Lie to me: Abraham Lincoln’s hat at the Fort Collins Museum

by Linda Moore, Curator of Collections, Fort Collins Museum

I’m pretty sure that, just like parents with their children, collections curators are not supposed to have favorites among the artifacts in their care. But, though I’m careful to fulfill my professional obligation to treat each object entrusted to the Fort Collins Museum with the best possible methods to ensure its perpetual survival, I have to admit that at certain times particular objects will evoke something special for me. This has been true of an ancient Folsom projectile point shaped with such skill out of a honey colored stone that seems to warm the light that glows through its delicate edges; of a baby’s bib with the adage “Waste Not, Want Not” stitched among the food stains that cover it; and of Fort Collins resident May Wilkins’ giant blue bear with a photo of itself and its owner safety-pinned to its chest (see photo below).

Recently my attention has been caught by an old “stovepipe” style top hat, made of grayish-black felt with a brittle cardboard backing. Its high narrow crown is slightly crushed to the left, there is a strange metal gasket at its top, and a label on its pink silk lining reads “The Hatter, Clayton, Denver Col.”  (see photos below). The most recent documentation for this hat identifies it as “One hat –stove pipe style 1860 – said to have been owned by Abraham Lincoln.” An older label, which arrived with the hat when it was donated to the Museum in 1963, is much less circumspect, reading “Abraham Lincoln’s dinner hat. Captured by Lt. Gary Griffiths at The Battle of Bull Run. Lt. Gary Griffiths was killed seven days later. (Signed by) Markus Venictius. Battle dates 1861-1862.”

For me this is a capital “A” artifact: evoking wonder, skepticism, and a demanding din of clamoring questions all at once. The hat elicits basic historic questions, such as: who was Markus Venictius? Was Lincoln was present at the Battle of Bull Run, and if so, would he really have visited a battleground in formal wear? It also begs the practical questions of why and how this most iconic of American artifacts would have traveled so far west to rest in the collection of the Fort Collins Museum. Finally, it raises the fundamental question of authenticity and its meaning: am I really holding (in my white-gloved hands, of course) the very hat that once encircled the passionate brow of President Lincoln, or just a very old hat that is a whole lot like a hat Lincoln could have worn, and in the end what difference does it make?

So far, my attempts to answer most of these questions have proved inconclusive. The hat, along with several other objects dating from the late 1800s, was donated to the Museum by a member of the Tedmon family, whose ancestors Mr. and Mrs. Bolivar S. Tedmon arrived in Fort Collins in 1878. The Tedmons opened the Tedmon House hotel in 1880, and Mrs. Tedmon ran a millinery shop trimming hats and bonnets in the latest styles. Nothing in this information disproves the hat’s claimed pedigree: the dates fit and Mrs. Tedmon was in the business of hats. The age attributed to the hat, and its source, bear up to scrutiny. Though the wave of popularity for beaver felt top hats crested prior to the Civil War era, “stove pipes” were still common on American streets. By this time beavers, the industrious but hapless source of hat felt, had long been cleared from their European environments and from their homes in the eastern United States. Though they were quickly disappearing from the territory of Colorado too, there were still enough beavers found here in 1860 for John Stetson to shape their fur into a wider, lower crowned hat (meant, originally, to protect the faces of gold seekers from the intense western sun) that would come to define Western style for decades. Though I’ve yet to find an opening date for “The Hatter, Clayton” of Denver, a photograph of Clayton’s Hat Store in Denver dated 1869 shows a Lincoln-like figure in a stately stovepipe standing outside the shop which still offered “Hats, Caps, And Furs.” So, though the hat’s trip from Denver east to Lincoln’s wardrobe and then back to Fort Collins, while certainly circuitous, is not completely unfeasible.

In the unfamiliar-to-me field of Civil War research I have a long way to go before I can categorically confirm or refute any of the historic particulars noted in the hat’s original donation document. Though I haven’t found any reference to the President’s presence there, I have been surprised to learn that various members of Congress traveled from Washington to the Bull Run site as witnesses throughout the battle. I have been surprised to discover historical photographs of Lincoln in formal frockcoat and top hat visiting with commanders in their field headquarters at various Civil War battle sites. I have yet to find Lt. Gary Griffiths in any account of the battles, and still have no idea about “Markus Venictius.” The Lincoln authorities I fired off emails to have yet to respond to my questions (in Lincoln’s bicentennial year I imagine they are plenty busy). I have made my own comparison of the Fort Collins Museum Lincoln hat to verified Lincoln hats, such as the one worn by the President on the night he was shot, and held by the Smithsonian since 1867. The Smithsonian’s hat is described as “cheaply made of cardboard with beaver fur glued on it” and is visually very similar to the Museum’s hat. But in the end this simply confirms that these are very similar hats, made at about the same time.

This brings me back to the question of authenticity and its meaning. My research makes me confident that this hat is an authentic representative of exactly the type of hat President Lincoln wore. As a historical object it relays the same information, in terms of style and substance, that such a hat would. Why is it then that, for many, these historical “knowns” hold far less power than the tenuous and unverified possibility of the hat’s connection to Lincoln?

Recently a friend told me the story of a woman who, returning to the Palace at Versailles after many years and retaking the Palace tour, was once again shown the table upon which the Treaty of Versailles had been signed. When she got home and compared photos she discovered that in the photo from her first tour this table was a long rectangle and in the photo from her second trip it was round. Clearly someone at Versailles had betrayed this woman’s trust, by telling her something that just was not true. But it wasn’t the tables.

Lie to me, it doesn’t matter anymore

It could never be what it was before

If I can’t hold on to you

leave me with somethin’ I can hold onto,

for just a little while won’t you let me be…*

In my role as a collections curator, it is upon this matter of trustworthiness that the importance of artifact authenticity rests. While I love the Museum’s unverified, untrustworthy Abraham Lincoln hat and have delighted in the explorations it has taken me on, I won’t lie to you. I can show you the hat; I can show you its record. Could this possibly be Abraham Lincoln’s hat, lost at the Battle of Bull Run, recovered by a lieutenant who is absent from the historical record, and donated to our little Colorado museum in the 1960s? If you want to know, I’ll let you figure it out for yourself. In the meantime, I’ve got a box marked “New Mexico souvenirs, Roswell” to unpack.

*Jonny Lang Lie To Me

May Wilkin's beloved blue stuffed bear

May Wilkin's beloved blue stuffed bear

The "Lincoln Hat," front view

The "Lincoln Hat," front view

Label from inside the "Lincoln hat"

Label from inside the "Lincoln hat"

The "Lincoln hat," side view

The "Lincoln hat," side view

April 2009

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