"Now he belongs to the ages."
-Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, April 15, 1865
Though it happened over 150 years ago, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (a.k.a. Honest Abe) remains among the foremost tragedies in American history. It was the first presidential assassination, and it stunned a nation that was already struggling with the aftermath of America's bloodiest conflict - the American Civil War. The country descended into a state of confusion and collective mourning. Those objects that became associated with the event instantly became historic objects, small and silent mementos of one of the United States' greatest leader's last moments. While many of these objects are currently held in museum collections, we have just acquired one of the most important of these artifacts: Lincoln's opera glasses.
Most people know the story - Abe Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, while attending a play called Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C. His assassin was John Wilkes Booth, a popular actor who enjoyed special access to the theater - and to the presidential box. While the play was in progress, Booth stepped into the President's private box, aimed and shot. The theater descended into chaos, and Booth escaped.
One of the first people to reach President Lincoln was Captain James M. McCamly, a member of the City Guard of Washington, who was guarding the theater that evening. He was one of the men who helped carry Lincoln to the William Petersen’s boarding house that was just across the street from the theater. While Lincoln was being carefully transported, something fell from his body and hit the ground. Captain McCamly reflexively picked up the item and put it in his pocket, expecting to return it later. What had fallen were these opera glasses, which were likely in the hands of the President at the moment he had been shot.
McCamly spent a long evening standing vigil over the injured Lincoln, until at 7:22 AM, on April 15, 1865, he died. His body was returned to the White House, at which time McCamly was relieved of his duty and sent back to his quarters. Once there, he realized he still had the opera glasses.
The glasses remained in the McCamly family for three generations, carrying with them the unverified family lore that they were being used by Lincoln at the time of his assassination. In 1968, the family sold the glasses to Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago, which undertook an in-depth investigation into their history and provenance. They sought the assistance of various museums and institutions. Smithsonian Associate Curator of Political History Margaret Klapthor validated the age, materials, and style of the opera glasses to accurately reflect those utilized by men of the period.
Shortly thereafter, the family secured permission to compare the glasses to their original carrying case, which is on display at the museum at Ford's Theatre. Upon slipping the glasses into the case, it was discovered they were a perfect fit.
Few items carry with them the gravitas of history as presidential artifacts. These glasses, having bore silent witness to a president's final moments, carry an even greater significance. They forever serve as a reminder of the great man the country lost, of the tragedy that comes from extremism and hate, and of the resilience of the nation.
Click here to view more from our presidential collection. If you are feeling patriotic, you can also check out our American art collection, which includes antique American paintings.