Just months after authoring a critical report that raised further questions about the provenance of a multimillion dollar stovepipe hat purported to have been owned by President Abraham Lincoln, Illinois’ state historian is out of a job.
A spokesman for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum told WBEZ that Dr. Samuel Wheeler is no longer employed at the ALPLM, where his title was state historian, director of research and collections.
The circumstances of Wheeler’s departure, however, remain unclear. The spokesman declined further comment on whether Wheeler left on his own or whether he was forced out. Wheeler did not respond to WBEZ’s requests for comment. Wheeler’s departure was first reported in the Illinois Times.
The stunning turn of events comes after Wheeler was asked by the former executive director to study the history of the Lincoln hat in August of 2018. His report, which Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration released in December, shows an exhaustive — but still fruitless — effort to tie the hat to Lincoln.
Trustee Kathryn Harris said she sits on a committee of the ALPLM’s board that is investigating the provenance of the hat, which had recently given Wheeler the go-ahead to contact historical textile experts to give further scrutiny to the hat. She hoped that the results of that investigation would finally put to rest the scandal of whether the hat ever belonged to Lincoln.
She was stunned when she says Wheeler called to tell her he was out of a job and had been escorted out of the building — right after a regular board meeting had adjourned where the matter had not come up.
“I can’t get my head around why this was not told to us at the board meeting. The board was caught unawares,” Harris told WBEZ. “And that to me is not good. I thought the whole thing was unprofessional. It appears sinister and any other negative words you might want to attach to the action.”
While Wheeler concluded more study on the hat is warranted, his findings pour an even heavier dose of skepticism on a hat purchased by a private foundation from West Coast collector Louise Taper for display at the ALPLM. The hat was once appraised at $6.5 million.In the report, Wheeler focused on a history of double-dealing, conflicts of interest and a neglect of basic due-diligence in studying the hat’s provenance before its purchase.
He also slammed a “weaponization” of the hat during years of friction between the museum and the not-for-profit that acquired it on behalf of the museum, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation. The hat was the cornerstone of a $25 million haul of Lincoln artifacts in 2007 by the foundation — just as the newly-opened, state-run museum was looking to establish itself as a can’t-miss Illinois tourism destination and a nationally respected institution. At the time of the hat’s purchase, Taper sat on the foundation’s board of directors. Wheeler’s report also found the hat isn’t in Lincoln’s size.
Last year, Pritzker fired the ALPLM’s executive director, Alan Lowe, after Lowe loaned a copy of the Gettysburg Address to conservative commentator Glenn Beck for $50,000, in violation of ALPLM policy. Mercury One, Beck’s right-leaning nonprofit, put the rare artifact on display for three days at its office in Texas as part of a “pop-up” museum in June 2018.
On Thursday, board member Harris further complimented Wheeler’s work, saying she’d heard of no complaints of his performance. She said she couldn’t say whether Wheeler’s departure was related to his report.
“When people say we’re going to go in a different direction, that means nothing,” she said. “It’s words strung together that don’t mean diddly squat.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.