Saturday, April 16, 2005

The suit Lincoln wore when he was assassinated

A four paragraph news story caught my eye recently and reminded me how fickle, indeed, is the finger of fate.

It was datelined Louisiana and concerned one George St. Pierre who claimed to have purchased for $10 a postage stamped-sized swatch of cloth that was supposedly snipped from the coat President Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated.

The story said St. Pierre was planning to put the framed swatch up for sale on GoAntiques.com with a minimum bid of $1 million. It also said Lincoln collectors are skeptical.

However, old George’s claim might possibly be true—and I can tell you why.

In the fall of 1958, I came from Stars and Stripes in Tokyo, Japan, to work for the Greensboro (N.C.) Daily News as its political cartoonist. The editorial page staff secretary was Mrs. J. Marvin Smith. “Dot”, as she was fondly called was a vivacious lady I guessed to be in the upper sixties range, agewise. She was warm and wonderfully efficient at keeping us professionally correct and on schedule. She took my wife and I under her wing and we became good friends.

Over dinner and drinks one evening she revealed a remarkable story.

Her grandfather, Alphonse Donn worked as a personal guard in the White House and was a favorite of President Lincoln. After Lincoln was shot, Mr. Donn inquired of Mrs. Lincoln as to what he should do with the Brooks Brothers suit the President was wearing. It was unsightly and soaked with blood. Smith’s grandfather told her Mrs. Lincoln said something to the effect that she didn’t care, just get it out her sight—and gave it to him.

That is how the frock coat and pants came to be owned by Dorothy Smith and kept in a vault in Greensboro, North Carolina.

In 1875 P.T. Barnum tried to buy the suit, offering Smith’s grandfather $25,000 but he would not sell it. In 1915, the 64th U.S. Congress introduced a bill to buy the suit for the Lincoln Memorial for $7,500. Smith’s grandfather also turned them down. He kept the suit at his home and showed it to friends and visitors, but that proved to be an unfortunate decision.

“He found that when he turned his back or left the room, his visitors would cut souvenir snips of cloth from the sleeve,” Dorothy said. “The collar, however is intact, with bloodstains from the fatal bullet. There are some moth holes in the front of trousers, but those may have been made while Lincoln owned them He was not, from what I have read, the most careful man in his clothing habits.”

The suit and coat had been carefully authenticated. The clothing was made by Brooks Brothers for President Lincoln’s second inaugural and alleged to be made of wool finer than cashmere. In 1918, the seamstress who sewed the lining in the frock coat testified that it was, indeed, the one she worked on.

The lining was what made the long-tailed frock coat unique. The hand-stitching featured an intricate pattern, in color, of an American eagle, with its wings spread, holding in its beak a ribbon bearing the inscription “One Country, One Destiny.” The New York Times called it “the most expensive Brooks Brothers suit of all time.

Dorothy Smith also had letters from Mrs. Lincoln to her grandfather. She kept the papers in a safe deposit box.

By 1968, I had moved from the Greensboro Daily News, via the Kansas City Star to the Milwaukee Journal —and Dorothy Smith was now a widow living in Georgia on a meager retirement income. She was still trying to find a buyer willing to purchase the suit and donate it to the Lincoln Museum in the renovated Ford’s theater.

The Interior Department of the federal government wanted the clothing for display but the department could not get authorization to buy the historic apparel nor find a private patron to sponsor the purchase. Also, previous potential buyers were turned off by the shabby, crusted appearance of the outfit. Smith was asking $50,000 as a purchase price.

Brooks Brothers was approached by Interior Department officials asking them to purchase the Lincoln suit and donate it to the museum. A spokesman for the firm said he thought $50,000"was too high a price even for a President Lincoln owned Brooks Brother’s suit.”

In some desperation, Dorothy phoned me at the Journal to ask if I had any connections in Washington that I might tap—or any other ideas. I decided that before I tried to lobby a senator or congressman it would be wise to have a feature story as a foundation. A columnist friend at the paper interviewed Smith by phone and wrote a nice feature article.

As a result of that story, a Milwaukee based company ultimately purchased the suit and donated it to the Lincoln Museum—reportedly paying a 'whopping' price of $10,000. I often wondered what the donation appraisal figure turned out to be.

2 comments:

Reignette Chilton said...

Mr. Sanders,

I'd like to speak with you about this very interesting article as I am writing a book about the subject.

Thank you.

Polly Russ said...

It was a Brooks Brothers overcoat - not a suit.