I hadn’t until I read Treasures of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, edited by Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein, a spirited and beautifully illustrated book about some of the cool stuff in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.
Turns out that Abraham Lincoln II, called “Jack” by family and friends, was the only son of Robert Todd Lincoln, the only one of the 16th President’s four sons to reach adulthood. An important figure in Chicago and in national government during the late 19th century, Robert was the American ambassador to Great Britain in 1889. Jack was in boarding school there when a cut on his arm grew infected, and, within a few months, he was dead at the age of 16.
His grieving parents had a death mask made (just as a death mask had been made of his assassinated grandfather), and, from that, Theophilius Fisk Mills created a mournful 25-inch-tall porcelain bust of the boy that is now one of the Library’s treasures.
Another teeenagerAnother treasure has to do with another teenager, an alert 14-year-old named Ronald D. Rietveld who, in 1952, was at the beginning of a lifelong fascination with Lincoln.
Rietveld was the sort of go-getter teen who would write letters to Carl Sandburg, and he had made friends with Dr. Harry E. Pratt, the Illinois state historian. One day, Pratt took the boy to the Illinois State Historical Library, then located in the Centennial Building in Springfield. (The institution was renamed the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum when the present two buildings were opened in 2004.)
Given a random manila file at from the archives of Lincoln’s two secretaries to look at, Rietveld paged through the materials and opened a letter from 1887 and, inside, found a photograph of Lincoln’s body in his coffin in the White House flanked by an Army general and a Navy admiral. The discovery of this previously unknown last photograph of the President quickly became front page news across the nation.
The raw material of history
Treasures is a cornucopia of the raw material of history, just as the library itself is a vast storehouse of these precious gems, so essential to historians — and, indeed, each of us — in trying to understand what happened in the past in order to understand who we are today.
Over the years, I’ve had a lot to do with the library. As a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, I wrote about its Lincoln collection, located at that time in the bowels of the Old State Capitol, and did extensive reporting on the building and opening of the new facilities.
Since 2011, I’ve been a member of the advisory board for the institution. And, in researching two books about Chicago, I have delved into the library’s great collections, particularly in search of information about the Downstate County of Randolph. (In addition to its spectacular Lincoln archive, the Library has 12 million other manuscripts and a half million audio-visuals items, covering the whole gamut of the state’s history.)
Chicago in Wisconsin?
I have used the Library to look at Randolph County, the home of Kaskaskia, the state’s first capital, because that was the home of James Thompson, the little-known surveyor who laid out Chicago’s grid in 1830 which had an immense impact on the character of the future city.
Treasures itself provided me with some helpful materials, including an 1814 copy of the Kaskaskia-published Illinois Herald, the first newspaper in the Illinois territory, and a lithograph of the town around 1840.
Even more significant for me is a map of Illinois in 1818, just before it became a state. You can see that there is significant development in the southern and northwestern parts of the territory, and Chicago — well, there is no Chicago on the map because the northern boundary of the territory ended south of Lake Michigan. If Congress hadn’t shifted the border north, Chicago would be a Wisconsin city today.
The ambiguities of collecting
This book gives a sense of the joys of researching and collecting. There are painful moments, though, and I wish editor Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein had included a short section on prized items that sometimes turn out to be less than they appear to be.
One of the treasures in the book is a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln. Not mentioned, though, is another “portrait” of her that, in 2012, turned out to be a forgery. Another treasure is a stovepipe hat that is believed to have belonged to the President. Questions have been raised regarding the accounts of how the hat came to belong to an Illinois farmer, and the book could have used this item for a discussion of the ambiguities of collecting.A paddle and a hotel key
Still, anyone who loves history, particularly Lincoln and Illinois, is likely to find a lot in Treasures to enjoy, such as:
• Photos of a ring that John Wilkes Booth gave his girlfriend, and a ring that belonged to Mary Todd Lincoln.
• The tall vertical sign that identified the Illinois delegation on the floor of the Republican National Convention in 2004, called — who knew? — a paddle.
• An 1819 remedy for getting an earwig out of your ear — place an apple slice nearby.
• And, wonder of wonders, the key to the hotel room where Illinois Secretary of State Paul Powell lived in Springfield and where, after his death in 1970, $800,000 in cash was found in a shoebox and other containers.
Patrick T. Reardon