President Lincoln’s Greatcoat: A Symbol of Promise
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” spotlights style from the eighteenth century. The hallmark presentation includes President Lincoln’s greatcoat from the fateful night of April 14, 1865. However, the coat, which Brooks Brothers made for the 16th president’s second inauguration, conveys more than the tragic event at Ford’s Theatre. Reignette Chilton, the author of “Lincoln’s Greatcoat: The Unlikely Odyssey of a Presidential Relic,” shares highlights from the untold story about the coat and its long, intriguing journey.
President Lincoln’s Greatcoat: A Symbol of Promise
When Abraham Lincoln took his presidential oath on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol on March 4, 1865, he wore a magnificent Brooks Brothers’ greatcoat that boasted the declaration, “One Country, One Destiny.” Its wool was “finer than cashmere,” and the quilted silk lining revealed a hand-stitched design of an eagle on two inside panels. For the nation’s humble leader, who would pledge to “bind up wounds,” it was an inspiring piece of sartorial elegance.
By the late winter of 1865, the nation “had passed through one of the hottest furnaces of trial known to national life.” The bloody Civil War had claimed more than a half-million lives, destroyed thousands of miles of landscape, and wounded the nation’s soul. Still, its people remained hopeful. The long night of sorrows and tears was passing, and the “full sunrise of peace,” as expressed by a local daily, was imminent. Indeed, President Lincoln’s second inauguration was the “holiday of gladness” that the wounded nation had longed to embrace.
The 16th president’s second inauguration was particularly meaningful for those who had longed to be free. The nation’s twentieth inaugural ceremony was the first time African Americans were invited to join the festivities. There, they gathered by the thousands to witness the inauguration of their leader, liberator, and friend. “As long as I live,” President Lincoln said weeks later to a gathering of emancipated African Americans in Richmond, “no one shall put a shackle on your limbs. You shall have all the rights which God has given to every other free citizen of this republic.”
Sadly, an assassin’s bullet would end the Great Emancipator’s quest to “finish the work.” Forty-one days after the inaugural ceremony, the greatcoat made for that historic occasion would grace the president’s shoulders on the evening of April 14, 1865. It was an ironic and cruel twist of fate.
The performance on that Good Friday should have been a joyous event. Days earlier, General Lee surrendered his Confederate troops, and the long, divisive Civil War was nearing its end. Yet the scars of division and malice still lingered with a dashing actor. Just after 10 p.m., when the third act of Our American Cousin was well underway, John Wilkes Booth crept into the unprotected State Box, aimed his single-shot pistol at President Lincoln, and fired the lethal bullet. Amid the ensuing uproar, which the press later described as “the wildest possible,” the acclaimed actor — now assassin — made his daring escape.
After nine grueling hours, President Abraham Lincoln drew his last earthly breath at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865. A local paper described the president’s sudden death as “the saddest day imaginable.”
After her husband’s untimely demise, a grieving Mary Lincoln gave her husband’s black greatcoat to Alphonso Donn, a doorkeeper at the Executive Mansion. Her gift also included a black suit. She asked him to cherish the clothing always “in memory of the best and noblest man that ever lived.”
Alphonso Donn remained faithful to the first lady’s wish. Though he allowed two artists to borrow the clothing to complement their work, he rejected substantial offers to purchase the garments, including a $20,000 bid from the circus showman, P. T. Barnum. Nothing, including vast sums of cash or a brick house, “could induce him to part with them.” Ever faithful, Alphonso Donn cherished the relics of his beloved president for the rest of his earthly days.
By the turn of the century, Alphonso Donn’s heirs recognized the historic significance the clothing — and the man who wore them — now held. Thus, they sought to place the clothing in a museum or with a government institution. Unfortunately, their noble quest to place the relics where they “unquestionably belong” would encounter multiple rejections, a mysterious buyer, and accusations of “crooked work.”
The first setback came in 1915 when a Massachusetts congressman’s bill to appropriate funds to purchase the relics for eventual display in the Lincoln Memorial failed in committee. Then, in 1920, a deal with the Smithsonian Institution collapsed when no patron came forward to purchase the relics. Later, in early 1924, Brooks Brothers, the maker of the resplendent greatcoat, turned down the opportunity to buy the collection because it found the asking price — more than $20,000 — “prohibitive.”
After the failed attempt to sell the garments to Brooks Brothers, Alphonso Donn’s widowed daughter-in-law placed the items for sale at a well-known auction house in Philadelphia. The ubiquitous and mostly favorable press reports about the pending sale announced that the “clothes worn by Abraham Lincoln” would be knocked down by the highest bidder. They reported the value of the “immortal Abe’s outfit” at $15,000. Despite a sale that promised to deliver a substantial gain, the items brought the highest bid of only $6500 to a gentleman who said his name was “Mr. Douglas.” Then, an enigma quickly developed: Mr. Douglas would not divulge his actual name, and he — through the auctioneer — returned the clothing to the doorkeeper’s heirs. Though this unusual move incited an inquisitive press, a startling allegation from a well-known historical society would quickly abate any interest in revealing who Mr. Douglas was or his motive.
The Chicago Historical Society said it had the coat President Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre. Further, the Society declared that its Lincoln coat, which it had acquired from a local philanthropist, was the only one President Lincoln wore on his last visit to Ford’s Theatre. A sympathetic press quickly joined the fury with whispered tales of “crooked work,” deceit, and suspicion. Despite the publicized controversy, neither the Society nor the press would investigate the dispute, and the Society’s coat would emerge as the uncontested winner. For the next quarter-century, the garments Mary Lincoln gave to the faithful doorkeeper would quietly rest inside a safe deposit box.
A monumental contribution to the Donn Collection’s provenance transpired in February of 1949 when the director of the Chicago Historical Society quietly removed its “Lincoln coat” from the museum’s permanent display. The director noted that he had “seen the evidence” and concluded that “the clothing possessed by the Society cannot be what it purports to be.” A few years later, he called the coat a “phony.” At last, the stains of “crooked work” and “second best” — unfairly linked to the Donn Collection for twenty-five years — vanished, albeit quietly.
Despite the relics’ established authenticity, Alphonso Donn’s descendants could not make a sale. The Department of the Interior rejected an offer in the 1950s, and the Smithsonian Institution turned away two opportunities to purchase the clothing in the early 1960s. Neither the “reasonable” asking price of $25,000 nor a further reduction to $15,000 could persuade the prestigious museum to acquire the collection.
As a result of these disappointments, the Donn family’s hope of a sale seemed improbable, and the relics would likely rest with their heirs. “The collection may pass on to our children and grandchildren,” they reluctantly admitted. At the time, no one could foresee that the restoration of Ford’s Theatre — the scene of President Lincoln’s assassination — would bring a just end to the family’s ongoing crusade.
By 1967, the National Park Service was nearing the end of its multi-year restoration of Ford’s Theatre and the Lincoln Museum. The “living memorial to the man and his love of the theater” was expected to open in February of 1968. Accordingly, the U.S. Department of the Interior was interested in the clothing, and Representative Fredrick Schwengel, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society chair, drove the quest to acquire the relics.
But the $50,000 asking price was steep. Since a congressional appropriation was unlikely, the interior department launched a media-sponsored campaign for a patron to meet the price. It quickly ran into several roadblocks. Brooks Brothers considered the price tag “way out of line,” potential donors lost interest or were repelled by the connection with “assassination and death.” Even Hollywood said no. Despite the rejections, the tenacious congressman prevailed.
Just days before the opening of the newly restored theater and museum, Representative Schwengel had an unrelated opportunity to meet with the secretary of the American Trucking Associations. After Schwengel shared the story about the relics and his quest to place them in the new Lincoln Museum, the Associations’ secretary, Henry Liebschutz, offered to buy the relics for $25,000 on behalf of the American Trucking Industry.
Alphonso Donn’s elderly granddaughter quickly accepted the offer, and the clothing returned to Ford’s Theatre and the Lincoln Museum on January 22, 1968. Then, on the following day, Representative Schwengel unveiled the coat that bore the uniting declaration, “One Country, One Destiny.” The greatcoat, he said at the historic presentation, “speaks to us from beyond. [It] speaks of peace, order, mutual respect, and understanding.”
For the next forty-three years, the magnificent greatcoat enthralled multitudes of visitors. But the silent assassins of lighting, long-term display, and unregulated temperature lurked within its innocuous refuge. Consequently, the fragile garment could not escape from the environmental nemeses contributing to its potential demise. After collective pleas from textile preservationists, the National Park Service decided to retire the greatcoat from the permanent display at the Ford’s Theatre Museum. Instead, visitors to the historic site would see a striking replica that Brooks Brothers, the maker of the original greatcoat, donated to the nation in 1990.
Since 2011, the greatcoat has twice emerged from its protective sanctuary. In 2015, in remembrance of the 16th president’s death, the exhibit “Silent Witnesses” featured the coat among an impressive display of assassination artifacts. Today, one can see the greatcoat at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit, “In America: Anthology of Fashion.” The innovative exhibition at the renowned museum runs through September 5, 2022.
Though President Lincoln wore his greatcoat when the assassin fired the fatal bullet, the coat is not a bloody trophy. Instead, the greatcoat is a symbol of promise. A promise to bind up wounds, care for others, and “cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” In 1865, President Lincoln asked a wounded yet hopeful nation to “strive on to finish the work.” Let’s keep that promise in 2022.
Copyright: Reignette G. Chilton
Image Credit: Library of Congress, Carol Highsmith, photographer.