Tag Archives: Lincoln assassination

Important new revelations about the Lincoln assassination. . .or maybe not

A bizarre turn of events in the Drew Peterson trial:

As proceedings began Thursday, the judge announced in court that he’s received a letter from an inmate in Illinois who claims to have information about a link between the former police officer’s murder trial and the 16th president’s assassination.

Judge Edward Burmila says the unnamed inmate wrote that the judge should communicate with him if he wants more details. The judge prompted laughter as he deadpanned, “I won’t be communicating with him.”

Aren’t you just the slightest bit curious?

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Researcher finds assassination report

The Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project has done it again.  One of the project’s researchers has found an eyewitness account of Lincoln’s assassination by Dr. Charles Leale, the first physician to reach the presidential box after Booth’s shot.

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Lincoln opera glasses up for sale

The pair of opera glasses used by Lincoln on the night of his assassination will go up for auction next week, and may sell for anywhere between half a million to three-quarters of a million dollars.

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Warren Greer to speak at LMU’s commemoration of Lincoln’s death

Lincoln Memorial University’s (LMU) Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum (ALLM) will welcome Kentucky Historical Society Professional Services Specialist Warren Greer as the keynote speaker at the University’s annual commemoration of President Lincoln’s death, “Now He Belongs to the Ages” on Friday, April 13.

The commemoration will be held on LMU’s Quadrangle at 10 a.m., as part of the University’s observation of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. In the event of bad weather, it will be moved to the Arnold Auditorium inside the ALLM. “Now He Belongs to the Ages” provides an opportunity for the community to honor President Lincoln’s life and commemorate his untimely death.

LMU Professor of English Elizabeth Lamont will recite Lincoln poetry by Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. The program will also include the musical talent of Dr. Conny Ottway.

For more information, contact Carol Campbell, director of programs, at 423-869-6439 or via email at carol.campbell@lmunet.edu. The event is free and open to the public.

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Booth on the shelf

By Michael Lynch

We seem to have arrived at a resolution to a brief controversy involving a souvenir item that went on sale at both Gettysburg National Military Park’s bookstore and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum’s gift shop.  The item in question is a John Wilkes Booth bobblehead doll, clutching a tiny derringer in his plastic fist.  (Click here to see it for yourself.)  Both institutions removed the item from the shelves in the wake of an online uproar.

Various commentators, including battlefield visitors and historians, have pointed out that a head-bobbling mini-monument to Lincoln’s assassin is not exactly the most tasteful thing to be selling at the ALPLM or at the place where Lincoln delivered his most memorable speech.  I wouldn’t disagree with that sentiment.  As some observers noted, you wouldn’t expect to see an Oswald gimmick on sale at the Sixth Floor Museum.  That’s the difference the passage of a century makes, I suppose.

I think the inventories of museum and historic site gift shops matter more than most of us realize.  Surveys indicate that people accord much more authority to museums than they do to books or other sources of knowledge.  An inaccurate item sold in a gift shop thus takes on a legitimacy that it would never have in another setting.  I’d like to see every museum and historic site put some sort of vetting process in place for the items they sell.

Having said that, I don’t think the Booth bobblehead trivializes Lincoln so much as it trivializes Booth.  It turns him into a comical little target of laughter and derision.  What we have here is not necessarily a celebration of the assassin or his deed, but the sort of commodification and trivialization of history that’s been going on in popular culture for quite some time.  I’m not sure the sale of a Booth bobblehead crosses any discernible line that souvenir manufacturers haven’t already crossed.  Let’s face it—those of us who work or have worked in public history can’t be accused of being too scrupulous about taste when it comes to stocking our gift shops.

Consider the schlock that we willingly peddle to tourists in an effort to offset operating costs: wooden rifles, felt kepis with pinned-on insignia, candy packaged in the form of musket cartridges.  There are plush Lincoln beards that kids can strap onto their faces, pencil sharpeners shaped like busts of Lincoln, and Lincoln teddy bears.  A few bucks will get you an ink pen filled with water containing tiny Confederate soldiers.  Turn the point downward, and the Rebels charge in one direction; turn it upward, and they retrace their steps.  Is the tawdry commercialization of the death of thousands of Civil War soldiers more acceptable than the tawdry commercialization of the death of only one man?

If we want to be brutally honest with ourselves, the answer is probably yes.  The butcher’s bill of the Civil War was so astronomically high in terms of other American conflicts that it becomes almost meaningless.  You can’t visualize hundreds of thousands of dead, but you can easily visualize one, especially when that individual was such a prominent and sympathetic figure as Abraham Lincoln.

If the Booth bobblehead fracas represents any sort of teachable moment, then hopefully it will prompt us to think about the trivialization and commodification of history as a whole, rather than the Lincoln assassination in particular.  We can all agree that turning political murder into a joke is in poor taste; maybe we should consider whether the frivolous invocations of the past we see on store shelves and in the media are just as inappropriate.

—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.

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Bill O’Reilly’s interrupted visit to Ford’s Theatre

By Michael Lynch

Killing Lincoln, the bestseller co-authored by cable news pundit Bill O’Reilly, is in the news right now because one of the Ford’s Theatre gift shops will refrain from carrying it.  The store, located in the theater’s basement museum, is operated by Eastern National, the organization that manages National Park Service stores.  The lobby gift shop, run by the Ford’s Theatre Society, will sell the book.

A Park Service staff member made the recommendation against stocking the book because it contains a number of errors and lacks the usual documentation found in most historical works. Some of the mistakes in the text are minor discrepancies, such as the statement that Ford’s Theatre burned in 1863 instead of 1862. Others are more embarrassing.  For example, O’Reilly and his co-author Martin Dugard place Lincoln in the Oval Office, which wasn’t constructed until decades after the Civil War.  Such errors can pop up occasionally in any piece of scholarship, but the dearth of documentation in Killing Lincoln is striking even for a popularized history book put out by a commercial publisher; there are no endnotes, just a very brief description of published sources at the end of the book.

O’Reilly has framed the affair as a personal battle between himself and a pack of malicious detractors.  On his TV show, he stated (hopefully with his tongue in his cheek) that the book has come under attack by “the forces of darkness.”  He has referred to criticism of the book as “a concerted effort by people who don’t like me” and claims that “our enemies are full of rage at our success.”  That strikes me as a little disingenuous.  The store’s decision not to stock the book is essentially a routine bit of internal NPS business.

Where O’Reilly’s public stature comes into play is not with regard to Eastern National’s call not to sell his book, but the fact that the media thought that decision was a newsworthy item.  Normally a museum shop’s decision not to stock an item wouldn’t be the stuff of national news, but a controversial media personality like O’Reilly makes for an inviting target.  He’s therefore vulnerable to a kind of criticism that doesn’t plague most historical writers.  Maybe that’s unfair, but on the other hand, most historians don’t enjoy the kind of ready-made visibility that would allow them to publish a poorly documented book and see it instantly rocket to the top of the bestseller lists.

For what it’s worth, my issue with Killing Lincoln isn’t so much a complaint about its content as it is a manifestation of perplexity. I’m not sure why such a book needed to be written in the first place. In recent years we’ve seen a number of well-written and carefully researched books on the Lincoln assassination, such as Blood on the Moon by Ed Steers, American Brutus by Michael Kauffman, and Manhunt by James Swanson. These are all scholarly works, but they’re also sufficiently accessible that any non-specialist could enjoy them.  Is O’Reilly bringing anything new to the table?

He has said that Lincoln was an exemplary leader, and that his desire for Americans to draw on his wisdom helped prompt him to write the book. Fair enough, but if you want to unpack Lincoln’s greatness, writing about the assassination seems like an odd way to go about it. Taking a bullet to the back of the head while watching a play wasn’t exactly the most statesmanlike act of Lincoln’s career.

Perhaps O’Reilly decided to tackle Lincoln’s assassination for no other reason than the same pull of the past that’s reeled in countless other history buffs, including myself. If that’s the case, I can admire his enthusiasm, even if I’d be hesitant to recommend his book to anybody else who’s caught the same bug.  In any case, the book’s absence from the shelves of the NPS gift shop doesn’t seem to be affecting its popularity. As of this writing, it holds the number two spot on the New York Times list of hardcover non-fiction bestsellers.

—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.

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Assassination artifacts in new home

The bullet that took Lincoln’s life, as well as fragments of the President’s skull, are now safely settled in their new quarters along with other items from the National Museum of Health and Medicine’s collection:

The lead ball and several skull fragments from the 16th president are in a tall, antique case overlooking a Civil War exhibit in a museum gallery in Silver Spring, just off the Capital Beltway.

The military museum, known for its collection of morbid oddities, moved in September from the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. At Walter Reed, visitors had to pass through a security gate and find the museum on the campus, where parking could be a problem.

You can learn more about the museum by visiting its official website.

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