Illinois’ state historian says he can’t confirm whether a stovepipe hat that was once the crown jewel of Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln presidential museum actually belonged to the nation’s 16th president.
That previously undisclosed assessment by the now-fired executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Alan Lowe, was made in a June email with a senior aide to Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker.
The documents, recently obtained by WBEZ, shed the first light on the workings of state historian Samuel Wheeler, who last year was asked by Lowe to research the hat as questions mounted over its shaky tie to Lincoln.
State emails turned over by the Pritzker administration through an open records request show Wheeler and his associates pored through the vast collection of the Illinois State Archives and through the papers of the hat’s ex-owner, an early 20th century downstate lawmaker.
But they found no corroboration that the hat – once valued at $6.5 million – is legit.
“It appears from my discussions with the state historian that he and his team have found no evidence confirming the hat belonged to President Lincoln,” Lowe wrote to Deputy Gov. Jesse Ruiz in a June 5 email.
Since 2012, uncertainty over the validity of the beaver-skin stovepipe hat has been a thorn in the side of the private Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, which buys artifacts for the state-run museum. It bought the hat in 2007 for display in the museum along with other Lincoln artifacts purchased in the $25 million haul.
The foundation steadfastly has maintained Lincoln gave the hat to a southern Illinois farmer. But historians at the Smithsonian and Chicago History museums – and even forensic analysts with FBI – found no evidence the hat ever sat atop Lincoln’s head.
And Wheeler’s work only adds to that body of disbelief.
Foundation blocks access to hat by historic-clothing expert
The internal emails obtained by WBEZ also show growing tensions between the foundation board and Lowe, who was abruptly fired by the governor last week.
In the same June 5 email to the governor’s office, Lowe wrote that the state historian’s research into the provenance of the disputed hat was being put on hold because the foundation was blocking his efforts to get to the bottom of the hat mystery. Lowe wrote that the foundation rejected an attempt to have a Virginia-based textile expert examine the hat to see if it was consistent with stovepipe hats of Lincoln’s era.
That step was recommended in 2013 by historians at the Smithsonian and Chicago History museums in a previously secret assessment of the hat commissioned by the foundation. Last year, Lowe unearthed that assessment on his own, which concluded there was “insufficient evidence” to support whether the hat ever belonged to Lincoln.
“Given the foundation’s apparent denial of approval to bring in the costume expert, I see no reason to proceed further with your research,” Lowe wrote to Wheeler, the state historian, in May. “If we were finally given that permission at some later date and found out the hat was made, let’s say, in 1890, then we will have wasted time and resources.”
Relations between museum officials and the clout-heavy foundation have been inflamed for months, and the efforts by Lowe and Wheeler to bring in the textile expert from Colonial Williamsburg to study the hat appeared to heighten tensions.
In a May 30 letter to Lowe, the chairman of the foundation’s board, Ray McCaskey, flashed anger over the maneuver.
“This took us by surprise since we had no knowledge of additional research related to the provenance of the hat,” wrote McCaskey, who demanded Lowe meet with his board to update them on Wheeler’s research and to “collaboratively make an informed decision as to how best to move forward.”
In that same letter, McCaskey also questioned Lowe about his apparent prohibition of anyone with the foundation from contacting staff at the presidential museum except for the facility’s now-departed chief of staff.
One of foundation board’s vice chairmen, Nick Kalm, told WBEZ this week that the group never intended to shut the door on additional testing of the hat and blamed Lowe for not responding to the request for a meeting.
“We support any and all reasonable steps to further confirm the provenance of the hat,” Kalm said in a statement. “We merely wanted to ensure that any such steps be taken in consultation and coordination with the foundation, as we are the hat’s owners. We never received a response from Director Lowe to our request for a meeting to discuss this important issue.”
It’s not clear whether the dust-up played any factor into Lowe’s firing by the Pritzker administration last week. Aides to the governor have declined to offer any explanation for ousting Lowe, a veteran of presidential libraries for Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Franklin Roosevelt.
“We can’t comment on personnel matters,” Pritzker spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in an emailed statement.
Both Lowe and Wheeler declined to comment.
‘Cool it’ on the Lincoln hat research, said ex-Illinois gov
The email trove obtained by WBEZ also contains new threads of political intrigue relating to the Lincoln hat mystery – this time involving former Republican Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, president emeritus of the Lincoln foundation board.
Edgar chaired the foundation’s board when it bought the now-dubious hat back in 2007.
In a June 5 email with Lowe, Deputy Gov. Ruiz disclosed that Edgar was the one who told him weeks earlier about the museum’s efforts to bring in the outside textile expert to investigate the hat.
Pritzker’s office declined a WBEZ request to interview Ruiz, whose authority within the governor’s office includes oversight of the Lincoln museum.
But in an interview with Edgar, the ex-governor told WBEZ that he reached out to Pritzker’s office to raise concerns about the timing of the testing on the hat and its potential impact on legislation the foundation was trying to pass in the waning days of the spring session.
The bill, among other things, established a working group of foundation and museum board officials “to collaborate to advance the interests of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.” Wheeler, the state historian, was named chairman.
The legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, passed without the support of the museum, which at the time regarded the measure as a potential threat to its autonomy from the foundation, sources said.
Edgar said that reigniting the controversial hat debate would have only hurt the bill’s chances.
“To have that come up at the end-of-session when you’re trying to get the bill passed didn’t make sense to me. That was my comment to the governor’s office: ‘You might want to have everybody cool it.’”
Pressed about the questions involving the hat’s authenticity, the governor said, “My thing on it is I’m not sure they’ll ever know one way or another, and so this could go on forever to some extent.”
Illinois’ first lady pays a visit to the disputed hat
Besides Edgar’s previously undisclosed involvement, the emails obtained by WBEZ showed another political luminary with a specific interest in the hat: Illinois First Lady MK Pritzker.
And that interest was displayed more than two months after the governor’s office was put on notice that the hat had no apparent tie to Lincoln.
In August, the first lady’s chief operations officer, Christine Lovely, asked Lowe to arrange a private tour of the state’s Lincoln artifacts for MK Pritzker and a group of her friends.
“Can they see that hat?” Lovely wrote to Lowe.
Lovely emerged as a figure involved in a controversial property tax appeal that the governor and his wife made on their Gold Coast mansion, which WBEZ has reported is under federal investigation. Lovely has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
In an Aug. 13 email, Lovely identified the group scheduled for a private inspection of the hat and other Lincoln relics. Those guests appeared to include a who’s who within Chicago social circles: Neal Zucker, a philanthropist and owner of a Chicago window-washing company with state contracts; Nora Daley, daughter of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley; Marko Iglendza, the owner of a national spa chain that has locations at O’Hare International Airport; and Estelle Walgreen, the ex-wife to the heir of the Walgreen drugstore chain.
“The first lady is interested in culture and history, and she has seen items in the collections of many of Illinois’ museums,” said Bittner, the governor’s spokeswoman.
But Pritzker’s office made one thing clear: The state has no interest in acquiring the hat from the foundation.
“The administration is not pursuing state ownership of the hat in question,” Bittner said.
Dave McKinney covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.