Sunday, October 28, 2007

Mary Todd Lincoln's Bloody Cloak

"'Biohistory'—the combination of biological testing and history—is one of the most exciting new fields of scientific inquiry."

~ Lori Andrews ~

On the evening of April 14, 1865, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln attended a performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. Here, as we are all aware, President Lincoln was shot in the back of the head by assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Two physician's were attending the performance and rushed to the president's box where they tried desperately to save President Lincoln's life. One of those physicians, Dr. Charles S. Taft, cut away a small patch of Lincoln's hair in an attempt to treat the bullet wound.

On April 15, 1865, President Lincoln died without having regained consciousness. Dr. Taft held on to the patch of hair throughout the night. After Lincoln passed away, Taft tried to return the lock of the dead President's hair to his widow. She refused and asked the doctor to keep it as a gift for his efforts in trying to save the president's life. Dr. Taft kept those strands of hair and they became a family heirloom handed down to many subsequent generations. [1]

One of the most powerful artifacts related to this terrible event is the cloak allegedly worn by Mrs. Lincoln on the night of the assassination. Mary purportedly gave the cloak to former slave and personal confidante, Elizabeth Keckley.

"Mrs. Lincoln gave away everything intimately connected with the President, as she said that she could not bear to be reminded of the past. The articles were given to those who were regarded as the warmest of Mr. Lincoln's admirers. All of the presents passed through my hands. The dress that Mrs. Lincoln wore on the night of the assassination was given to Mrs. Slade, the wife of an old and faithful messenger. The cloak, stained with the President's blood, was given to me, as also was the bonnet worn on the same memorable night. Afterwards I received the comb and brush that Mr. Lincoln used during his residence at the White House." [2]

The cloak is owned by the Chicago Historical Society. Recently, the family of a person suffering from Marfan Syndrome approached the Society asking that DNA testing be done on the cloak. It has been speculated by doctors for quite some time that Lincoln suffered from Marfan and the family making the request hoped a definitive result would increase interest and funding into the disease. [3]

Testing of the cloak may not be as straight forward as you might think. It is possible Lincoln's blood is not the only blood on the cloak. Henry Rathbone, a guest in the Lincolns' box, was slashed by the knife of assassin John Wilkes Booth's. Rathbone bled profusely and some of his blood may be mixed with that of the President on Mrs. Lincoln's cloak. How many hands has the cloak passed through from Mrs. Lincoln to the Historical Society? The chain of evidence of historical artifacts such as the cloak may be problematic, particularly where they have been kept and handled by amaturers.

So, while the cloak belongs to the Historical Society, does the DNA on the cloak? Do the results of DNA testing belong to the Society, the public, Lincoln ancestors, or to history?

Many Illinois and North Carolina residents are anxious to match their DNA to this most beloved U.S. President. But what if something shows up in Lincoln's DNA that would cast aspersions on Lincoln or his presidency? Is everything fair game, even if it changes how we view history?

What are the rights of the departed historical figures and their living relatives? Whose permission will be required if any to allow testing? Will the results of the testing be made public? How might medical information impact living relatives?

I, for one, don't have the answers; I don't even know all the questions. The law and biohistory are not presently in the same moment. The National Conference of State Legislatures indicates that consent to perform a genetic test is only required in the following states - Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, South Carolina, South Dakota and Vermont. Lori Andrews, an attorney who was asked by the Chicago Historical Society to help create guidelines for genetic research, is the author of more than 100 articles on genetics, alternative modes of reproduction, and biotechnology. Her book, Future Perfect: Confronting Decisions About Genetics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), outlines the policy models that should be considered in an age of increasing knowledge of the human genome. Progress is being made and hopefully we will soon have the answers we seek, provided of course we ask the correct questions.

I firmly believe that no harm can ever come from presenting the truth with regard to history. History doesn't change, only the facts and our perception of those facts change. Jeremy Boggs of the Center for History and New Media wrote, ". . . History is never finished, and no one ever really writes the "final word” or “final version” of history. We’re always adding to our historical knowledge, always improving and adding to our various historical narratives. History, then, is perpetual beta." I could not agree more. History is perpetual beta.

In 1999, the Chicago Historical Society and the University of Illinois at Chicago hosted a conference of historians, forensic scientists, and preservationists to consider authentication of Mary Todd Lincoln's cloak. [4] They recommended that DNA testing of the cloak not be done at that time. They determined the process would be too destructive to the cloak and there is no Lincoln genetic marker. At this time investigators are conducting an analysis of the material of the cloak. They are also looking for relatives of Nancy Hanks to provide a mitochondrial DNA reference sample.

The Chicago Historical Society has created a comprehensive website titled Wet With Blood: The Investigation of Mary Todd Lincoln's Cloak that tells the story of the artifacts and their investigation. The site was developed by the Historical Society and Northwestern University, assisted by associations ranging from the Illinois State Police Forensic Sciences Command to the Chicago Institute of Music Chorale. Although not providing answers, it is very interesting reading.

I would also recommend the article Secrets From The Grave, written by Lori Andrews for Parade Magazine. It was the inspiration for this blog article and is an excellent discussion of where we are and where we are going.

For a light hearted look at DNA testing read Marie Antoinette, Is That You?, by Michelle Slatalla for the New York Times. I recognized her husband, I think I live with his clone.

[1] Several of them were even set into a ring and given as a gift to President Theodore Roosevelt. Lathrop-Vitu, Lesley. "Lincoln's Locks: The Relics of a Secular Saint". Illinois Humanities Council. (
LincolnsLocksTheRelicsofaSecularSaint.cfm : 20 October 2007)
[2] Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes; Or, Thirty years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. University of Michigan Web Site (
sgml/moa-idx?notisid=ABN905 : 20 October 2007).
[3] People with Marfan syndrome tend to have tall and slender bodies with arms and legs disproportionately long compared to the trunk. They also usually have long fingers and toes. The ligaments and joints are typically loose. Because of rib overgrowth, the chest may protrude or be indented. Abnormal curving of the spine, called scoliosis (sko-le-O-sis), lordosis (lor-DO-sis), or kyphosis (ki-FO-sis), can occur.
[4] Testing for Marfan syndrome is not a part of the Chicago Historical Society's collaborative investigation.


Unknown, photographer. “[Lincoln, Mrs. Abraham.]” Photograph. Washington, D.C.: L.C. Handy Studios, c1860-1865. From Library of Congress: Brady-Handy Collection, 1861-1865. (
nclc,matpc,iucpub,tgmi,lamb : 12 October 2007).

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Blogger Jasia said...

Much to ponder here, fM. Heavy issues to consider... legal, scientific, medical, ethical. You really did your homework with this one! (Not that you don't always ;-)

Great job!!!

October 29, 2007 at 2:55 PM  
Blogger Terry Thornton said...

Maven, Most interesting! Thanks. Your series of questions cut to the chase:

"Is everything fair game, even if it changes how we view history? What are the rights of the departed historical figures and their living relatives? Whose permission will be required if any to allow testing? Will the results of the testing be made public? How might medical information impact living relatives?"

Indeed, where are the "bio-ethics police" on these issues? Or has our technology gotten ahead of any social consensus? You've raised some good points.

Terry Thornton
Hill Country of Monroe County, Mississippi

October 29, 2007 at 3:31 PM  
Blogger Colleen said...

Interesting points to ponder. I personally would rule in favor of allowing the DNA testing on the blood to be done for the purpose of furthering medical knowledge. In my opinion, regardless of what the decision of the "officials" is, the greater good of research into Marfan syndrome should prevail. It's not like the entire cloak would be lost; indeed, would any of it? Could enough of a sample be collected without cutting into the cloak itself?

November 4, 2007 at 2:57 PM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...

Colleen and Izzie:

I'm with you. Anything that can be done to end disease and suffering should be done.

My mother always said, "God helps those who help themselves." It was how she resolved religion and science.

Unfortunately, a one inch square section of the cape will need to be taken. At this time they have no Lincoln DNA to compare it to, so they will not cut until this can be resolved.

Wasn't it a wonderful Carnival?


November 4, 2007 at 5:20 PM  
Blogger Janice said...


Great post. Your article not only raises MANY DNA-genetic questions, but also legal ones.

It was a surprise to me that no one had they have no known Lincoln DNA to compare it to.

Thank you for the wonderful thought--provoking article.


November 5, 2007 at 9:27 AM  

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