April 15, 2011
On April 15, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln died from a gunshot wound he’d suffered the night at before at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. The assassin John Wilkes Booth fled the scene.The events following the assassination have been studied endlessly by historians and is the subject of today’s wide release of Robert Redford’s The Conspirator.And though we know more now about the circumstances of that night than ever before, there still remains a sense of intrigue about the conspiracy to kill the president.
“It is the sort of tragedy that is embedded in American history,” says Harry Rubenstein, curator of political history at the American History Museum. Because Lincoln was so close to celebrating victory, his death, says Rubenstein, was all the more poignant and terrible.
At the National Museum of American History, in the exhibit Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life, visitors will encounter a number of artifacts from the night and the days directly following the assassination.
A simple gold embossed coffee cup is on view. It was left on windowsill at the White House by the President just before he left to attend the theater.
A bloodstained cuff is one of the more gruesome objects, it was worn by lead actress Laura Keene who rushed to the president’s side at the theater that night to give him water. The actress saved the dress and preserved it throughout her life and eventually her family donated it to the Smithsonian.
Also on view are the surgical instruments used by a still unknown physician in the autopsy that was conducted at the White House. The instruments were given to a young doctor that assisted in the procedure, Alfred D. Wilson, preserved by his family and then later donated to the Medical Society of the County of Kings in Brooklyn, New York.
Another chilling reminder are the prison hoods and shackles worn by the imprisoned conspirators. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered the prisoners to wear the hoods at all times. In 1903, the War Department transferred the hoods, shackles and prison key to the Smithsonian.
The book accompanying the exhibit, Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life by Harry Rubenstein, can be purchased here. The exhibition is on view through May 30.
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