Lincoln’s Greatcoat: The Unlikely Odyssey of a Presidential Relic

Abraham Lincoln's Great Coat. Public domain from America, picturesque and descriptive (1900).
Abraham Lincoln's Great Coat. Public domain from America, picturesque and descriptive (1900).
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Arduous journeys begin with fascination, starting with Lincoln’s Greatcoat: The Unlikely Odyssey of a Presidential Relic. It’s a fascinating look at mystery and times at the Ford Theater. Hence, it’s Reignette G. Chilton’s mysterious, sometimes scandalous, and ultimately glorious book about the splendid, custom-made greatcoat Abraham Lincoln wore on his fatal last night at Ford’s Theatre in 1865.

Chilton’s chapter notes are extensive, and she delivers accolades for all who helped her write this in-depth book in her lengthy list of acknowledgments. In addition, the book contains photographs, artists’ renditions of historical events, photocopies of letters written by Mary Lincoln and her son Robert, and other historical memorabilia.

During Chilton’s tenure with Brooks Brothers, she started investigating the story behind Lincoln’s coat. Chilton journals what happened to the treasured garment along its trek from its original creation to when it ultimately was displayed at Ford’s Theatre in the 150th remembrance of Lincoln’s death.

The black coat, made by New York clothier Brooks Brothers from wool “finer than cashmere” and custom ordered by Mary Lincoln, had a machine-sewn quilted silk lining that bore eagles’ handstitched designs on two inside panels. Chilton describes the silk lining: “The eagles, with outstretched wings, held a long streamer in its beak that bore the declaration, ‘One Country, One Destiny.”

Mary Lincoln shopped in New York and often ordered custom clothing for her six-foot-four-tall husband. During Lincoln’s first term, she visited the Brooks Brothers establishment and returned to Washington with apparel for her husband.

However, it has yet to be definitively known.

Fitters from Brooks Brothers more than likely called on the president in Washington frequently and had his measurements readily available.

Lincoln wore the Greatcoat and other clothing to the theater on Good Friday, April 14, six weeks after his second inauguration. Sadness abounded in the White House after the assassination and across the country, and Mrs. Lincoln would take no reminders of her previous life as she left Washington. Chilton lays out a short primer on this sorrowful part of American history in chapter 3, entitled “That Fateful Night.” Lincoln’s grieving widow offered the items to Alphonso Donn, the doorkeeper at the White House, upon the president’s death.

Yet, Donn took over six years to take possession of the clothing. Subsequently, Donn’s ancestors would spend decades attempting to place this vital piece of history in its rightful place.

First, Mary Lincoln loaned the clothing to portrait artist Matthew Wilson, who had painted the last life portrait of Lincoln in February 1865. Wilson had the items for almost two years. Then, Mrs. Lincoln loaned sculptor Lavinia “Vinnie” Ream the items, who fashioned a bust of Lincoln out of Carrara marble. Reams said, “The one, great, lasting all dominating impression I have always carried of Lincoln has been that of unfathomable sorrow.” Anyone who has seen Ream’s magnificent rendering in the Capitol Rotunda would agree.

Donn stored the treasured relics in an army chest when he recovered them. In 1876, he allowed four men to inspect the coat, and they mutilated the greatcoat’s left shoulder. In the 1870s, P. T. Barnum offered $20,000 for the clothing, but Donn refused. Chilton agrees that Donn’s eternal love for the Lincoln family prevented him from selling the apparel, no matter the price.

Upon Donn’s death, the clothing passed to his son Frank, who attempted to sell the outfit, and after his death, his widow Katharine tried to secure payment from the Lincoln Memorial Commission, but to no avail. The widow approached the Smithsonian Institution several times as a potential buyer, but Donn’s ancestors always received a resounding no. Even the original manufacturer, Brooks Brothers, refused to purchase the coat. Chilton’s investigation revealed the family then tried to auction the items in their possession.

The results of the auction are mysterious, still to this day. Philadelphia auctioneers Stan V. Henkels & Son held a sale on February 19, 1924, toting Lincoln’s greatcoat as “the most interesting relic of Abraham Lincoln in existence.” When the gavel came down, a “Mr. Douglas” paid $6500 but never returned to pick up the garments. Kathleen Donn received payment and the clothing as well.

Scandal surrounded the greatcoat when the Chicago Historical Society proclaimed they displayed the final coat Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre, and for over two decades maintained it was the original garment. Finally, representatives from Brooks Brothers certified that the greatcoat in the Donn family’s possession was the original, based on the hand-sewn label, the one-of-a-kind silk lining, and the hand-stitched inscription.

In 1968, with the upcoming dedication to the remodeled Ford’s Theatre, Dorothy Donn Smith finally received the most glorious news: the American Trucking Associations would pay her $25,000 and donate the clothing to the theater’s museum.

There’s so much more to the story Chilton presented, such as the deterioration of the coat’s fabric and Brooks Brothers coming to the rescue to help preserve the garment. Those interested in learning more should read this spellbinding chronicle, admiring Chilton’s tireless dedication to revealing a story with some mysteries left to be discovered.

Lincoln’s Greatcoat; The Unlikely Odyssey of a Presidential Relic, by Reignette G. Chilton. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Jefferson, North Carolina, 2019.

Lincoln’s Greatcoat: The Unlikely Odyssey of a Presidential Relic

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