A stovepipe hat that reputedly belonged to Abraham Lincoln is one of the most historically sacred objects displayed at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, but there’s insufficient evidence to prove it ever actually belonged to the former president.
That’s the finding from a previously undisclosed FBI analysis and another report obtained by WBEZ. They were part of a highly secretive effort to authenticate the hat by the foundation charged with acquiring artifacts for the Lincoln museum.
The efforts by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation involved a DNA assessment by the FBI and a report by top curators from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and Chicago History Museum. Those historians ultimately encouraged the Lincoln museum to “soften its claim about the hat.”
The focus of all the attention is a beaver fur hat in Lincoln’s size. It is the $6.5 million centerpiece of a major $25 million acquisition of Lincoln artifacts in 2007 by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, a nonprofit that operates independently of the Springfield, Illinois museum.
The financially troubled foundation, whose board members include former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, is now seeking millions of dollars in state taxpayer support and private donations to repay $9.7 million in outstanding loans on the purchase of the hat and 1,600 Lincoln-related artifacts. Details about the foundation’s efforts to authenticate the hat are being reported for the first time by WBEZ.
The foundation said it summarized the findings by the FBI and historians for the museum’s current leadership and Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration while lobbying unsuccessfully for state subsidies earlier this year. However, the foundation did not give the full reports to current museum officials or Rauner’s office.
Gift to an Illinois farmer?
Earlier leadership at the museum stridently maintained Lincoln gave the hat to a southern Illinois farmer in 1858 as a token of gratitude. That account differed from a 1958 affidavit from a descendent of the farmer, who said Lincoln offered the hat when the farmer visited Lincoln in Washington at some point after 1861.
But a Nov. 4, 2013 report written by officials at the Smithsonian and Chicago History Museum concluded there is inadequate documentation to support either assertion or to say categorically that Lincoln even owned the hat.
“For an artifact of such prominence, and one that the museum wishes to highlight and promote, the current documentation is insufficient to claim that the hat formerly belonged to President Abraham Lincoln,” historians Harry Rubenstein and Russell Lewis wrote.
The Lincoln museum’s current executive director, Alan Lowe, said he did not see their full report until last month when Lewis shared a copy of the long-shelved report.
The hat is one of only three in the world that is housed in museums and believed to have a direct Lincoln lineage. One is in the Smithsonian. Another is housed at the Vermont estate that once belonged to Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln. The other is in Springfield.
In the world of Lincolniana, it’s hard to fathom a more valuable artifact than Lincoln’s stovepipe hat. In 2007, an appraiser valued the hat now in Springfield at $6.5 million and used adjectives like “transcendent” to describe its apparent majesty.
It once belonged to Louise Taper, a wealthy West Coast collector who sat on the Lincoln foundation board when the purchase occurred but is no longer a member.
In an interview, Nick Kalm, the foundation’s vice chairman, said his organization is still satisfied that the hat is Lincoln’s and that nothing uncovered by the FBI testing or museum curators disproves that. He went on to note that with some historic relics, “leaps of faith” sometimes exist in determining their authenticity.
“There was nothing in their findings that would further either confirm the provenance of the hat or undermine it,” Kalm said.
Kalm said the foundation and an internal committee it established to explore the hat’s authenticity deserve credit for studying the issue, including the extraordinary step of contacting the FBI’s Crime Laboratory in Quantico, Va.
“To do a full and complete and accurate story on this, I think you have to include the fact this independent committee decided to take the ultimate scientific step to try to confirm the provenance of the hat,” Kalm said.
Bringing in the FBI
The foundation in 2014 reached out to the FBI to conduct a DNA analysis on the hat. Two tests were performed in 2015, comparing DNA samples from the hat itself with Lincoln’s blood-spattered handkerchief, gloves, and shirt from the night of his assassination, and two tufts of Lincoln’s hair, among other things.
“The majority of the DNA recovered from the Taper hat was consistent with being contemporary DNA from an individual who had recently handled the item,” the July 19, 2017 FBI report said. “No other conclusions could be drawn from the limited quantity of remaining DNA data recovered as part of the mixture.”
Kalm described those results as disappointing.
Federal investigators did not charge the foundation for the work but insisted on “strict confidentiality regarding the testing and its outcome,” documents obtained by WBEZ show.
Underscoring the secrecy, federal agents were encouraged by the museum’s former Lincoln curator, James Cornelius, to “disguise themselves as a news crew” when they entered the museum, Lowe told WBEZ, based on internal correspondence only recently discovered.
Lowe described the overall secrecy surrounding the FBI testing as a form of “subterfuge.”
“I think there was just a level of secrecy by our foundation, helped by at that point a member of our staff, to do that DNA testing that just seemed … very, very strange to me,” Lowe told WBEZ.
Cornelius could not be reached, and the FBI late Tuesday declined comment on the agency’s analysis on the foundation’s stovepipe hat.
The FBI’s involvement came after the foundation had secretly authorized the Rubenstein-Lewis report after questions about the hat’s authenticity were first raised by the Chicago Sun-Times in 2012.
Rubenstein was chair and curator of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s Division of Political History, and Lewis is executive vice president and chief historian at the Chicago History Museum.
Rubenstein and Lewis, who declined interview requests from WBEZ, urged the foundation in their report to “soften its claim about the hat” and to undertake “a significant research project to confirm and inform its assumptions about the hat.”
The pair also encouraged the museum to “simply not use the hat for exhibitions and publications until research is completed” and to consider asking Taper to take back the hat.
“The museum might want to consider asking the seller to take back the hat if greater documentation is not found,” they wrote. “It is one thing to accept the hat into the collection with limited documentation but another to purchase an item at a considerable expense without significant supporting evidence.
“If the donor truly believes in the artifact and supports the museum then maybe they can be persuaded to make the hat a donation,” Rubenstein and Lewis wrote.
Taper did not respond to an interview request from WBEZ.
In a letter turned over to WBEZ as part of an open records request, Lowe angrily told the foundation’s top officials that he was “shocked” to have not been given the report.
“I have been on the front lines defending the provenance of the hat, but I have been doing that not having all the available information. This is unacceptable. We simply cannot operate that way,” Lowe wrote to foundation CEO Carla Knorowski and foundation Chairman Ray McCaskey.
In that letter, Lowe also told Knorowski and McCaskey that he had unearthed a document at the museum from former state historian Thomas Schwartz, who had arranged a 1988 tour of Lincoln artifacts and borrowed the hat from an earlier owner as part of that tour. Taper purchased the hat from that previous owner for an undisclosed price in 1990.
In 1988, Schwartz valued the hat at $15,000, a far cry from its $6.5 million appraisal in 2007, Lowe told WBEZ.
“I’d like to ask Ms. Taper and Mr. Schwartz, ‘Why between 1988 and 2007, what new thing did you see that led you to change the possible value of that from $15,000 to $6.5 million?’ Certainly, that means somewhere along the point, you saw something that was a slam dunk by saying that this belonged to Abraham Lincoln. And if you didn’t, why did you do that?”
WBEZ was interested in posing that question to Schwartz, now director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, but he ignored an interview request.
In 2007, prior to the foundation’s purchase of the hat and other artifacts from Taper, an appraiser acknowledged he did not investigate the provenance of the hat. Instead, he based his evaluation on “prior in-depth research” by the museum.
In their 2013 report, Rubenstein and Lewis said they couldn’t find any evidence of that research.
“It is not clear that the museum conducted prior-in-depth research. No research notes have been available that support the hat’s authenticity, and basic questions, such as who made the hat remain unanswered,” they said.
Lowe said he has authorized an internal investigation at the museum into the questions raised by Rubenstein and Lewis and has no plans to display the hat until that inquiry is complete.
A call for hearings
Informed of the foundation’s withholding of the full reports, a key Republican lawmaker whose legislative district includes the Lincoln presidential museum reacted angrily and called for legislative hearings.
“I think it’s unconscionable that the foundation would hide this from folks when they’re out there pitching members of the General Assembly, when they’re out there pitching members of the public, to raise funds for the Taper collection,” said state Rep. Tim Butler, a Springfield Republican.
“I can’t understand why the foundation staff would not bring this forward and have an open discussion about the provenance of the hat. It’s very disturbing to me, and I certainly think the foundation needs to be held accountable for their actions on why they’ve kept this from the public,” Butler said.
Late Tuesday, a top Rauner aide characterized the Taper collection as an integral part of the Lincoln museum’s “continued success” but said the administration continues to “gather relevant information” from the foundation about how it intends to repay the loan. Earlier in the day, WBEZ provided Rauner’s office with a copy of the full FBI report commissioned by the foundation, which is the first time the aide had seen it in its entirety.
“As good stewards of the taxpayers’ money, absent full disclosure and a responsible business plan from the foundation, we have not and cannot provide any state resources,” Rauner spokeswoman Patty Schuh said in a statement.
Kalm, with the foundation, said it informed earlier museum staff about the Rubenstein-Lewis report in 2014 and that Lowe was “verbally informed” about that report last January but that he didn’t request a copy of it then.
Kalm said he did not believe his organization, as a not-for-profit, had been under any obligation to turn over the full FBI or curators’ reports to the current museum staff or the Rauner administration while embarking on a fundraising effort.
“If we’d gotten a conclusive finding … you can bet we’d have been shouting that from the rooftops. Right? I think you can appreciate that. The fact they were not able to get not only no DNA from President Lincoln or anyone else from the 1850s or 1860s, we didn’t really have anything to talk about there,” Kalm said.
“What would we talk about? It would be like talking about a baseball game that was rained out,” he said.
Dave McKinney covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter at @davemckinney.