How would you like to see a stovepipe hat not worn by Abraham Lincoln?
If that’s the kind of thing that piques your interest, put a visit to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield at the top of your to-do list.
The museum has a beaver-skin stovepipe hat that was — not is — considered to be one of its crown jewels. But no more.
Once valued at $6.5 million and purchased along with other Lincoln artifacts for $25 million by the museum’s foundation, the hat’s elite status as a onetime occupant of the top of Abraham Lincoln’s head is no more.
A museum official informed Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office in June that he couldn’t confirm whether the stovepipe hat once belonged to the nation’s 16th president.
“It appears from my discussions with the state historian that he and his team have found no evidence confirming the hat belonged to President Lincoln,” Alan Lowe wrote to Deputy Gov. Jesse Ruiz in a June 5 email.
The news was disclosed in a recent report by WBEZ’s Dave McKinney. Although the provenance of the hat has been the subject of considerable public speculation, the Pritzker administration did not disclose the bad news when informed of it.
Instead, WBEZ confirmed the news by filing freedom-of-information requests for email communications among those overseeing the issue.
McKinney reported the documents “shed the first light on the workings of state historian Samuel Wheeler, who last year was asked by (then library executive director Alan) Lowe to research the hat as questions mounted over its shaky tie to Lincoln.”
They revealed that “Wheeler and his associates pored through the vast collection of the Illinois State Archives and through the papers of the hat’s ex-owner, an early 20th-century downstate lawmaker.”
“It appears from my discussions with the state historian that he and his team have found no evidence confirming the hat belonged to President Lincoln,” Lowe wrote to Ruiz in a June 5 email.
It has long been the position of members of the museum foundation board that the hat in question was a gift from Lincoln to a southern Illinois farmer. So it would be no surprise if they feel they have a stake in the hat being authentic and do not appreciate assertions to the contrary.
But how one goes about proving — or disproving — a story like that represents an incredible challenge.
Investigators went to great lengths to do so. WBEZ reports that museum investigators called in a variety of experts before reaching their conclusion the hat is a phony. WBEZ said “historians at the Smithsonian and Chicago History museums — and even forensic analysts with the FBI — found no evidence the hat ever sat atop Lincoln’s head.”
Controversy surrounding the hat has been the source of anger and discord between library and museum officials and members of the foundation board. Just recently, Pritzker fired executive director Lowe.
Lowe’s dismissal may please some members of the foundation board, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were sold a pig in a poke in the form of a dishonest hat that never adorned Honest Abe’s head.
That does not change the fact that Lincoln museum offers visitors tremendous insights into the life and times of the president who saved the union or that its library provides a treasure trove of research material for historians. Not withstanding the lack of an authentic hat in the museum’s collection, readers should check it out and see for themselves.