What They Found In Lincoln’s Pockets the Night He Was Shot

Lincoln was carrying a Confederate bill and pocket knife when he was assassinated.

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The night Abraham Lincoln was shot, he was carrying: a pocket knife, a watch fob, an Irish linen handkerchief, a brown leather wallet, a crisp new Confederate five-dollar bill, two pairs of gold-rimmed spectacles (one held together with string), and eight newspaper clippings, some of which echoed remarks from one of his campaign speeches – that a country divided against itself cannot stand.

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After John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, the Brooks Brothers overcoat the president wore that evening was handed over to his son, Robert Todd. Today, the items from the pockets of the coat are on display at the Library of Congress, about two miles from Ford's Theatre. At a talk Wednesday, the library's rare book and special collections division chief Mark Dimunation said the items would help "understand Lincoln in human terms."

To wit, the way the 16th president fretted about his spectacles. One pair was kept in his pocket for reading, the second for other kinds of viewing. According to Dimunation, Lincoln likely carried the pocket knife because the arms on his glasses had a bad habit of loosening. His concern was justified: Lincoln had strabismus, a visual problem that meant he could not always look people in the eye, and he was farsighted with a diminishing ability to see objects nearby.

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There is also the curious matter of the five-dollar Confederate bill, which Dimunation said, repeating an old joke, was so Lincoln was "prepared for all contingencies." The president is believed to have acquired the bill as a souvenir (of a war won? or what could have been?) when he visited Richmond and Petersburg, Va., just as the Civil War was drawing to a close.

The eight newspaper clippings Lincoln carried were largely positive portrayals of his leadership, but Dimunation stressed that they were less proof of a president's ego than of a man who needed reassurance. "It was a very tough re-election for Lincoln. The war had worn him down... The articles would have been very affirming to him," he said.

The crowd stood mostly quiet, or murmured, as they viewed the relics at the library Wednesday. But when poet Stanley Kunitz first observed the items, in 1976, he felt compelled to write a piece of mourning. "He is slipping away from us/into his legend and his fame/having relinquished, piece by piece/what he carried next to his skin," Kunitz wrote.

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Other clippings from the pockets are reminders of what built Lincoln's legend: one dealt with Missouri's struggles with postwar discussions of slavery, an institution Lincoln described early in his congressional career as "founded on both injustice and bad policy" and helped ultimately abolish. Two more detailed the low morale of Confederate soldiers, which Dimunation said would have been mementos of the major effort of the war: to drive home the principle of union.


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