Ford’s Theatre Displays Lincoln’s Bloodstained Coat

Posted February 16, 2011 at 5:00pm

The bloodstained coat still bears the inscription, “One Country, One Destiny.”

The sleeve has fallen off, after a hundred years of souvenir hunters snipping bits away from the shoulder as relics. But along with the embroidered motto, spattered blood remains on the coat that President Abraham Lincoln wore the night he was shot by John Wilkes Booth.

After months of conservation, the original coat is back on display at Ford’s Theatre until August. Because it is delicate, the garment can only be exhibited for six months before it must return to storage. While the original is on its conservation vacation, the theater will exhibit a replica.

“We have to strike a balance between the resource and making it available to our visiting public,” said Rae Emerson, deputy superintendent of Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site.

Brooks Brothers gave Lincoln the one-of-a-kind gift for his second inauguration. The wool and silk coat’s quilted black lining features the embroidered eagle and pennant, as well as an array of shields. Historians believe the president put it over his shoulders because he was cold while watching the play on that fateful night of April 14, 1865.

After the assassination, family lore has it that Mary Todd Lincoln gave the clothes the president wore that night to Alphonso Donn, the White House doorman. Donn stored them in a trunk in his home, and visitors would come by to view the coat. Some even removed pieces of it as souvenirs.

P.T. Barnum and many others tried to buy the clothes from him, but Donn refused. He did, however, lend the garments to sculptor Vinnie Ream as a reference for the Lincoln statue in the Capitol.

In 1968, the American Trucking Association Foundation donated $25,000 to the U.S. Capitol Historical Society to buy the coat from the Donn family, and it has been with the National Park Service ever since.

“When it came back to the National Park Service, you could see the collar was almost detached, the sleeve was off and pieces were missing from the shoulder where people had taken snippets as souvenirs,” Emerson said. “Conservation had to take place to stabilize the artifact.”

When on display, the coat is housed in a special, environmentally controlled case that monitors temperature and humidity. The coat is bathed in low light, and to see the lining’s detailing, visitors often must press their faces up to the glass to view the inscription.

When the coat heads out in August for its climate- and humidity-controlled six-month stint at the NPS Museum Resource Center in Maryland, it will go with an entourage.

“The U.S. Park Police escorts the coat anytime it travels or moves because it’s an extraordinary piece of Americana,” Emerson said.

But there’s one thing, she said, that makes Lincoln’s coat really special — and well worth a visit to Ford’s Theatre.

“The neatest thing is it belongs to the American people,” Emerson said.

Lincoln’s original coat is located in the Ford’s Theatre Atlantic Lobby at 511 10th St. NW.