Largest Lincoln Exhibit Ever Opens In California

Kevin Trotman, Flickr

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library just debuted a new exhibit on the most famous Republican. A. Lincoln: From Railsplitter to Rushmore opened Saturday and will run through September 31. With 250 items culled from major collectors, it’s the largest assemblage of the Lincoln family’s personal effects ever displayed.

But other museums have examples of this exhibit’s highlights, such as his stovepipe hats, Lincoln-signed 13th Amendments and his gold pocket watches. There are plenty of blood-stained fabrics from the night of his assassination (curiously, none have been used to yield a sample of Lincoln’s DNA – that doesn’t exist). What makes this exhibit in Simi Valley, California, stand out is the inclusion of sets and costumes from Lincoln, the recent movie by DreamWorks Studios.

If you saw the movie, you’ll recognize the office where Daniel Day-Lewis gave his entrancing soliloquies, Mary Todd Lincoln’s dresses and parts of Peterson’s Boarding House, the building where Lincoln died.

The exhibit, which commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, plays into the current fascination with Lincoln’s personal life. For decades he was widely perceived as a caricature – Honest Abe, who freed the slaves – and now Lincoln mania is drawing attention to the real man behind the stovepipe hat, his family and his political genius. Who would guess that 40 years ago, there wasn’t vast interest in Lincoln at all? According to James Cornelius, an Abe expert from Lincoln’s presidential library in Springfield, Ill., the 16th president enjoyed a big moment during the Civil War’s centennial in 1965, but then the fever died down until Ken Burns revived pop culture’s interest with his blockbuster Civil War documentary in 1990.

We’re pretty sure A. Lincoln won’t be the last homage for a while, though it will likely remain the largest.

Why Didn’t Abraham Lincoln Travel?


Abraham Lincoln as a tourism driver is nothing new – history buffs have been making pilgrimages to Washington, D.C., Gettysburg and Abe’s Midwestern stomping grounds for decades, and Springfield, Ill., attributes the majority of its annual $350 million tourism and convention business to the rail-splitter. But actually following in Lincoln’s footsteps doesn’t take a traveler very far.

Lincoln never crossed an ocean, a curiosity that clashes with what we might expect given his means, his intellect and Mary Todd Lincoln’s famous taste for the finer things in life. Despite the difficulties of international travel in the mid-19th century, it wasn’t unheard of. William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, made it as far as the Middle East on a fact-finding mission. Benjamin Franklin had darted back and forth between the American colonies, England and France 100 years earlier.

It’s understandable that Lincoln was too preoccupied to travel during his presidency. Still, it’s a bit surprising that by his death in 1865, he hadn’t ventured farther than New Orleans, New York or Missouri.

Leisure travel to Europe wasn’t a popular concept in Lincoln’s time. “It would have been dangerous, for one,” says Dale Ogden, a senior curator at the Indiana State Museum who oversees a significant collection of the Lincoln family’s belongings. “And Europe was in turmoil anyway.”Domestically, the railroads that Lincoln worked for as a lawyer weren’t yet popular options for vacation. Even the train that took the president-elect from Springfield to D.C. on his Whistle-Stop Trip in 1861 wasn’t exactly posh. “Lincoln’s car would have been private as opposed to luxurious,” Ogden says. “I don’t think it would have been particularly unpleasant to travel by rail in 1860s, but it wouldn’t have been even remotely close to what it became 20 years later.” Instead, Lincoln “vacationed” at his summer home in D.C.

Yet travel made a serious impact on Lincoln’s life, an aspect examined in “The Lincolns: Five Generations of an American Family,” an exhibit that recently opened at the Indiana State Museum. He was frequently on the road on horseback as a circuit attorney in Illinois, and the job separated him from his eldest son, Robert, during the child’s formative years. Ogden says this is a primary reason why Lincoln and Robert didn’t have a close bond. “Lincoln was a workaholic,” he says. “The fact that he did travel so much, because of his work, had a major role in the family dynamic.”

The museum holds one of the most comprehensive collections of Lincoln artifacts, and “Five Generations” is only the second exhibit organized from its contents. A few of Mary’s travel accessories, including her opera glasses and ostrich fan, are currently on display, highlighting her trips to Europe after Lincoln’s death.

[Photo credit: Paukrus via Flickr]

Discovering Lincoln Family History At Hildene: Robert Todd Lincoln’s Vermont Estate

hildene robert todd lincolnThe things you find tucked away in someone’s safe after they’ve died don’t always reflect well on them. But in the case of Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s eldest child and the only one to survive to adulthood, secret documents found in his safe helped restore his image as a righteous man and a good son. In the years after his father’s assassination, his mother, Mary Todd, suffered from severe depression, paranoia and mental illness to the point where her behavior became a concern to the family.

Mary Todd, who also had to bear the burden of losing three sons that died young, was said to have an irrational fear of poverty and sometimes walked around with thousands of dollars in government bonds sewn into her outfits. After she almost jumped out of a window to escape a fire that was a figment of her imagination, Robert had her committed to an asylum in Batavia, Illinois, in 1875.

mary todd lincolnMary Todd got a lawyer and after a trial that made her son Robert look like a dirtbag who needlessly pushed his mother into an asylum without legitimate grounds, she was released. She drifted around Europe for four years before returning to Springfield, Illinois, where she died in 1882 at age 63. The cause of death was listed as paralysis and many believe that she may have had a stroke.

In 1978, nearly 50 years after Robert Todd Lincoln died at 82, caretakers of Hildene, his country home in Manchester, Vermont, found some papers labeled “MTL Insanity Papers” in a safe tucked away in his bedroom closet. The files, which contained Robert’s correspondence with family members and medical professionals regarding his mother’s condition, revealed that he wasn’t the uncaring son he’d been portrayed as. The file proved that his concern had always been his mother’s health and well-being.

Learning more about Robert Todd’s complex relationship with his mother is just one of many reasons to visit Hildene, the Lincoln family home in Vermont where Robert Todd Lincoln lived and died. Visitors can tour the stately home, built in 1905, visit a beautifully restored century old Pullman car, check out the estate’s farm and take a long stroll on the estate’s extensive grounds.

robert todd lincolnRobert was said to have had a distant relationship with his father as a boy, thanks to the demands of his father’s career and the fact that he was often away from home. He was 21 when his father was assassinated but managed to carve out a remarkable career of his own, even as his mother was descending into increasingly worse mental health. He was a successful lawyer who later served as the U.S. Secretary of War and U.S. Ambassador to The United Kingdom before becoming the President and Chairman of the Pullman Company.

When Robert was 20, he and his mother stayed at the Equinox Hotel and he was taken by the natural beauty of the Manchester area. He vowed to return one day and did just that 40 years later, purchasing a 500-acre plot that was to become a country home that would serve as a residence for Lincoln family descendants until 1975. While his father kept his summer home just miles from the White House, Robert Todd preferred Vermont’s natural splendor. Today, the residence is maintained by the non-profit Friends of Hildene, and if you don’t mind plunking down $400-500 per night, you can stay at the Equinox if you want the full Lincoln experience.

My children enjoyed petting the farm animals but the highlight of the visit for me was touring Sunbeam, a restored 1903 Pullman car that was moved to Hildene a few years ago to honor Robert time at the company and the fact that his father signed the Transcontinental Railways Act, which paved the way for the construction of the transcontinental railroad. In the heyday of trail travel, more than 100,000 Americans slept on Pullman cars while traveling around the country each day. It might have taken forever to get from Chicago to New York, but if you take a walk through Sunbeam, you’ll wish it were still possible to travel the country in Pullman style.

[Photos and videos by Dave Seminara]

Photo Of The Day: Lincoln Memorial

Whether you haven’t yet been, or you’ve visited it many times, Washington’s Lincoln Memorial never fails to inspire and amaze. Today’s photo, by Flickr user Christian Carollo Photography, provides a unique angle on this most famous of American monuments. The photo’s black and white color palette, artful use of light and shadow and interesting “behind the pillars” angle creates a feeling of mystery and significance for this otherwise highly recognizable landmark.

Taken any great photos of your own in our nation’s capital? Or maybe just down the street from your house? Why not share them in our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Visiting Ford’s Theatre, Where Lincoln Got Assassinated

Ford's Theatre
On April 14, 1865, a few days after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, John Wilkes Booth finally decided to do something for the Confederacy.

The famous actor had supported the South from the start, but he had spent the entire Civil War in the North, playing to packed theaters and making lots of money. Now that the war was winding down, he felt he needed to take a stand.

Booth and a small circle of conspirators had been planning to kidnap Lincoln but nothing much had come of it. On April 11, Booth attended a speech given by Lincoln in which the president said he supported giving blacks the right to vote. That was the last straw. Booth reportedly said, “That means n—– citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever give.”

On April 14, while Lincoln and his wife watched a popular comedy at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, Booth appeared with a knife and pistol. The bodyguard that was supposed to watch over the presidential box had gone off to a tavern, and Booth was able to walk right up behind Lincoln unnoticed. He shot him once in the head, stabbed an officer sitting nearby, leaped onto the stage, and made his getaway.

The nation was stunned. Booth was one of the most famous actors of his day. It would be like if Tom Cruise shot Obama. The nation plunged into mourning and even many Confederates expressed their shock.

%Gallery-155130%Despite having broken his leg while jumping onto the stage, Booth was able to elude a giant manhunt for 12 days before being cornered in a barn and fatally shot. His fellow conspirators were rounded up. One had attacked and wounded Secretary of State William Seward. Of the eight conspirators, all were found guilty. Four were hanged, including the first woman to be executed in the United States, and the rest received prison sentences.

You can see the site of America’s first presidential assassination. Ford’s Theatre is both a theatre and a functioning playhouse. Some of the tours include a one-act play. Across the street is the Petersen House, a private home where Lincoln was taken and clung to life for a few hours.

Unfortunately, much of what you see is not original. Ford’s Theatre was turned into offices and had to be completely reconstructed when it became a National Historic Site. The Petersen House also contains many replicas, such as the bed where he lay and much of the furniture in the room, which are at the Chicago History Museum. The reconstruction is well done, however, and the two buildings manage to take you into the past.

Included in the ticket is a visit to the Center for Education and Leadership, attached to the Petersen House. There are displays on Lincoln’s presidency and his legacy, including many interactive exhibits. This really seemed to engage visitors and the kids especially appeared absorbed. Lincoln is an American icon and everyone wanted to learn more about him. People passed through this museum much more slowly than usual.

As I was walking out, I saw a black woman taking a photo of a giant copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. I was tempted to take a photo of her face, which bore an unforgettable expression that was a combination of pride, joy, and another emotion I couldn’t quite identify because, well, I’m white.

The fact that Lincoln can still provoke such emotions almost 150 years after his death is a testament to his greatness. He wasn’t afraid to take unpopular positions on social issues and much of the public hated him for it. That didn’t stop him for doing what he felt was right, even if it meant losing his life.

[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]