Bloody blanket might be from president’s deathbed

Wounded Lincoln may have lain on knitted item at rooming house


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MADISON, Wis. -- In the frantic, desperate minutes after John Wilkes Booth fired a fatal shot into the president's head 150 years ago, an unconscious Abraham Lincoln was carried across the street from Ford's Theater to a rooming house.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/04/2015 (2917 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

MADISON, Wis. — In the frantic, desperate minutes after John Wilkes Booth fired a fatal shot into the president’s head 150 years ago, an unconscious Abraham Lincoln was carried across the street from Ford’s Theater to a rooming house.

Down a narrow hallway and into a tiny room, the injured Lincoln was carried on April 14, 1865, and placed diagonally on a bed too small for his lanky frame. When he died the following morning, a photographer snapped a photo of the blood-spattered bed, sheets, blanket and pillow.

The beige cotton bedspread carefully stored in acid-free white tissue paper in a temperature- and humidity-monitored room at the Wisconsin Historical Society may have been on Lincoln’s deathbed. Or it might not have been. No one knows for sure.

But just how the bedspread came to be in Wisconsin is an interesting story, nonetheless.

And almost a century after it became part of the historical society’s collection, the bedspread was tested recently by a University of Wisconsin-Madison textile scientist and Wisconsin Crime Lab official to see if the faint stains on the blanket are blood. Results are due this week.

“There are spots on it. They could be iron rust spots, but blood has iron in it,” said Leslie Bellais, the Wisconsin Historical Society’s curator of social history.

The knitted bedspread was donated to the society in 1919 by Wisconsin State Journal owner and editor Richard Lloyd Jones. A dozen years earlier, he had been contacted by a woman who told him she and her sister were nieces of the woman who owned Petersen’s boarding house, where Lincoln died. Their aunt gave the sisters the bedspread, which they had kept for years. But they were moving to Italy and didn’t want to take such an important piece of history out of the U.S., so they gave it to Jones.

At the time, Jones was an editor at Collier’s magazine who had written articles about Lincoln, purchased the Lincoln birthplace farm in Kentucky and promoted a project to memorialize the 16th president’s birth site.

When he donated the bedspread to the historical society, Jones could no longer remember the women’s names. They had written a statement of facts including their names, address and the date of the transfer of the bedspread, but Jones told the historical society he misplaced the paper when he moved to Wisconsin.

“This counterpane, it may be stated, was the best spread of the household and when Mr. Lincoln was carried from Ford Theater directly across the street the best the house could provide was of course his. The counterpane was not used by the family after Mr. Lincoln’s death,” Jones wrote in a 1919 letter to the historical society.

Bellais, a textile expert, has examined the photo taken of the deathbed shortly after Lincoln’s body was removed. The blanket on the bed in that photo is not the bedspread in the society’s collection. But Bellais said it’s possible it was among other pieces of bedding used to cover the stricken president. Or it could be a blanket from another room in the Petersen house. It could have been washed at some point before it was given to Jones in 1907. Or it could be a random bedspread that doesn’t have any link to the assassination.

What Bellais knows is the bedspread is from the time period of Lincoln’s death and it’s an ordinary blanket, not something that would have been found in a nice hotel or the White House.

Bellais’ research to determine who gave the bedspread to Jones has been stymied by the fact boarding house owner William Petersen and his wife, Anna, both died in 1871. Genealogical records have not turned up any nieces of Anna Petersen living in New York in the early 1900s, said Bellais. Perhaps the aunt owned the house after the Petersens died, she said.

“I called Lincoln memorabilia collectors to ask about the value, and they feel this isn’t a Lincoln piece because the provenance isn’t strong enough,” said Bellais.

To determine whether the stains on the bedspread are blood, Bellais contacted Majid Sarmadi, UW-Madison professor of textile science.

‘Typically, the blood samples we work with at the state crime lab are more recentSSRq

Sarmadi used a needle to delicately pull a tiny fibre from the bedspread before snipping it with a scissors and handing it to Daniel J. Campbell of the Wisconsin State Crime Lab. Campbell, forensic scientist supervisor of the DNA section, used a cotton swab soaked with sterile water to dab at a few of the tiny dark stains before placing them in collection boxes and envelopes.

The fibres and cotton swabs will be checked to see if they’re blood, and if they are, for DNA.

If analysts at the crime lab can’t find nuclear DNA, the samples will be sent to the FBI, and if that isn’t successful, they’ll be sent to a lab in Texas for more sophisticated mitochondrial DNA analysis.

“Typically, the blood samples we work with at the state crime lab are more recent,” said Campbell.

“I’ve never been involved with something this old. This is significant.”

If DNA is found, it would be almost impossible to determine if it’s Lincoln’s, since many people have handled the bedspread in 150 years. Plus, there are no living Lincoln descendants, because none of the president’s grandchildren had children.

Bellais said the cape Mary Todd Lincoln wore to the theatre, which was soaked with her husband’s blood, is in the collection of the Chicago Historical Society, which has declined in the past to test for DNA because of the risk of possibly damaging the cloak.

— Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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