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Hat trick? State historian finds ‘no evidence’ Lincoln ever wore museum’s $6.5 million treasured artifact

Questions over the legitimacy of the 16th president’s purported hat at the Springfield museum have lingered since 2012.

James M. Cornelius shows the Abraham Lincoln hat in 2012.
Former Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum curator James Cornelius displays the hat in 2012.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Illinois’ top historian won’t hang his hat on the possibility that a beaver-fur stovepipe hat long touted as Abraham Lincoln’s and displayed at his namesake presidential museum in Springfield ever actually sat on Honest Abe’s head.

That’s according to a June email sent by Alan Lowe, the ex-director of the Abraham Presidential Library and Museum, to a top aide of Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Lowe was fired last week, about a year after asking state historian Samuel Wheeler to trace the hat’s potential ties to Lincoln once and for all, as skepticism has dogged the museum since the Chicago Sun-Times first raised questions about the origins of the purportedly iconic hat in 2012.

“It appears from my discussions with the state historian that he and his team have found no evidence confirming the hat belonged to President Lincoln,” Lowe wrote to Deputy Gov. Jesse Ruiz in the June 5 email, first obtained by WBEZ.

“This does not mean that evidence does not exist, but the efforts of our team have been very thorough. We all had hoped that something definitive would be found, but thus far that is not the case,” Lowe wrote.

The hat was part of a $25 million trove purchased by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation in 2007, when the hat was appraised at $6.5 million. The private foundation collects artifacts and solicits donations for the publicly operated museum.

Museum and foundation officials have insisted Lincoln wore the hat, though they have acknowledged they can’t trace its full ownership history, including how the hat ended up in the hands of a farmer in the 1850s, or how it was passed through the generations until it wound up in the 2007 collection.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln hat.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln hat, including what were described as Lincoln’s finger marks on the brim. File Photo.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Subsequent examinations by the Chicago History Museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and even the FBI have proven inconclusive.

In his email exchanges with Ruiz, Lowe said the foundation had blocked Wheeler’s hat probe by rejecting efforts to have a textile expert evaluate it on-site to “determine what era the hat dates from,” as Wheeler described in his May 6 request to foundation CEO Carla Knorowski.

“At this point the Foundation is not permitting an examination of the hat by a costume expert, and therefore I have told the State Historian to put the project on hold,” Lowe wrote in the June 5 email.

On Friday, Nick Kalm, the foundation’s vice chair, shot down claims of stonewalling.

“We support any and all reasonable steps to further confirm the provenance of the hat,” Kalm said in email to the Chicago Sun-Times. “We merely wanted to ensure that any such steps be taken in consultation and coordination with the Foundation, as we are the hat’s owners. We never received a response from Director Lowe to our request for a meeting to discuss this important issue.”

Lowe and Wheeler did not respond to requests for comment. Pritzker’s office said it “cannot comment further on personnel matters” related to Lowe’s firing.

“We look forward to working with the team of museum professionals, historians and librarians at the ALPLM to ensure that the institution is meeting its high standards,” a Pritzker spokeswoman said.

Former GOP Gov. Jim Edgar — an emeritus foundation director who chaired the board when it purchased the hat with the Taper collection in 2007 — acknowledged reaching out to Pritzker’s office to suggest it “may not be the best time to bring up the issue of the hat” as he helped the museum, foundation and governor broker a bill to pass in the spring legislative session.

Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar with actors playing Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Leadership Prize dinner on February 9, 2012.
Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar with actors playing Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Leadership Prize dinner on February 9, 2012. File Photo.
Photo by Waldemar Reichert

That bill, signed into law by Pritzker last month, creates a committee of representatives from the foundation and the museum, intended to smooth out the “friction” that sometimes arises between the entities, Edgar said.

“We finally reached a consensus on this bill, and that’s when Alan wanted to start bringing up the hat again,” Edgar said Friday. “Everyone was getting along for the moment to get it passed, and it wasn’t going to help us trying to get this legislation we’d agreed to.”

Former Illinois Congressman and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood — appointed by Pritzker earlier week to chair the museum’s board of directors — said the jury’s still out on the hat, but he’s focused on “working collaboratively with the foundation to put the museum in position to celebrate Lincoln’s legacy and life,” he said.

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood in 2019.
Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was interviewed by Fran Spielman Friday, March 15, 2019.
Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times file

“I want to hire a director for the library that can really get into these matters. Our responsibility is to find a strong director to work with historians to make sure our artifacts are authentic,” LaHood said.

The foundation resorted to a GoFundMe campaign last year to avoid selling off artifacts — including the hat — to raise $9.7 million in outstanding loan payments from the Taper collection purchase.

And while requests for state funding to bail them out of the budget crunch last year were rejected, Kalm said thoughts of a last-ditch auction have been put on hold as “efforts to refinance the debt are continuing, as is our fundraising to further pay down the debt.”

Edgar said he doesn’t regret the foundation shelling out for the hat — and he’s not convinced of its origins either way.

”When we purchased this, there wasn’t really a question. From what we were told, it’s authentic,” Edgar said.

”But from what I’ve found out, there’s always a lot of question on historical things. Sometimes you never know 100%, and I think that’s the deal with the hat. Unless we can bring Abe back and ask him if he wore it, we’ll never know for sure.”