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TELL SOMEONE, as I did, that you are going to poke through the hair clippings and blood-stained

artifacts of a dead president and the most likely reaction you will get is: "Eewww!" For many, the thought of coming into direct contact with detached body parts - let alone the postmortem fluids - of another has as much appeal as clearing months-old leftovers out of the refrigerator.

Framed lock of Lincoln's hair. Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society

However, those who collect and work with these relics believe that they aren't morbid at all. Fascination with relics of the dead has been part of civilization for thousands of years. As long ago as the 5th century, Augustine of Hippo wrote, "If a father's coat or ring, or anything else of that kind, is so much more cherished by his children,... in no way are the bodies themselves to be despised, which are much more intimately and closely united to us than any garment; for they belong to man's very nature." Of all our modern-day heroes, it is perhaps Abraham Lincoln whose relics and artifacts hold the greatest sway over the affection of the vast majority. His place in the hearts and minds of Americans was apparent barely a generation after his assassination, when a gang of counterfeiters and grave robbers led by "Big Jim" Kinealy plotted to steal his body for a ransom of $200,000, a hefty sum of money in those days. Fortunately, they didn't succeed. But the fact that they recognized the lengths to which this country would go to preserve the almost-sacred body of its martyred president speaks volumes.

it is a powerful and moving experience to hold in your hand the handkerchief he was carrying at the time. swatches from Mary Todd's dress and the dress of Clara Harris. hair clippings. perhaps to feel heavier than normal. both public and private. and parts of it are clumped together by some substance. One of them is in a frame. some short. The souvenirs of his autopsy are preserved at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. One expects these things to be different. their archives include numerous boxes of assassination relics . somehow. The difference in presentation between the one item and the other is striking. too. maybe blood.a sleeve from the undershirt he was wearing at the time. but more likely hair oil. And the Library of Congress' American Treasures exhibit houses several items from the assassination. long strands tied with a neat little bow and bearing an inscription announcing its original owner. larger envelope. whose archives include personal artifacts from Lincoln's murder. Some of the hair is long. part of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. The Chicago Historical Society has an extensive collection of Lincoln material. . to see up close the dark brown stains that cover nearly half the square of once-white fabric. including the contents of his pockets at the time he was shot.Today there are collectors. But they don't. Although not on display. or to emit the sweet smell of perfume long ago associated with the relics of Christian saints. And there are hair clippings. Far from gruesome. with no legend at all. pieces from the death towel.C. who accompanied the Lincolns to the theatre. Another is haphazardly folded into a makeshift envelope. stuffed inside another. D.

But all these things meant something important to those who possessed and took care of them over the years. One item. Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society . adopted this concept and added an emphasis on the role of the saint as the nexus of a precise point of contact between God and man. She describes how inspiring it had been to her family. The saints. Drapery fragments from the East Room of the White House where Abraham Lincoln's body was held for viewing. The Greco-Roman world held that social and political problems could be expressed and rectified by the elite of society. and how she hoped that the historical society would hold it in the same high regard. Carefully mounted on a small piece of board. Through the extraordinary circumstances surrounding their lives and deaths the saints seemed to make real the potential of humanity. fragments of the drapery that hung in the East Room while the President's body lay in state awaiting the funeral. was especially moving. their relics. The most significant of events at any church or cathedral was the installation of its relics. the white drapery was accompanied by a touching letter from the woman who donated it. and their shrines served as moral exemplars for the religious communities of Late Antiquity. In the letter she describes how she came to have it. During the Middle Ages. how much they cherished it over the years. The monotheistic religions which developed in the Mediterranean world. and in the thirteenth century the Catholic Church addressed the issue by requiring that "newly discovered" relics be authenticated by the local bishop. the veneration and trade of relics became a kind of lodestar for Christian religious observance. THE NOTION THAT individuals could embody and reveal ideal qualities for others has its roots in the classical tradition of the ancient world. that a relative had been one of the young men charged with guarding the slain president's body and that he had taken the drapery as a personal memento. Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. So great was the demand for relics that theft and fraud became big business during the Central Middle Ages. or even the Pope himself.

C. Charles A.Abraham Lincoln's body. D. The circle included Judge Daniel Fish of Minneapolis.000. Trade in Lincoln and Lincoln-era artifacts has even gone digital with several of the Internet auction sites hosting a brisk trade.Blood-stained handkerchief Abraham Lincoln was carrying at the time he was shot.the little girl who suggested that he grow a beard . many of which were later sold at auction or donated to libraries and museums. Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society The collection and preservation of relics and other memorabilia from Abraham Lincoln's life began almost immediately after he died.000. But a small percentage came straight from . Many of these items were simple letters or other documents penned by the late president himself. Two doctors. and a letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington about establishing the Constitution of the United States goes for around $525. Illinois. to the bloody handkerchief he was carrying when he was shot.. 1865. who were present at the . Together they amassed thousands of pieces. to the bed sheets upon which the president had died. In today's world of collecting. Oakleaf of Moline. when the president was shot in the back of the head by John Wilkes Booth.000. It is now well-known that on the evening of April 14.or in direct contact with . Lincoln relics are hot items. Abraham Lincoln's handwritten letter to Grace Bedell . and Joseph B. Termed "Lincolniana" by those familiar with it. William H. Dr. McLellan. by the end of the nineteenth century it had become a substantial cottage industry. Charles W. Artifacts from the 16th president consistently fetch the highest bids. Charles S. a former member of the Confederate army who later settled in New York. They included everything from clippings of hair. Taft. Whereas a letter from Albert Einstein in which he first mentioned his theory of relativity sells for $395. Judd Steward of Plainfield. Leale and Dr. Lambert of Philadelphia. A few wealthy collectors dominated the trade and were known as the Big Five. New Jersey.has changed hands for as much as $850. Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were attending a performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre in Washington.

About 130 years later." THROUGHOUT THE MIDDLE AGES. Braun says he wanted the item because of what Abraham Lincoln stood for and what he went through in his life. Relics. to effect an emotion by getting closer to a person. the Lincoln relic is something he will never part with. he paid $3. "Whenever I look at it. After Lincoln finally passed away on the morning of the 15th. attempting to access the bullet wound. Michael Braun. Washington. Taft approached Mary Todd and tried to give her the lock of her dead husband's hair. leapt at the opportunity to buy them. Dr. ten of the strands became available through a reputable East Coast memorabilia dealer. to preserve a memory of someone or something significant. Those strands of hair passed through many hands in subsequent generations. rushed to the president's box and tried desperately to save his life. Several of them were even set into a ring and given as a gift to President Theodore Roosevelt. Braun says there are two reasons why people collect this kind of thing: first. Taft. Although he regularly buys and sells memorabilia.of miles to venerate holy relics and worship at the shrines of martyred saints. A longtime collector with an extensive Civil War collection. people traveled hundreds .even thousands . He plans to leave it to family members after he's gone. cut away a small patch of Lincoln's hair and held on to it throughout the night as the president lay dying first at Ford's Theatre and then later at the Petersen house. Spain. but she refused telling him that he should keep it as a gift for trying to save the president's life. .theatre. he believes.500 for the Lincoln relic and it is an item he treasures above all others. and second. Santiago de Compostella." He says the piece makes him feel like a "custodian of history." Braun doesn't regard the Lincoln artifact as just another item in his extensive collection. of Chimacum. it reminds me of what everyone should aspire to. and he enjoys taking the strands of hair to area schools to show children "something that was literally a part of someone important. and collector. aren't at all morbid.

a co-curator of the exhibit. Believed to be places where extraordinary visions could be seen or miraculous healing summoned. basically. That many of these collections are considered shrines by their visitors is evidenced from the mild uproar that took place when the Chicago Historical Society dismantled an exhibit devoted exclusively to Lincoln in favor of its current "A House Divided" exhibit. but nonetheless were associated with Lincoln. to the small town of Knock in Ireland. north of Lisbon. these places attract thousands of religious pilgrims every year. but there were many such sites scattered throughout Western Europe. Dr. memorials. Museums. which she wore to Ford's Theater on the evening of the assassination.Lincoln's top hat. sometimes small. in some way. Weldon Petz. In our own time. Eric Foner. He began his collection in the 1940s while performing with the big bands in New York. From Lourdes in France. many collectors bequeath their collections to museums. Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society . Portugal. to Fatima." Fortunately for those of us who wish to see Lincoln artifacts. of West Bloomfield.000 items to the Plymouth Historical Museum. objects which had no real historical significance. which depicts Lincoln in the much larger context of slavery and the Civil War. He says that Lincoln was a person with whom he was "absolutely fascinated. sometimes vast. lend themselves to simple explanations. But there are also secular "shrines" which draw masses of visitors.and Jerusalem were two of the most hallowed destinations. Lincoln's this or that. recently donated almost 40. although his fascination with the man began when he was a boy of 8. People came in to worship LincolnÖ. and historical societies house collections.[and it had] almost this religious aspect -. said in a 1990 interview with the Illinois Humanities Council that "the old Lincoln Gallery was sort of a church. of Lincolniana. each. pilgrimage sites received a multitude of medieval Christians. Michigan. there continue to be stories of divine healings and holy visions that may." and he was fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Lincoln Mary Todd Lincoln's cape. or may not. hoping to connect with the heroes of the past.

Carl Sandburg. He says that it was important to him that others. With a collection that size. the Great Emancipator. but there is also a rope surrounding it and ever-watchful guards nearby. One was a coronet that a relative had played at the dedication of Gettysburg Cemetery. To many. "It's satisfying to have them in a museum where other people can enjoy them. one cannot deny the influence he has had . and. He kept the carving when he donated most of his collection to the museum. yes. Roosevelt Memorial seem to have had an awareness of the public's wish to be close to its fallen heroes. it is possible to stand next to him. Washington. then Abraham Lincoln is its patron saint.C. he says he would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite. However. .on the many who have owned. even to sit on his knee. Before a recent trip to Washington D. especially children. Not only is the statue too tall and elevated too high. and viewed the relics and artifacts of the man himself. Whether one believes he was Honest Abe. However. it isn't. a friend of mine asked if it is possible to climb onto Abraham Lincoln's lap at the Lincoln Memorial.both personally and commercially . as if to demonstrate the old Lincoln Memorial. he represents wisdom and patience. or just an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. he is the "Father Abraham" immortalized in the books of Ida Tarbell and Irving Bacheller. Carved by a man serving time in prison." IF AMERICA IS A RELIGION. D. The designers of the nearby Franklin D. Photo: Courtesy of the author. Every generation since his assassination has reinterpreted and reevaluated his deeds and words.C. In fact. the question illustrates what a lot of people wish they could do. The site includes a semi-life-sized statue of the muchloved president sitting in a chair with his dog at his feet. Petz was struck by the fact that someone going through such a difficult time had carved the image of Lincoln. be able to see the artifacts and that he knows they are being well-taken care of. touched. Dr. to put your arm around him. Thus. But some items did have special significance.biographer. Another was a peach pit in the shape of Lincoln's head and face.

Roosevelt Memorial. . Emily Dickinson carry on a love affair with her sister-in-law." Relics of the dead can remind us that human virtue does exist. think of the man to whom it belonged. we see the relic. "I look at it each day and think of its author. Photo: Courtesy of the author. Its cities may crumble. Alexandra. however. Susan Huntington Dickinson? Could a lock of Beethoven's hair reveal the mysterious identity of his so-called "Immortal Beloved"? And could Lincoln have contracted syphilis as a young riverboat worker. explain their significance for the many Lincoln collectors. the relics of legendary figures and heroes may soon take on a new significance." I suspect that most of us would respond in the same way. the daughter of Czar Nicholas and his wife. as some have speculated? None of these technological uses for relics. Sally Hemings. for example. but these are heirlooms that defy time.entertainment-industry maxim that one should never appear with children or animals. its masterpieces of industry and art may moulden into nothingness. and are inspired by the possibility of what one person can become. With the recent discovery of genetic proof that Thomas Jefferson fathered several children by one of his slaves. One man who has a handwritten letter from Lincoln to Seward hanging near the entrance to his home recently told me.C. more hands reached out to touch Fala than FDR on the day I was there. A few days after President Lincoln died. Already it has debunked the late Anna Anderson Manahan's claim that she was really Anastasia. D. Lesley Lathrop-Vitu is a Senior Editor for Detours. Franklin D. Today researchers are evaluating the role that genetic testing and other high-tech procedures may play in determining several longstanding historical mysteries. Washington. Nor do they account for the multitude of people who visit Lincoln memorials and exhibits. "A nation's jewels are the virtues of its illustrious dead. a memorialist in the New York Times wrote. Particularly in this era of cynicism and irreverence. Did.