A Great Coat and a Great Tragedy: The Life of Lincoln’s Brooks Brothers Overcoat

From Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration to the upcoming exhibition, Silent Witnesses: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination, Lincoln’s custom-made great coat has journeyed from Ford’s Theatre and back again. Over the past 150 years, the Brooks Brothers coat has collected many stories. Find out more in this month’s Museum Feature.

One Country, One Destiny. These powerfully symbolic words accompanied Abraham Lincoln on his visit to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. Earlier that year, Lincoln had received a gift from Brooks Brothers, the New York-based clothing manufacturer who had designed a great coat (overcoat) for Lincoln’s second inauguration. The custom-made black wool coat was lined with black twill silk that featured a fish-scale pattern. Inside the coat, a quilted eagle, surrounded by four shields, held two banners that prophesied the divided nation’s future: “One Country, One Destiny.” By early April 1865, the nation would be reunited.

On the evening of April 14, President and Mrs. Lincoln prepared for a night at the theatre. For the brief carriage ride from the White House to Ford’s Theatre, the Lincolns put on their overcoats. Mary slipped a velvet cloak over her shoulders, and the President covered his suit with his still-new great coat. Upon their arrival at the theatre, the Lincolns and their guests took their seats. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., John Wilkes Booth made his way to the Presidential Box, changing the course of history with one gunshot. As a witness to this great tragedy, Lincoln’s great coat became more than an artifact of Lincoln; it became an artifact of assassination.

Early the next morning, Lincoln died from a severe head wound. When Mary Lincoln returned to the White House, she was alone, yet surrounded by memories and reminders of the tragedy. She was given Lincoln’s great coat as well as other personal effects after the assassination. As innocent witnesses to an unfathomable tragedy, these bloodied relics served as a reminder of that fateful night. Several weeks later, Mary Lincoln gave the clothing to Alphonse Donn, the Lincolns’ favorite doorman, in memory of her husband.

Recognizing its significance, Donn held on to the clothing for the rest of his life. While it was in his care, he stored the great coat in a trunk in a spare room. He would occasionally bring it out of storage to show visitors to his home. During the late 1860-70s, he cut off pieces of the coat to give away as mementos. Unfortunately, this practice eventually caused the left sleeve to detach from the rest of the coat. After Donn’s death, the coat and the detached sleeve were passed down through his family, who stored the clothing in bank vaults in Washington, D.C. and North Carolina.

In 1968, more than 100 years after the assassination, Abraham Lincoln’s great coat returned to Ford’s Theatre. Through a monetary gift from the American Trucking Association, the United States Capitol Historical Society was able to purchase the clothing from Alphonse Donn’s granddaughter. The Historical Society subsequently donated the great coat to Ford’s Theatre. As it returned to the site of the assassination, it came into the hands of a public institution for the first time in its history. On April 24, 1968, the great coat was installed in the Lincoln Museum (the basement of the Theatre), where it would remain on display for decades.

For the first time in its lifetime, Lincoln’s great coat could be shared with the public and educate visitors about Lincoln and the assassination. But as museum practice and professional standards evolved over time, conservators realized that the coat had spent most of its public life subjected to harmful environmental conditions, including prolonged light exposure. From 1990 to 1996, conservators constructed a new, angled mount and mended splits in the fragile silk lining. The coat itself was deemed stable, but the lining was deteriorating. The coat remained on view for the public, but as the National Park Service’s provenance and conservation records reveal, the coat had suffered from being on display for so many years.

Museums exist to educate and benefit the public and to preserve objects for both the present and the future. Sometimes the goal of displaying an original object for educational purposes conflicts with the need to preserve it. Therefore, museums face the challenge of achieving a balance between preservation and public display. The mission of the National Park Service emphasizes the preservation of “natural and cultural resources … for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” In order for this mission to be fulfilled, the museum must both protect and present objects for the public’s benefit—now and in the future.

When Ford’s Theatre reopened in 2009 after an extensive renovation project, the National Park Service implemented schedules for exhibit case cleanings and rotation of the great coat. Since July 2011, the coat has been off display for extensive conservation work and much-needed rest. For the special exhibition, Silent Witnesses: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination, on the 150th anniversary of the assassination, the great coat will once again be on view­­—displayed on a custom-made mount in a stabilized environment and dimly lit case—all in an effort to preserve and share Lincoln’s great coat with all of us.

Plan a visit to see the coat while it is on display March 23-May 25, 2015. Note: Entry to Silent Witnesses is available for advance reservation with the purchase of an Acoustiguide audio tour for a specific timed entry.

Elena Popchock is the spring 2015 Exhibitions Intern at Ford’s Theatre. Elena is a second-year graduate student in Museum Studies at The George Washington University, where she is concentrating in Exhibition Development and American Studies.