SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Two months after a famous portrait of Abraham Lincoln’s wife was deemed a fake, the origin of a stovepipe hat believed to have graced Lincoln’s head has been called into question.
The Chicago-Sun Times reported Sunday that the leaders of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield cannot explain how a farmer acquired the iconic stovepipe hat more than 150 years ago.
Similar questions were raised when a painting of Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, recently underwent restoration. The work revealed that the real subject of the portrait is actually an anonymous woman and not the former first lady. The artist’s signature also appears to have been added after the painting was completed.
The hat has been valued at more than $6.5 million and for years has been a cornerstone historical item at the museum, which acquired it in 2007.
No one has been able to refute the hat’s authenticity with certainty. It bears the floral stamp of a 1850s-era Springfield hatmaker. It fits a head about 22 inches in circumference the same as Lincoln’s hat size. And it has remained in the possession of the same southern Illinois family for a century.
“I guess, if you want to be pushy about the hat question, you’d have to judge it in the not-proven category of Scottish law because it cannot be proven or disproven,” said James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln Collection at the museum.
The hat’s story was first written in August 1958, when Carbondale resident Clara Waller signed an affidavit saying her father-in-law, William Waller, obtained the hat from Lincoln “during the Civil War in Washington” and, upon Waller’s death, it was passed on to her husband, Elbert Waller.
Cornelius said that William Waller was a Democrat in the 1850s, but incurred his neighbors’ wrath by bucking the region’s pro-slavery mindset by backing Lincoln, a Republican, in his 1858 U.S. Senate bid against Democrat Stephen Douglas.
Attached to Clara Waller’s affidavit is a handwritten statement from the late John W. Allen, a history professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, who said he had been told the same story about the hat by Elbert Waller and was “inclined to give it full credence.”
But Clara Waller’s story has a big hole: There is no evidence placing William Waller in Washington after Lincoln was elected president, and Lincoln never returned to Illinois before he was assassinated in 1865.
Cornelius, who has been in his post since 2007, said he was told by former Illinois state historian Thomas Schwartz that William Waller instead must have gotten the hat from Lincoln during his Sept. 15, 1858, senatorial debate with Stephen Douglas in downstate Jonesboro.
“I guess you’d say we’ve taken something of a historic liberty in re-dating it to a much more plausible time and place,” Cornelius said.
There also are no newspaper stories from the 1858 debate, nor are there photographs or letters between Lincoln and William Waller to corroborate that the hat changed hands that day in southern Illinois.
Wes Cowan, historical expert and co-host of the PBS television show “History Detectives,” said, “What you really want to see was a newspaper article from … whenever the debate was: `Candidate Lincoln gives local farmer his beaver top hat.’ That’s what you want to find.
“Without that unbroken chain of custody, it becomes very difficult to prove any of this,” Cowan said.