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Several small items arrayed on a gray desk, including a wallet and two pair of glasses.
President Lincoln had these items with him the night he was assassinated. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Photo: Gavin Ashworth.

Treasures Gallery: What Did Lincoln Have in His Pockets the Night of His Assassination?

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—This is a guest post by Mark Dimunation, former chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. It also appears in the May-June issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, which is devoted to the June opening the David M. Rubenstein Treasures Gallery.

Soon after Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., he was carried across the street to a boarding house. At 7:22 the next morning, the 16th president of the United States took his last breath.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton is reported to have said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” A lock of Lincoln’s hair was cut at the request of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Upon Lincoln’s death, his son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was given the contents of the president’s pockets. It was, for the most part, a gathering of the ordinary and everyday: two pairs of eyeglasses; a chamois lens polisher; an ivory and silver pocketknife; a large white Irish linen handkerchief (slightly used) with “A. Lincoln” embroidered in red; a sleeve button with a gold initial “L”; a gold quartz watch fob without a watch; a new silk-lined leather wallet containing a pencil; a Confederate $5 bill; news clippings of unrest in the Confederate Army, emancipation in Missouri and the Union party platform of 1864; and an article on the presidency by John Bright.

Through their association with tragedy, these objects had become relics and were kept in the Lincoln family for more than 70 years. They came to the Library in 1937 as part of a gift from Lincoln’s granddaughter, Mary Lincoln Isham. They joined the Library’s holdings of Lincoln’s papers, forming the nation’s most lasting collection of one of its most revered presidents.

The items were not shown or exhibited until the 1970s. But when they are on display, they always fascinate Library guests. Most of the items in his wallet will be featured in “Collecting Memories: Treasures from the Library of Congress,” the inaugural exhibit of the Library’s new Treasures Gallery, opening June 13. The exhibit will also feature one of Lincoln’s handwritten drafts of the Gettysburg Address, delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863, and an enlarged copy of the only known photo clearly showing him at the ceremony.

Hundreds of people wearing coats and hats crowded together out of doors.
In this highly enlarged detail  from a much larger photograph, Lincoln is at almost the center of the photograph, hatless, looking down slightly, and probably seated. It is such a small part of the original image that Lincoln was not spotted in it until 1952. Photo: Prints and Photographs Division.

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Comments (3)

  1. I would have guessed Lincoln had ticket stubs in his pockets

  2. “a gold quartz watch fob without a watch”
    Someone stole Lincoln’s watch?

  3. I find the $5 Confederate most interesting because it couldn’t be used as money — to exchange for goods — at that point, and Lincoln knew it. It’s more like a souvenir or physical reminder of what had passed and his role in it — its presence completely unnecessary and yet kept close.

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