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How The Henry Ford helped conserve the chair Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was assassinated

Abraham Lincoln Rocking Chair
Posted at 5:09 PM, Apr 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-14 17:09:59-04

(WSYM) — Wednesday marks the 156th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. He was shot sitting in a chair at Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865, and died just a day later.

That rocking chair, covered in red fabric with a wooden frame, now sits inside The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn. It's one of the more iconic pieces inside the museum, and it underwent a conservation project a few decades ago.

According to The Henry Ford, the chair was taken after the assassination and sat inside the private office of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, before being sent to the Smithsonian in 1867 and placed in storage.

In 1927, Blanche Chapman Ford, the widow of the Ford's Theater owner, applied to get the chair back and received it in 1929. The chair was then sold at auction in December 1929.

It was purchased by Israel Sack, who was an agent of Henry Ford. He then offered it to Henry Ford. In early 1930, Henry Ford documented the arrival of the chair in Greenfield Village, where it sat inside the courthouse where Lincoln practiced law in the 1840s.

The unboxing of the Lincoln Rocker at Greenfield Village in 1930. Henry Ford documented the chair's arrival and unboxing.

It was moved to the museum in 1979, but in the early 1990s, conservators noticed the silk upholstery was degrading.

"We noticed when we just opened the door, little pieces of fabric started to float off the chair," Mary Fahey, the head of conservation at The Henry Ford, said. "It was so fragile that the air movement from us moving around caused the fabric to just float up in the air."

The team at The Henry Ford began to talk with the curator and decided it would be best to hire someone to conserve the chair. While the museum has its own conservation department, they didn't have anyone working on textiles.

In the late 1990s, Fahey said the conservation work began, and structural problems involving the wooden frame were repaired by The Henry Ford staff, but the fabric itself was repaired by outside staff.

To prepare for the conservation, the museum took 10 different samples from the chair.

Fahey said the samples came from areas that were already degraded, because "we're not crazy about taking samples from artifacts like this one."

Part of the reason for the sampling was that people assumed the large stain at the top of the chair was blood from the Lincoln assassination. According to Fahey, most of the stains were actually hair grease and oil, from people sitting on it with their heads right there. Back then, men used grease and oil for their hair.

Stain top of Abraham Lincoln rocking chair
Large stain at the top of the Abraham Lincoln rocking chair inside The Henry Ford. Many people thought the stain was blood, but it was later determined to be a type of grease/oil used by men on their hair.

There was also a plaster stain on the back, which Fahey said they believe is from when it was stored at the Smithsonian.

Scientists did identify two areas, one on the back and one on the front, that came back presumptive positive for blood. More testing would be completed to see if it is Lincoln's blood, but there are not many samples of the president's blood and DNA.

Screen Shot 2021-04-14 at 2.16.17 PM.png
Back of the Rocking Chair Used by Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater the Night of His Assassination, April 14, 1865

To keep the chair preserved, it was cleaned with a very tiny vacuum attachment, and some of the more severe stains were minimized. It was then covered with a very thin layer of custom-dyed polyester fabric, which holds the fragile pieces of the chair together.

According to Fahey, it was placed where it is now around 2006 in a custom-built display case. The museum does everything it can to preserve the chair to this day.

"Light levels are kept very low to prevent fading of the fabric," Fahey said. "Lights are of course on a timer so they go on and off at night so we're not exposing it to light unnecessarily. We also use LED which gives out very little ultraviolet."

Fahey said the display case also had a system to help control the humidity. The museum itself is humidity controlled, but she said it's just another level of protection.

"For us, at this point, when I walk by the chair, I just check to make sure that I don't see any changes in the item itself," she said. Fahey also said the team periodically changes the humidity control if it's been, say, a humid summer.

"It's actually pretty incredible. It's sad, but it's amazing to be looking at it," Fahey said of the chair. "It's such a relic for us."