Monday, September 29, 2008

Lincoln Scholar's Collection On Display

In July of 1952, a 14-year-old boy named Ronald Rietveld made the discovery of a lifetime. While searching through papers of Abraham Lincoln's secretaries (John Hay and John Nicolay), he stumbled upon a photo of Abraham Lincoln in death. Lincoln's family felt that any photos of Lincoln in death were in poor taste and ordered them destroyed. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton agreed, but inexplicably kept this one photo, taken in New York City on April 24, 1865. The photo was a sensation when it was first published in Life magazine. It is the only known photo of Lincoln in death. Rietveld was granted special access to the papers thanks to his unusual interest and depth of knowledge of Lincoln. He was known to Lincoln scholars thanks to his writing numerous letters inquiring about the president and his life. A more detailed recounting of his find is located here.

Mr. Rietveld is still living and is now 71 years old. Along the way he achieved his doctorate in History. He has continued his lifelong fascination with everything Lincoln (I can certainly relate) and has collected various Lincoln items through the years. His collection is going on public display for the first time, in his hometown of Pella, Iowa. Some of the items Rietveld has collected include a log cabin lapel pin which Lincoln is said to have worn; a pile of dirt from Lincoln's birthplace; and a piece of a wreath which was on Lincoln's coffin.

The Des Moines (Iowa) Register has a nice article about Rietveld and the exhibit. He's providing a great service by sharing his Lincoln items. The photo below is of Mr. Rietveld with one of his items.



6 comments:

Christy said...

Oh, wow, will that be a fabulous exhibit. I am already trying to calculate the mileage from here to Iowa.

Thanks for another great post!

alincolnian said...

Mr. Rietveld's story is inspiring. One wonders if there is anything left to "discover" in the vast quantity of documents locked up in institutional collections.

This also reminded me of my visit this summer to the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield. I had my grandaughter along which made it a special trip. Although it was a little too disneyfied for my taste that probably enhanced her experience. However I have to object to the climax of the exhibit. The last stop is an elaborate reproduction of the Lincoln catafalque shown in this picture. It was surreal and morbid. I felt as though I was at the final stop in one of those haunted house tours so common now at Halloween. I am not quite sure what my grandaughter thought.

I remember John Kennedy's family saying that they would rather his birthday be noted each year rather than his assasination. While there is good reason to honor him in death, it's Lincoln's life that should be the focus of any tribute to him. That display is not just spooky, it sets the wrong focus on the greatness of this man's life.

Geoff Elliott said...

Thank you for your story about the Lincoln Museum in Springfield. I took a trip to Springfield a few years ago in order to specifically visit the museum and see the "Blood On The Moon" exhibit about the assassination.

The presidential museum is indeed a bit "Disneyfied" which is not a surprise since former Disney "imagineers," as they are called, helped to design it. I thoroughly enjoyed the museum, but I strongly believe it should be more "serious" about its subject. I found the re-creation of his birth log cabin to be tacky and superfluous. And the "Lincoln Family" display was just plain dumb.

I would disagree with you about the re-creation of the coffin and lying in-state. Unfortunately, Lincoln's assassination is part of the story and it can be argued that it caused the Lincoln "mythology" which is so prevalent today.

I've been to other presidential library and museum complexes and they are more "sober" if that term can be used to describe a museum. At the Clinton Presidential Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas, his story is told in a straight-forward manner, with all seriousness. There's no "fluff" like at the Lincoln Museum. Regardless of what one thinks of Clinton (or any other president), presidential museums should be dignified. The Lincoln Museum is more like an amusement park and it was a mistake to make it like that.

Thanks for your insight.

Geoff Elliott said...

Yes, Christy, I'd love to see that exhibit too! It would be wonderful to see it and to be able to talk with Mr. Rietveld about his discovery. I think I'd just about die if I'd stumble upon something like he did!

Anonymous said...

I saw a photograph of Abraham Lincoln taken in the 1900's. It was before he was buried under all the cement to keep his body from being taken. I could plainly see his face and I remember about 4 to 5 people standing around the coffin. I also remember a little of the article,saying that when the coffin was opened their was a sweet smell and that his body had been perfectly preserved. He looked the same as the day he was assasinated. Cannot remember where I saw it. Maybe in LIFE magazine.

Geoff Elliott said...

You are correct. I've seen the same article in an old issue of Life magazine. I believe it was published originally in the 1960's, probably in 1965. Dignataries at that occasion removed the coffin lid to verify it was indeed Lincoln.

Thanks!

 
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