WBEZ Exclusive: Report Finds No Evidence Disputed Stovepipe Hat Belonged To Lincoln

Lincoln’s hat
This beaver-skin stovepipe hat purportedly belonged to Abraham Lincoln, but its provenance is now the topic of fierce debate. Dave McKinney / WBEZ
Lincoln’s hat
This beaver-skin stovepipe hat purportedly belonged to Abraham Lincoln, but its provenance is now the topic of fierce debate. Dave McKinney / WBEZ

WBEZ Exclusive: Report Finds No Evidence Disputed Stovepipe Hat Belonged To Lincoln

A 16-month state study finds no new evidence to authenticate a disputed, multi-million dollar stovepipe hat purportedly owned by Abraham Lincoln that has been displayed at his presidential museum in Springfield.

The report released Monday by Illinois State Historian Samuel Wheeler found the hat did not appear to be in Lincoln’s hat size. The study also found the hat was sold in the 1950s to a downstate antique shop for just $1, and its apocryphal Lincoln connection wasn’t even known to descendants of its original owners.

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 Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The hat was once appraised at $6.5 million.

“I believe the past can be instructive, if we take the time to examine it and resolve never to repeat the same mistakes,” Wheeler wrote in the 54-page report obtained exclusively by WBEZ.

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 saga, which has evolved into one of the state’s great historic whodunnits, involved luminaries like former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, the widow of former Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert and the spouse of convicted political influence peddler William Cellini, who all played a role in moving ahead with the purchase.

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.

A dubious gift to a farmer

The foundation’s official history of the hat, mimicked by past administrations at the museum, held that Lincoln gave the hat to a farmer, William Waller, during a visit to Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. The gesture represented a token of gratitude for taking up Lincoln’s pro-Union, Republican cause in heavily Democratic southern Illinois during the war, officials have said.

That version of events is spelled out on a single piece of paper that dates back to 1958. That’s when Waller’s daughter-in-law signed an affidavit sought by a purchaser of the hat, James Hickey, a long-serving state employee charged with curating the state’s vast collection of Lincoln artifacts between the 1950s and 1980s.

Hickey acquired the hat for an undisclosed price from a downstate antique shop, where Waller’s daughter-in-law, Clara Waller, had sold it for just $1 after the 1956 death of her husband,former Illinois State Representative Elbert Waller.

Now deceased, Hickey left his job in government in 1984 after questions arose about the propriety of him being in control of state-owned Lincoln memorabilia while at the same time acquiring similar items for his own personal collection – a practice Wheeler described in his report as “widely recognized today as unethical.”

Hickey would go on to loan the hat to the state on various occasions, including the 1981 drawing between former Republican Gov. Richard Ogilvie and former Democratic Gov. Sam Shapiro to decide which party would control legislative redistricting during the 1980s. And in 1988, former Gov. James Thompson sought to have the hat included in a traveling exhibit of Lincoln artifacts bound for Taiwan as part of an effort to recruit Asian businesses to Illinois. The hat was appraised then as being worth $15,000.

How the hat sold for millions

Two years later, in 1990, Hickey sold the hat to Taper for an undisclosed price. In 2007, Taper sold the hat - and the story of its supposed lineage - to the Lincoln foundation, which buys artifacts for the museum in Springfield.

One of the main behind-the-scenes brokers of the deal between Taper and the Lincoln foundation was then-state historian Thomas Schwartz, a long-time friend of Taper’s and Hickey’s hand-picked successor. Schwartz has declined past interview requests by members of the news media but spoke with Wheeler during his research on the hat.

In the days leading up to the sale, Schwartz traveled to Taper’s California home to inventory all of the items coming to Springfield, which included things like the blood-stained gloves Mary Todd Lincoln wore at Ford’s Theater on the night of her husband’s assassination.

“When his attention turned to the stovepipe hat, the centerpiece of the acquisition, Dr. Schwartz was shocked to learn its provenance was much more tenuous than he previously believed,” Wheeler wrote.

The report says Schwatrtz had assumed Hickey got the hat from Lincoln’s great-grandson during a trip to Vermont. But then he saw Clara Waller’s 1958 affidavit revealing the hat’s history was entirely based on circumstantial evidence.

“Instead of alerting [the foundation] that the most valuable item in the collection would require much more research, Dr. Schwartz dismissed his concerns,” Wheeler wrote. “Like Taper, Dr. Schwartz concluded the hat must be a genuine Lincoln artifact because Hickey believed it to be so.”

Neither Schwartz nor Taper could be reached late Friday.

It wasn’t until a news story in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2012 that questions emerged publicly about the provenance of the hat, which resulted in what Wheeler described as “immense implications for the repayment of the Taper debt.”

In that story, when pressed for proof that William Waller traveled to Washington during the Civil War to meet Lincoln, a top museum official acknowledged there wasn’t any, and that the institution had taken the “historic liberty” to change the story behind the hat. Instead of Lincoln giving it to Waller during the Civil War, the museum contended it was much more plausible that the handoff occurred during an 1858 debate between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in southern Illinois – again, an assertion for which no proof existed.

Over the years, the foundation took steps to have the hat secretly swabbed by the FBI for possible Lincoln DNA, which yielded no positive results. And the foundation sought input from top historians at the Smithsonian Museum and Chicago History Museum, who both concluded not enough evidence existed to support the notion the hat belonged to Lincoln.

More steps to authenticate hat – and new evidence

Fast-forward to August of 2018, when Wheeler was ordered by former museum director Alan Lowe to conduct his own study into the hat. His report, which Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration is now releasing, shows an exhaustive – but still fruitless – effort to tie the hat to Lincoln.

Wheeler analyzed hundreds of pages of writings by Waller’s son, Elbert, the former state legislator, held by archivists at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

But Wheeler found not a single mention of the hat in any documents.

“The inability to thus far find any documentation from William or Elbert Waller that illustrates they believed the stovepipe hat once belonged to Lincoln is troubling,” Wheeler wrote.

In his report, Wheeler also voiced skepticism about Clara Waller’s decision to part ways with a seemingly irreplaceable artifact shortly after her husband’s death.

Her “decision to sell the stovepipe hat to a local antique store for just $1 is concerning,” he wrote. “If the stovepipe hat was indeed one of Elbert Waller’s prized possessions and was a tangible link connecting the Waller family to Abraham Lincoln, why did Clara not give the hat to Elbert’s surviving son…or his grandson, who lived in Kansas?”

Wheeler took the extraordinary step to attempt to reach some of Waller’s descendants, who remembered Elbert and Clara Waller. But again, he came up dry.

“Several individuals could recall specific conversations they had with the couple,” Wheeler wrote. “However, no one I spoke with recalled hearing anything from them about a stovepipe hat that once belonged to Abraham Lincoln.”

During the course of his research, Wheeler received – via Schwartz – two previously unknown letters written by Clara Waller, including one that alleged William Waller held “a position we would now call (F.B.I.).” That post led Waller to Washington, D.C., to meet with Lincoln during the Civil War where the two men “traded hats” after discovering they had the same hat size, she claimed.

Despite all of the questions surrounding the hat’s provenance that have swirled for seven years, this is the first time this document has emerged. But Wheeler dismissed it as unverifiable.

One last area of focus for Wheeler was a 2013 set of talking points produced by the state to “quell any doubts about the stovepipe hat’s provenance.” Wheeler asserted that document contained numerous “untruths,” including the very basic claim about the actual hat size of the hat.

The state has long maintained Lincoln wore a size 7 1/8, which it said matched the hat. But Wheeler found something else.

“I used a tailor’s tape and tried to get an accurate measurement of the hat,” he said. “I measured the hat at 7 ¼,” meaning a much looser fit if it truly were Lincoln’s hat.

Wheeler also took issue with the museum’s claim that Lincoln used the hat to store important documents while wearing it. He said he could find “no opening in the lining where one might place a document for safekeeping.”

Additionally, the museum claimed in its talking points that the hat bore the imprint of a Springfield hatmaker, but Wheeler said he could find no evidence a “faded floral motif” inside the hat was really the calling card of that hatmaker.

Finally, one last selling point the museum used for the hat were two worn spots on its brim that purportedly were the result from Lincoln’s “frequent doffing” of it when meeting people. But Wheeler cast doubts on the claim, as well, even hinting that the markings could have been faked.

“What are the odds that every time the owner of the hat doffed it, his fingerprints would land on exactly the same place? Instead of two perfectly formed fingerprints, it would seem more logical for a large, discolored, or even worn spot to appear on the right side of the brim,” Wheeler wrote.

“If the fingerprints were not left there by the owner of the hat, it then becomes possible they were placed there,” he said.

The verdict? More hat research needed

Despite the mountain of evidence he presented indicating otherwise, Wheeler concluded his report by saying he had not been able to make a final determination as to whether Abraham Lincoln ever actually owned the hat. Instead, he said more research is “abundantly warranted.”

He recommends having costume experts specializing in 19th century hats assess the discrepancies involving the size, the absence of a document storage area and the markings on the brim that the museum has presented to thousands of museum visitors as worn areas from Lincoln’s fingerprints.

He also advised that any future acquisitions be preceded by a thorough assessment of the items’ provenance.

“No matter what the final determination proves to be on the stovepipe hat, it is clear that no one at [the museum] conducted any research on the object before it was acquired in 2007,” Wheeler said.

He said Schwartz only relied on “the word of his predecessor and mentor, James Hickey, who had a clear financial interest in claiming the stovepipe hat was Lincoln’s.”

Wheeler added that the foundation should avoid making future multimillion-dollar transactions with its board members, as was the case with Louise Taper.

“By doing so, the board invited criticism from those who would claim the transaction unfairly benefited one of its members,” he said.

What happens next is not entirely clear, though there does not seem to be any serious effort to pursue litigation against Taper nor even to ask her to take back the hat and refund the $6.5 million the board borrowed to buy it.

In a statement, Pritzker’s newly-installed chairman of the presidential library board praised Wheeler’s work and hinted at a continued presence of the hat at the museum, though its display was put on hiatus by the past museum director.

“Dr. Wheeler and other historians at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum have done important work in trying to track the history of this object,” said former federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We look forward to working with the foundation to explore continued research and ultimately decide how the hat can best be used to educate museum visitors.”

A spokesman for the foundation pledged its future cooperation with Wheeler but stopped short of saying his research offered enough evidence to close the book on the hat saga.

“We completely support and are fully cooperating with Dr. Sam Wheeler, the state of Illinois historian, and the state of Illinois’ efforts to further determine the provenance of the hat,” foundation spokesman and board member Nick Kalm said in a statement. “Our commitment to having the best possible working relationship with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is stronger than ever.”

Dave McKinney covers state politics and government at WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.