By Debby Woodin
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Piece by piece, Joplin collector Allen Shirley has put together enough relics to illustrate the story of the Abraham Lincoln presidency and the brutal price he paid for his contribution to history.
“I think of Lincoln and Washington as two of the most important presidents in our history because Washington brought the country together and Lincoln kept it from being torn apart,” Shirley said.
Over 20 years, he has assembled a collection of Lincoln and Civil War relics. It has been displayed at the Joplin Museum Complex and at City Hall.
He has original photographs of the 6-foot-4-inch Lincoln and his socialite wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. He also has several framed exhibits that contain strands of Lincoln’s hair that have come with authentication.
One of those was bought from Christie’s Auction House in New York with a provenance that dates to Lincoln contemporary Caroline Wright, who had attested that the hair was snippets of the president’s given to her after his second inauguration in 1865. She was the wife of Joseph Wright, a pre-Civil War governor of Indiana, and later U.S. ambassador to Prussia and a U.S. senator. The Wrights were friends of the Lincolns. Lincoln is reported to have given a number of artifacts to her, including his autograph book with a reprise of his second inaugural address that stoked the hatred of him by those who favored slavery.
Lincoln had called in that address for the country to move forward “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Shortly after that, a group of Confederates planned to kidnap the president and hold him until the nation agreed to abandon anti-slavery initiatives. The kidnap plot failed when Lincoln had a change of plans, but he was not to avert destiny for long.
“Lincoln’s conciliatory remarks toward the South infuriated many people,” Shirley said. That conciliation and Lincoln’s talk of establishing voting rights for the slaves he emancipated cinched his assassination.
Actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth, who was among those involved in the kidnap conspiracy, shot Lincoln on April 14, 1865, five days after the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. After he shot Lincoln in the president’s private box during a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, Booth tried to vault out of the box. Instead of a steady landing, he fell and broke a foot.
The Shirley collection has a piece of the curtain that hung in the president’s box that night. “It is possibly the thing that Booth hooked his boot on that caused him to fall to the stage,” Shirley said.
Shirley also has a photograph and a piece of the wood from the gallows where four of the conspirators were hanged for the Lincoln murder plot. Though many details of the plot are unknown, eight people were convicted of playing some role in the assassination for aiding Booth afterward.
“With him lost, there was no one to temper the North, and that’s when you got the rape of the South” that took place in the years after the war when carpetbaggers plundered the South for its property and any remaining objects of value, Shirley said.
Still, Lincoln’s work to reunite the North and South, and to pass a constitutional amendment that would prohibit future slavery was not overturned.
Shirley said he sometimes wonders “if he had not been there at that exact moment in time, what would our nation be like? Would we be two nations?”
For the record
While today is referred to in some state, county and other jurisdictions as Presidents Day, the third Monday of February each year is recognized as George Washington’s Birthday at the federal level. The perception that the holiday is called Presidents Day in federal references is inaccurate. Another common notion that the designation observes the birthdays of both Washington and Abraham Lincoln also is misplaced. The designation of the third Monday in February was adopted by Congress in 1968. The impetus for doing so was simplification of the federal holiday calendar.