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Downstate auctioneer sues to recover unique deathbed photo of Abe Lincoln

Larry Davis of Quincy filed a lawsuit Friday to recover what he says is a unique deathbed photo of Abraham Lincoln taken in a boarding house across from Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. | file

It’s the case of the missing Lincoln death photo.

The strange case involves a Downstate auctioneer, his ex-wife, a dentist, a distant relative of Lincoln — and even former Illinois Gov. James “Big Jim” Thompson.

Larry Davis of Quincy filed a lawsuit Friday to recover what he says is a unique deathbed photo of Abraham Lincoln taken in a boarding house across from Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.

“If you asked me to describe a photo that would be more historically significant than this, I can’t think of one,” said Chicago attorney Andy Hale, who represents Davis.

The lawsuit is asking an Adams County judge to order Jerald Spolar to return the photo to Davis.

Davis, an auctioneer, says his ex-wife stole the photo in 2006.

Spolar, a dentist and Lincoln buff from Macomb, then bought the photo from the ex-wife and kept it, the lawsuit says.

Hale says the photo is “larger than a baseball card and smaller than a postcard.”

But he acknowledges he doesn’t have any photographic proof it exists.

The story begins in the 1980s when Davis says he befriended Margaret Hanks Schreiber, an impoverished Quincy woman. Schreiber was a distant relative of Lincoln’s mother Nancy Hanks.

Davis says he would take food to Schreiber and her husband on Sundays and discuss her family history. In 1984, Schreiber sold Davis some family memorabilia including a leather case containing an “ambrotype” (or photograph made on glass) of the assassinated 16th president, according to the lawsuit.

After John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, the president was carried to a first-floor bedroom of a boardinghouse owned by William Petersen across the street from the theater. Lincoln lingered for hours and died on April 15.

The only known images of Lincoln’s deathbed include artists’ recreations of the slain president in bed and a photo that boarders took of the empty bed after the body was removed.

The bed and linens in the Petersen House bedroom where Lincoln died. The photo of the empty bed was taken the day after the assassination by Petersen House boarders Henry and Julius Ulke. |  Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation via Smithsonian

A West Virginia woman found a photo in a flea market that she claimed was a deathbed image of Lincoln, but the director of the Surratt House Museum in Maryland wrote on the museum’s web site, “This is no more a photo of Abe Lincoln than it is of me. Ignore her.”

The collector, Ernestine Glessner, sued museum director Laurie Verge for defamation in 2012, but the case was dismissed.

Hale says he knows of no other photos of Lincoln in his death bed besides Davis’. Such a photo would be “priceless,” he says.

The lawsuit describes the photo as a “macabre image of the upper torso of a man lying in bed dead.”

His eyes were open and his right pupil was “blown,” according to the lawsuit.

The man had a “wide-eyed stare,” and his head rested in an “unnatural position” with his chin on his chest. Someone painted the photo to make Lincoln’s cheeks rosy and show the quilt on the bed was blue.

Schreiber, the distant relative of Lincoln, died in 1986, two years after she sold the photo to Davis, the lawsuit says.

In 1990, Davis contacted Lloyd Ostendorf, a top authority on Lincoln images and photos, the lawsuit said.

The two men supposedly met with then-Gov. Thompson in the governor’s mansion in Springfield.

Thompson was a Lincoln memorabilia collector, according to the lawsuit.

Ostendorf, the author of five books about Lincoln, told Davis the photo was a fake, according to the lawsuit.

Oddly, though, Ostendorf and Thompson still offered to buy the photo for $25,000, but Davis refused to sell it, the lawsuit said.

The Chicago Sun-Times reached Thompson on the phone Sunday to ask about the meeting.

“That never happened,” Thompson said.

Jim Thompson

Former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson (pictured in January 2013) | AP

Ostendorf died in 2000.

Davis says he realized the photo was missing from his safe in August 2006.

He says his ex-wife, who isn’t named in the lawsuit, swiped the photo from his safe and sold it to Spolar.

In 2007, Davis got a visit from Spolar, according to the lawsuit.

Spolar asked if Davis possessed copies of an image of Lincoln on his deathbed, according to the lawsuit. Spolar allegedly said he’d like to have the “right of first refusal” to buy such a photo.

The lawsuit doesn’t explain why Spolar would ask Davis about a photo he already had.

Spolar couldn’t be reached for comment.

Even though decades have passed since the photo was allegedly stolen, Hale says the statute of limitations doesn’t apply because Davis only recently learned that Spolar has it.