th as a day to honor the Union dead. “Back then, Memorial Day was huge,” says Schmincke. “There were days on end of patriotism and parades.”

As Civil War veterans died, families with souvenirs, medals, uniforms, rifles, looked for something to do with them, and turned to the GAR. That’s basically how the museum got Lincoln’s pillowcase, which it’s been faithfully tending ever since. “There’s no paid staff here,” Schmincke acknowledges. “But we’re doing what museums are supposed to do.” Center City’s Mütter Museum recently borrowed a bit of James A. Garfield’s skin from the GAR for an exhibit on presidential ailments; General Meade’s hat was lent to the new Civil War museum in Gettysburg. And when the GAR Museum asked UPenn for help with the pillowcase, “The response was, ‘We would love to help a sister museum,’” Schmincke reports. He glows, reliving the moment: “Here’s Penn, calling us a ‘sister museum.’”

Boyle and Schmincke’s initial reaction to Sotos’s request was to say no, but they’ve since begun to come around. At the moment, they’re waiting to hear from those textile experts. There are other considerations, too. “We want to hold on to the intellectual rights,” notes Schmincke.

“There’s a fear of commercialization,” Boyle adds. “Or what if the government starts cloning? Do you want a bunch of little Lincolns running around?”