Old hat — but maybe not Lincoln’s old hat

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The purported-but-maybe-not hat once owned (possibly) by Abraham Lincoln is shown at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum back in 2012, when the Chicago Sun-Times first raised questions about its lineage. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Maybe it’s just a hat.

That’s one takeaway from two investigations — one done with cloak-and-dagger-like secrecy — into the scuffed, slightly crumpled hat that its Springfield guardians have long insisted belonged to Abraham Lincoln.

The stovepipe hat is the big draw — valued at $6.5 million — at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, but the investigations suggest there’s little evidence to connect it to the nation’s 16th president, according to a WBEZ radio story out this week.

For now, the hat is not on display — though it hasn’t been for months, a museum spokesman said.

“It is delicate, and too much exposure to light and fluctuations in heat and humidity can damage it, so we don’t often have it out in public,” Chris Wills, communications director, said in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times. He added that there are no plans to display it again “until we finish our new round of research and can decide the most accurate way to present it to visitors.”

For its story, WBEZ looked at a “previously undisclosed FBI analysis” and another investigation done by “top curators” from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and Chicago History Museum.

The Smithsonian and Chicago museums’ 2013 report found inadequate documentation to say, among other things, whether Lincoln had ever owned the hat. A 2015 FBI analysis included comparing DNA samples from the beaver-fur chapeau with Lincoln’s blood-spattered handkerchief and other items from the night of his assassination. The federal agents didn’t find a match, the station reported.

The DNA testing was apparently done with the sort of secrecy you might find in the pages of a spy novel, according to WBEZ’s report.

While at the presidential museum, FBI agents were encouraged by a staff member there to disguise themselves as a news crew, the radio station reported.

“There was just a level of secrecy by our foundation, helped by at that point a member of our staff, to do that DNA testing that just seemed … very, very strange to me,” Alan Lowe, the Lincoln museum’s executive director since July 2016, told WBEZ.

Lowe said he only recently saw a copy of the Smithsonian and Chicago museums’ full report, when one of the report’s authors shared it with him. Both reports were commissioned by the library’s foundation, which acquired the hat and other artifacts in 2007.

In an emailed statement to the Chicago Sun-Times, Lowe expressed frustration he’d only recently learned about the reports, but also sought to downplay their significance.

“It is important to understand that neither of these initiatives produced new evidence about the hat’s origins,” Lowe said. “The DNA testing was inconclusive, as expected with an item that has been handled by many people over 180 years.”

Nick Kalm, vice chairman of the foundation, told the Chicago Sun-Times the museum has been fully informed all along.

Lowe and his predecessors were all told about a foundation report detailing what had been done to verify the authenticity of the hat.

“Nobody requested to review the report or any underlying documents, which would have included the report from the Smithsonian and Chicago History Museum and, eventually, the FBI report,” Kalm said.

James Cornelius, who had been curator of the museum’s Lincoln collection, has been discharged, Wills said, but his departure did not involve the foundation or the hat. He called the timing “purely coincidental.” Cornelius’ last day at the museum was March 9.

Questions about the origin of the hat, first reported by the Sun-Times in 2012, led to the early calls for the DNA testing. (Those stories were by Dave McKinney, who also wrote the latest report for WBEZ.)

The hat was part of a major assortment of Lincoln memorabilia bought by the foundation in 2007 from a California Lincoln collector.

The recent revelations come as the financially troubled foundation is trying to raise money to avoid having to sell its trove of Lincoln artifacts.

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