Was famous stovepipe hat really Honest Abe’s?
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