Story of $6.5M Lin­coln hat brims with in­trigue

Chicago Sun-Times - - 10A NEWS - BY DAVE MCKINNEY Spring­field bureau chief dm­ck­in­ney@sun­times.com

SPRING­FIELD — For the next six months, the pres­i­den­tial mu­seum hon­or­ing Abra­ham Lin­coln wants vis­i­tors to be­lieve one thing when they see the iconic $6.5 mil­lion beaver-fur stovepipe hat put on dis­play this past week. The hat was his. Really. To mark Lin­coln’s 204th birth­day, the mu­seum is bring­ing the hat out of stor­age for the first time since the Chicago Sun-Times last April ques­tioned the prized show­piece’s au­then­tic­ity and for the first time dis­closed holes in its prove­nance.

But not even the slight­est doubt is re­flected on the sign now at­tached to the hat’s dis­play case. The plac­ard that went up with the hat Wed­nes­day ex­plains its back­ground in eight sen­tences, not­ing that only three of Lin­coln’s fa­mous stovepipe hats are known to ex­ist: “2 silk ones from his last days of life, and this.”

“There’s no de­cep­tion at all,” said Chris Wills, a spokesman for the mu­seum.

What isn’t men­tioned is any ref­er­ence to the fact the state can’t prove whether it truly be­longed to Hon­est Abe.

One na­tion­ally rec­og­nized ex­pert in his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­facts and a Repub­li­can state se­na­tor with fam­ily ties to a close Lin­coln as­so­ciate both told the Sun-Times Fri­day they think the mu­seum should give vis­i­tors the un­var­nished truth about what one termed the hat’s “murky” past.

“I think the la­bel should at least say ‘ pur­port­edly worn by Lin­coln,’” said Wes Cowan, co-host of the PBS-TV show “His­tory De­tec­tives” and an ex­pert in his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­facts and owner of a Cincin­nati auc­tion house.

“I think they should tell mu­seum vis­i­tors, ‘Look, there are a num­ber of dif­fer­ent sto­ries about this hat, and here they are. Could this have been one of his hats? Here’s what we know. We tried to find out, but we can’t ever say for sure,’” said Cowan, who also made clear he isn’t say­ing the hat is a fake.

What is known is the hat bears the mark of a Spring­field hat­maker from whom Lin­coln was known to have pur­chased hats, and it is Lin­coln’s hat size.

But from there, its story hits bumps. The hat has been de­scribed al­ter­nately as one Lin­coln wore and gave away in Washington, D.C., to farmer Wil­liam Waller dur­ing the Civil War — the ver­sion a Waller rel­a­tive laid out in a 54-year-old af­fa­davit — and, more re­cently, as one that Lin­coln turned over to Waller as a to­ken of ap­pre­ci­a­tion af­ter an 1858 de­bate in south­ern Illi­nois with Stephen Dou­glas.

Lin­coln wasn’t known to give away his hats, and no ev­i­dence has been un­earthed that placed Wil­liam Waller in Washington, D.C., af­ter Lin­coln was elected pres­i­dent. Fur­ther, af­ter his elec­tion, Lin­coln never re­turned to Illi­nois.

Wills said those kinds of de­tails nor­mally wouldn’t ac­com­pany one of the mu­seum’s im­por­tant relics when it goes on dis­play.

“The mu­seum is com­fort- able that the au­then­tic­ity has been es­tab­lished,” Wills said.

Last year, Cowan called the hat’s prove­nance “squishy,” and the mu­seum’s cu­ra­tor, James Cor­nelius, ac­knowl­edged that “some­thing of a his­toric lib­erty” had been taken in de­ter­min­ing that Lin­coln must have given Waller the hat in 1858.

That ex­pla­na­tion runs counter to the first writ­ten doc­u­men­ta­tion on the hat from Au­gust 1958, when Car­bon­dale res­i­dent Clara Waller signed an af­fi­davit that said her fa­ther-in-law, Wil­liam Waller, ob­tained the hat from Lin­coln “dur­ing the Civil War in Washington” and, upon Waller’s death, it was passed on to her hus­band, El­bert Waller.

The hat re­mained in Waller’s fam­ily un­til 1958, when James Hickey, then head of the Illi­nois State His­tor­i­cal Li­brary and over­seer of the state’s Lin­coln ar­ti­facts, pur­chased it for an undis­closed price for him­self.

The hat changed hands again in 1990, when Lin­coln col­lec­tor Louise Ta­per bought it from Hickey. She, in turn, parted with it in 2007, sell­ing it to the Abra­ham Lin­coln Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary Foun­da­tion.

State Sen. Kirk Dil­lard (R-Hins­dale), shares the view that more de­tailed in­for­ma­tion about what he called the hat’s “murky” prove­nance needs to be dis­played.

Dil­lard’s wife is the great­great grand­daugh­ter of former Illi­nois Gov. Richard Oglesby, who was the eu­lo­gizer at Lin­coln’s funeral.

“I have great con­fi­dence that that hat did be­long to Abra­ham Lin­coln,” said Dil­lard. “But like a re­li­gious site in the Mid­dle East, you need to know the full story so you can draw your own con­clu­sions.”

A hat worn by Abra­ham Lin­coln — or was it? | RICH HEIN~SUN-TIMES

Abra­ham Lin­coln

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