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Sun-Times Questions Authenticity Of Lincoln Hat

By Amy Cavanaugh in News on Jan 26, 2013 9:00PM

2013_01_26_lincoln_hat.jpg If you visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield during the next six months, you'll see a stovepipe hat that the Museum says belonged to Lincoln. But did it?

The Sun-Times posted a story last night that questions whether the artifact really did belong to the 16th president. And this isn't the first time they broached this subject—the paper ran a story last year that first wondered whether the hat was really Lincoln's.

The placard that went up with the hat on Wednesday explains its background in eight sentences, noting that only three of Lincoln’s famous stovepipe hats are known to exist: “2 silk ones from his last days of life, and this.”

“There’s no deception at all,” said Chris Wills, a spokesman for the museum.

What isn’t mentioned is any reference to the fact the state can’t prove whether it truly belonged to Honest Abe or whether the story about Lincoln giving this particular stovepipe hat to a southern Illinois farmer is real or a hoax.

All that's really known about the hat is that it has a mark from a Springfield hat maker Lincoln bought hats from, and the hat is the president's size. After that, the hat's provenance is murky.

The hat has been described alternately as one Lincoln wore and gave away in Washington, D.C., to farmer William Waller during the Civil War — the version a Waller relative laid out in a 54-year-old affadavit — and, more recently, as one that Lincoln turned over to Waller as a token of appreciation after an 1858 debate in southern Illinois with Stephen Douglas.

If one of those scenarios is true, the other can’t be.

Lincoln wasn’t known to give away his hats, and no evidence has been unearthed that placed William Waller in Washington, D.C., after Lincoln was elected president. Further, after his election, Lincoln never returned to Illinois before his assassination.

Wills "said those kinds of details normally wouldn’t accompany one of the museum’s important relics when it goes on display, and there isn’t a need to bore down any deeper now into the hat’s cloudy history."

“These sorts of small signs on an item would not normally go into an item’s provenance. They’re simple descriptive labels. This is not an in-depth focus on just the hat or the history of it and the ins and outs of it,” Wills said. “The museum is comfortable that the authenticity has been established. There’s just not any question to inform people as far as we understand it.”

The Museum obtained the hat in 2007 from Lincoln collector Louise Taper as part of a $23 million purchase of Lincoln memorabilia in 2007. The Sun-Times obtained a May 2012 report by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency’s top lawyer in which the foundation said that reports about the hat's history had “a potential impact on their efforts to raise funds to pay off the remaining debt relating to the Taper Collection.”

Sun-Times Springfield bureau chief Dave McKinney spoke to Wes Cowan, co-host of the PBS-TV show “History Detectives” and an expert in historical artifacts about the hat.

“I think the label should at least say ‘purportedly worn by Lincoln'... I think they owe it to the viewers to say, ‘Look , there are a number of different stories about this hat, and here they are. Could this have been one of his hats? Here’s what we know. We tried to find out, but we can’t ever say for sure."