January 11, 2017

Presidential objects bear witness to history

Blood-spattered cloth from assassination of Abraham Lincoln among collection of historical items with presidential ties

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NEW BEDFORD, Mass. – The inauguration of the 45th President of the United States provides a moment to reflect on historical presidential objects on view at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Without doubt, the most poignant is a relic. It is a small piece of silk fabric that bears witness to one of the most infamous incidents in American history. The fabric’s delicate floral design is marred by dried blood stains belonging to President Abraham Lincoln. The swatch is from the dress worn by actress Laura Keene, the British stage actress who played a leading role in Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., which was attended by President Lincoln on the evening of his assassination. Just below the swatch of silk is an 1864 Smith and Wesson revolver, which according to the donor, belonged to one of the soldiers sent in pursuit of John Wilkes Booth, the President’s assassin. The revolver and scrap of cloth are on display on the Museum’s main level in the exhibition Famine, Friends & Fenians.

Across the gallery, an 1864 lithograph of Lincoln, taken from a sitting done the year before, drawn by Francis B. Carpenter and given by the artist to Senator Sumner of Massachusetts, is on display. Lincoln counted among his friends Joseph Grinnell, a member of the great Grinnell & Minturn shipping firm. In September 1848, while still a relatively unknown Congressman from Illinois, Lincoln visited Grinnell in New Bedford and spoke at Liberty Hall. Diarist Samuel Rodman, Jr. was not impressed, noting, “In the evening went to the Whig meeting, which was addressed by Mr. Lincoln…was a pretty sound, but not a tasteful speech.” The Morning Mercury disagreed, writing the crowd "fired off three lusty cheers for Mr. Lincoln.”

Above the portrait is a mirror used by Lincoln. It hung in Lincoln’s private stateroom on board the steamship River Queen, a sidewheel steamer that operated as a ferry between Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. She was chartered by the U.S. Department of War and was used for an unsuccessful peace conference during the last year of the Civil War. Lincoln met with General William T. Sherman, rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, and General Grant aboard the River Queen during the conference.

In the Braitmayer Gallery is a Resolute Desk, one of three made from the timbers of the HMS Resolute, a British Royal Navy barque sent to the Arctic to locate and rescue the lost Franklin expedition, but abandoned after being trapped in the ice. In 1854 an American whaleman recovered the HMS Resolute, which was returned to Queen Victoria in 1856 after a prominent New Bedford businessman, Henry Grinnell, offered to buy the ship from the salvager on behalf of the US Congress. It was Grinnell who proposed that the ship be restored and returned to the Queen as a gesture of good faith. This action is widely seen as one of the first great acts of diplomacy between the two nations, which had been tense since the War of 1812.

When the HMS Resolute was retired, Queen Victoria ordered that the oak from the ship be fashioned into three beautiful desks. Presented as a gift to President Rutherford B. Hayes, the first desk has graced the Oval Office since 1880 and was used by President Obama. A second was kept for many years in Buckingham Palace, but is now on loan to the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth, England. The third desk was presented as a gift to Henry Grinnell’s widow and was passed down in his family for years until it was donated to the Whaling Museum in 1983. It stands as a quiet reminder of what can come from good diplomacy.


Gayle Hargreaves
Director of Marketing
New Bedford Whaling Museum
508-997-0046 Ext. 139 (office)

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Small piece of silk fabric with a floral design and dried blood stains belonging to Abraham Lincoln. From the dress worn by actress Laura Keene. Inscription reads “The blood of our martyred president. Presented to Captain Holt by his friend Laura Keene. Assassinated April 15, 1865.”











Francis B. Carpenter, 1830-1900. President Lincoln lithograph, 1864, with hand written remark to the Honorable Charles Sumner. On loan from Christopher Boudreau.








Stateroom Mirror from Steamship River Queen. Gift of Mr. Edward F. Pierce, 1904; shown with lithograph portrait of President Abraham Lincoln by Francis B. Carpenter, 1864.










Smith and Wesson 32 caliber 6-shot, Presentation revolver, 1864. Metal and elephant ivory. This revolver engraved; “Presented / to / Capt. Edwin Dews / By Co. B 3rd Mass.” And “1881” According to the donor, Captain Dews was one of the soldiers sent in pursuit of John Wilkes Booth who killed Abraham Lincoln.




The Grinnell Resolute Desk, 1880 








About the New Bedford Whaling Museum

The New Bedford Whaling Museum is the world's most comprehensive museum devoted to the global story of human interaction with whales through time, and the history and culture of the South Coast region. The cornerstone of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, the Museum is located at 18 Johnny Cake Hill in the heart of the city's historic downtown. Museum hours January through March: Tuesday to Saturday from 9 am to 4 pm; Sunday 11 am to 4 pm. The Museum is open until 8 p.m. every second Thursday of the month. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission is: Free for Museum members and children aged three and under; adults $16, seniors (65+) $14, students (19+) $9, child and youth $6. For more information, visit www.whalingmuseum.org.