October 11, 2016

What Was Inside Abraham Lincoln’s Pockets When He Died?

By Tayla Burney

Yesterday, the Library of Congress announced that the Librarian’s Ceremonial Office would be open regularly to the public for the first time. The room is a veritable “jewel box” as new Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden called it. And it has also been the site of an interesting rediscovery.


In 1975 another newly sworn-in Librarian of Congress, Daniel J. Boorstin, cracked open a closet-sized safe adjacent to the room and made a fascinating discovery: the contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets the night he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre.

How did they end up there? After the April 14, 1865 assassination the Lincoln family kept the president’s personal effects, until his granddaughter, Mary Lincoln Isham, gifted them to the Library of Congress in 1937.

The seemingly mundane, everyday items we carry in a purse or in our pockets can reveal much about us. And the same is true of our presidents.

Lincoln had on his person: a watch fob (minus the watch), a pocket knife, newspaper clippings, a handkerchief embroidered with “A. Lincoln,” a button,  two pairs of glasses, a glass cleaner, case for said glasses and a wallet, which included a Confederate $5 bill.


The bill was a souvenir from his travels to Petersburg and Richmond, Va. earlier in the month and still inspires conversation whenever the items are displayed.

According to reference librarian Eric Frazier, with the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress, students love to talk about why he might have carried that money with him.

But, Frazier says, the item that might speak most to Lincoln’s nature is the pair of glasses repaired with string at the temples.

Lastly, the newspaper clippings are not to be overlooked. They were from current newspapers at the time of his death and the majority were full of complimentary remarks about Lincoln himself and the Union in the waning days of the Civil War as the president campaigned for reelection. It’s almost like he carried a low-tech precursor to today’s smartphones and social media streams. Waiting for “Our American Cousin” to start at Ford’s Theatre? Catch up on what the media is saying about you.

locceilingYou can view the collection of items online and remember, this set is just a fraction of the wonders the Library of Congress has in its collection. And the new Librarian of Congress has been sharing her discoveries on Twitter. Follow along and stop by the Library to see what’s on display and for a peek inside the newly opened Ceremonial Office.