The Story After the Tragedy: The 150-Year Journey of Lincoln’s Cufflink

In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Ford’s Theatre has reunited an extraordinary collection of artifacts that were in the Theatre or carried by Lincoln on the night of his assassination. Lincoln’s cufflink—lent by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois—returns to Tenth Street with a fascinating story of its own, which begins after the tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination.

In the weeks after her husband died, despite the horror of that experience, Mary Lincoln had the presence of mind to collect a few mementos of her beloved husband and plan their retention or dispersal to close friends and associates. Her own, blood-stained fan she kept for a while. Abraham’s blood-stained gloves and pocket handkerchief she kept for three years, selling them to one of the earliest collectors of presidential memorabilia, Capt. Benjamin Richardson.

One more personal keepsake she gave to Dr. Charles Sabin Taft on April 15, 1865. Dr. Taft’s appearance as the second medical man to reach the Presidential Box was something of a coincidence in the “small town” of Civil War Washington. His father was Horatio Nelson Taft, chief examiner of the U.S. Patent Office and the head of the family with whom the Lincolns spent Christmas 1861 in the White House. Dr. Taft, age 26, had joined the army at the outbreak of war as an assistant surgeon, and because he was assigned to local hospitals for the duration—where Abraham and Mary sometimes visited wounded soldiers—was able to spend time with them beyond the family events, too.

When the young doctor was lifted from the orchestra level into the Presidential Box, a minute or two after Lincoln had been shot, he may have looked to Mary Lincoln like something of a redeeming angel, the perfect friend, lowered from on high. In the mad rush of strangers, some of them shrieking or yelling, here was a calm, professional member of the family with whom they had once been so close in their new Washington home.

So it was that, after the autopsy the next day, Mary Lincoln gave this remembrance of her husband to Dr. Taft.

Each cufflink, or cuff buttons as they were sometimes called, consisted of two pieces: a round backing of gold that is the functional part for receiving the stud through the shirt cuff; and an oval button with gold gothic ‘L’ set in black enamel and surrounded by a gold frame, with engraved detail.

Dr. Charles Sabin Taft was born in Lyons, New York, in 1835, and died in Mount Vernon, New York, in 1900. He left the cufflink to his son Charles Clement Taft, manager of a large clothing store in Manhattan, who sold the keepsake to the prominent Washington antiques dealer Anton Heitmuller in 1907. Heitmuller in turn sold it to Major William H. Lambert, of Germantown, Pennsylvania. Major Lambert was the leading figure of the so-called “Big Five,” the great Lincoln collectors of that era.

Lambert gave his cufflink a new home, a little, custom-made silver box, with a beveled glass cover and a black-velvet bed. The box’s top edge is inscribed, “Abraham Lincoln / April 14th 1865.” Pasted on to the top of the glass case is Lambert’s paper catalog label, 226. Inscribed by a jeweler in tiny cursive script on the box’s underside is this:

Enclosed sleeve button worn by President Lincoln April 14th 1865 was given by Mrs. Lincoln to Dr. Taft, an attending surgeon who had removed it in search for wound Bought from his son C.C. Taft by W.H. Lambert March 11th 1908.

Mary Lincoln would be proud to see her well-dressed husband’s two onyx-and-gold cuff links back in one place together, just as when he and she left for Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. You can see the cufflinks together for yourself in the special exhibition Silent Witnesses: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination at Ford’s Theatre, which is on view until May 29, 2015, in the Center for Education and Leadership.

James M. Cornelius, Ph.D. is the Curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. Most recently he completed an all-new exhibition at the ALPLM, “Undying Words: Lincoln 1858-1865,” which features original versions of Lincoln’s most famous speeches, the 13th Amendment and other extraordinary artifacts. He also recently curated the exhibition “A Fiendish Assassination” about Lincoln’s death and funerals.