Was fa­mous stovepipe hat re­ally Hon­est Abe’s?

Chicago Sun-Times - - 12A NEWS - BY DAVE MCKIN­NEY

then head of the Illi­nois State His­tor­i­cal Li­brary and over­seer of the state’s Lin­coln ar­ti­facts, bought it for him­self in a move that to­day would al­most as­suredly spark con­flict-ofin­ter­est ques­tions.

The hat changed hands again in 1990, when Lin­coln col­lec­tor Louise Taper bought it from Hickey for an undis­closed price. She, in turn, parted with it in 2007, sell­ing it to the Abra­ham Lin­coln Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary Foun­da­tion as part of a $23 mil­lion haul of Lin­coln mem­o­ra­bilia in 2007. The pur- chase was pro­claimed a coup for the mu­seum.

The mu­seum won’t say how much the hat cost but, for the first time, it has pro­duced a 2007 ap­praisal valu­ing it at $6.5 mil­lion.

The foun­da­tion is rais­ing money to re­pay the city of Springfiel­d, which is­sued tax­payer-fi­nanced bonds used to buy the Taper col­lec­tion.

The hat has been de­scribed al­ter­nately as one Lin­coln wore dur­ing the Civil War and, more re­cently, one that he gave away af­ter an 1858 de­bate in south­ern Il- linois with Stephen Dou­glas.

If one of those sce­nar­ios is true, the other can’t be. But that doesn’t mean the hat is a fraud, said Wes Cowan, co-host of the PBS-TV show “His­tory De­tec­tives” and an ex­pert in his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­facts who owns a Cincin­nati auc­tion house.

“The fact that there is this long­stand­ing tra­di­tion and that it clearly came from a hat­maker in Springfiel­d — that’s in­ter­est­ing. But, be­yond that, it gets squishy. What you re­ally want to see was a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle from . . . when­ever the de­bate was: ‘Can­di­date Lin­coln gives lo­cal farmer his beaver top hat.’ That’s what you want to find. That’s the sort of chain of cus­tody you want. With­out that un­bro­ken chain of cus­tody, it be­comes very dif­fi­cult to prove any of this. It may be. It may not be.”

The story of the hat was first writ­ten in Au­gust 1958, when Car­bon­dale res­i­dent Clara Waller signed an af­fi­davit in which she 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. Wil­liam Waller had been a Demo­crat in the 1850s but in­curred his neigh­bors’ wrath by buck­ing the re­gion’s pro-slav­ery mind-set by back­ing Lin­coln, a Re­pub­li­can, in his 1858 U.S. Se­nate bid against Demo­crat Stephen Dou­glas, ac­cord­ing to Cor­nelius.

At­tached to Clara Waller’s af­fi­davit is a hand­writ­ten state­ment from the late John W. Allen, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at South­ern Illi­nois Univer­sity-car­bon­dale, who said he had been told the “same” story about the hat by El­bert Waller and was “in­clined to give it full cre­dence.”

The hat was sent on loan for a large Illi­nois State His­tor­i­cal Li­brary ex­hibit in Tai­wan in 1988. It later ap­peared in 1993 and 1994 in San Marino, Calif., and in Chicago dur­ing a high-pro­file tour of ma­jor Lin­coln ar­ti­facts known as “The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abra­ham Lin­coln and the Prom­ise of Amer­ica.” The hat was de­scribed in a cat­a­log co-au­thored by for­mer Illi­nois state his­to­rian Thomas Schwartz as one that Lin­coln “wore . . . dur­ing


LEFT: James M. Cor­nelius, cu­ra­tor of the Lin­coln Col­lec­tion at the Abra­ham Lin­coln Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary and Mu­seum in Springfiel­d, shows the stovepipe hat thought to have be­longed to Abra­ham Lin­coln. ABOVE: A fig­ure of Lin­coln at the mu­seum. | RICH

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