Eccentricities from our Archives: The Man Who Collected Lincoln

As I discussed in Exploring the History of Ford’s Theatre, Part One, Ford’s Theatre has been a contested space since Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865. In the 1940s, Senator Milton Young of North Dakota, Representative Fred Schwengel of Iowa and others introduced plans to restore the theatre to its 1865 appearance, but their opponents argued over whether a site of national tragedy should become a visitor destination. Still today, the essential question of these debates rings true: How should the Ford’s Theatre Society and National Park Service teach visitors about what happened at Ford’s Theatre while emphasizing the relative importance about Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and legacy? The efforts of one man made answering this question easier.

Osborn Oldroyd (at right) seen here with Congressman Henry Riggs Rathbone (the son of the Lincolns' guests on the night of the assassination). In 1926, Rathbone arranged for the federal government to purchase Oldroyd's Lincoln memorabilia for archival purposes. National Park Service photo.

Like many Union soldiers, Osborn Oldroyd was enamored of Lincoln and began collecting “trophies from his campaign” in 1860, starting with items related to Lincoln’s election. While attending a memorial service for Lincoln in 1880, Oldroyd got the idea to put his collection on display.  When the Lincoln's son Robert sought a tenant for the family home in Springfield in 1883, Oldroyd found the perfect place for his collection. For 10 years Oldroyd operated his Lincoln Museum there with rather dubious financial practices, charging a small fee for visitors and skimping Robert Lincoln on the rent. The younger Lincoln gave the family home to the state government in 1887 (for free public use), and Oldroyd stayed on as curator.

When a Democratic governor was elected in 1893, the staunch Republican Oldroyd was evicted. Luckily for Ford’s Theatre, the then-owners of the Petersen House (where Lincoln died) invited Oldroyd and his now-homeless collection to Washington, and he set up shop in the former boarding house across the street from Ford’s where President Lincoln died.

The Petersen House, seen here circa 1921. National Park Service photo.

Osborn Oldroyd’s collection was eclectic, ranging from a train rail supposedly split by Abraham Lincoln to the family’s baby cradle. When the U.S. government acquired the Petersen House in 1896—the government’s first purchase of a historic home—Oldroyd continued living in the house and served as curator. In the 1920s, Oldroyd brokered a deal with then-Illinois Representative Henry Riggs Rathbone—son of the Lincolns’ ill-fated guests on the night of the assassination—for the federal government to purchase the collection for $50,000.

In 1932, Oldroyd’s collection moved into a repurposed Ford’s Theatre, which had sat empty since several floors had collapsed in 1892. With the centennial of the Civil War approaching and plans to restore the Theatre under debate in the 1940s and 1950s, descendants of theatre owner John T. Ford and the Defense Department began to return objects pertinent to the assassination. These included the pistol used to assassinate the President and the door to the Presidential Box where Lincoln sat that night.

In my research, I came across a 1935 guide to the Ford’s Theatre Museum that compared its significance to the Lincoln Memorial, saying the “Lincoln Memorial is a shrine to a great Patriot; the Lincoln Museum is primarily a memorial to the human qualities of a beloved leader.” The author’s observation has only increased in resonance with the passage of time. Ever since Marian Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after being barred from Constitution Hall due to her race in 1939, the Memorial has been seen as a backdrop to the Civil Rights movement. The imposing marble statue—always more symbolic of Lincoln than a representation of the man—serves as a rallying point for the ideals of equality and the “right to rise” that Lincoln promoted in his life. That elevation of Lincoln inspires people to connect with Lincoln on a personal level at other historic sites here in Washington. That’s where Ford’s Theatre and Osborn Oldroyd come into play.

The Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall.

When I first started volunteering at Ford’s almost two years ago, I always made a point of directing visitors to the deringer pistol in our basement museum, thinking it should top their “must-see” list. But their reactions surprised me; most people would ask to see Lincoln’s suit before the gun, and I engaged in more conversations with visitors about Lincoln’s personal effects in the back of the museum than I had expected.

As I assist with research for a book about Ford’s Theatre, I have begun to realize how much the Theatre owes Osborn Oldroyd for his interest in the objects of Lincoln’s life. The self-appointed “Captain” Oldroyd, who was once described as a “deadbeat” by Robert Lincoln, strikes me as one of the most interesting personalities of the Ford’s Theatre story—eccentric, conniving, financially unscrupulous. But he astutely figured out how to help others understand and love Lincoln as he did—through the preservation and display of objects of historical significance. In his own life, Oldroyd idolized Lincoln, but his collection humanized the President in a way that still speaks to visitors today. Though not all of the museum items relating to Lincoln’s life are from the Oldroyd accession, Oldroyd’s focus on the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln still guides our historical interpretation at the Theatre today, proving to all those apprehensive about Ford’s use that this site will never be reduced to a shrine to John Wilkes Booth.

Allison Hartley is former intern in the Ford's Education department.