On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated into the Presidency for his second time, and for such a momentous occasion, he needed exceptional attire. Throughout his first term, Lincoln had been “a regular customer”1 of famous clothiers the Brooks Brothers, so for his second inauguration, they specially constructed him a long black overcoat, and as the president stood roughly 6 feet 4 inches tall the coat was a size 39 Long.2 The inside lining of the “great coat,” as it was called, featured an embroidered eagle holding a banner which read, “One Country, One Destiny.”3
As Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address, nationally renowned actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth observed from the balcony of the Capitol building, as captured in the only photograph that features both him and President Lincoln. (See Booth circled in yellow and Lincoln in blue.)
Thirty-six days later, on April 9, the Civil War was effectively ended with the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.
With the war finally over, President Lincoln decided to spend the night of Good Friday (April 14) watching a performance of the play Our American Cousin from the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. For this relaxing night out, he once again donned his custom-made Brooks Brothers overcoat. However, this coat wasn’t the only thing at Ford’s Theatre that night which had also been at the inauguration.
As Lincoln enjoyed the play, John Wilkes Booth snuck into the presidential box, drew a pocket-sized derringer from his jacket, and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. As Booth made his escape, all attention turned to the wounded president slumped forward in his chair. Lincoln was taken across the street from the theatre to the Petersen House where doctors could attend to his wounds. As they attempted to treat the president, they removed his jacket. Sadly, they were unable to save Lincoln, who passed shortly after 7:00 a.m. the next day.
After his death, Lincoln’s personal effects, including his overcoat, were given to his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. She would later give the coat their favorite doorman, Alphonse Donn, as a memento to remember the fallen president by.4 Under Donn’s ownership, the coat was shown to personal visitors, and throughout the late 1860s and 1870s, pieces of the jacket were cut off and given to select guests.5 President Rutherford B. Hayes even received a piece.6
The American Journey Vault is home to a bloodstained fragment of Lincoln’s “great coat” which was given by Donn to Benjamin French Jr. Upon the receipt of this significant relic of the departed president, French recorded that it was a “Piece of the coat stained with the blood of the President; Overcoat which he wore when assassinated April 14th, 1865. Received from a Police office on duty at the Presidential Mansion.”7 Before serving as White House doorkeeper, Donn was a policeman for the Metropolitan Police, and is thus identified by French as a police officer in his note.8
The rest of the great coat remained in the possession of Donn and his descendants until it was acquired and given to Ford’s Theatre in 1968. Because so many fragments were cut from it, the jacket has required extensive preservation efforts in order to prevent further decay.9 However, in 2006 the American Journey Experience’s piece was reviewed by experts at Ford’s Theatre who concluded that, “it was a perfect match in color, layers, & lining pattern,” even identifying, “from where it was possibly taken.”10
This item remains as a grim relic from one of the darkest days in American history. The nation, which had been celebrating the end to a long and bloody war, now had to mourn an unexpected and previously unheard-of tragedy. This fragment of the great coat, which Lincoln had triumphantly worn only two months earlier at his inauguration, now carried an even greater significance.
1. Established 1818: Brooks Brothers Centenary, 1818-1819 (New York: The Cheltenham Press, 1918), 32. Here.
2. “Dressing President Lincoln,” Brooks Brothers (accessed February 22, 2022): here.
3. “Detail of the Coat Abraham Lincoln Wore the Night He Was Assassinated at Ford’s Theatre,” 1865, Library of Congress (accessed February 20, 2022): here.
4. Elena Popchock “A Great Coat and a Great Tragedy: The Life of Lincoln’s Brooks Brothers Overcoat,” Ford’s Theatre (accessed February 22, 2022): here.
5. Established 1818: Brooks Brothers Centenary, 1818-1819 (New York: The Cheltenham Press, 1918), 32. Here.
6. “Cloth Fragment,” Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums (accessed February 22, 2022): here.
7. Benjamin French Jr., Letter of Provenance (1860s – 1870s), Abraham Lincoln Collection, American Journey Experience, Irving, Texas.
8. See Donn’s testimony in, Trial of John H. Surratt in the Criminal Court for the District of Columbia (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1867), 1002. Here.
10. Authentification [sic] of Lincoln Coat Collar Piece, July 2016, Abraham Lincoln Collection, American Journey Experience, Irving, Texas.