Skip to main content

The Top Hat Controversy

July 2024
1min read

In “The Residue of Assassination,” a Postscripts item in our April/May, 1980, issue, we reported that a top hat auctioned off by the firm of Sotheby Parke Bernet in November, 1979, was the one Lincoln had worn on the night of his death. Not necessarily so, says Richard Sloan, editor of The Lincoln Log newsletter: “I read with interest the article which stated that the beaver top hat worn by Lincoln to Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, eventually wound up in the collection of Roy P. Crocker, then was sold for $10,000. However, it is certainly not the one Lincoln wore on the night of the assassination. There is, in fact, insufficient provenance that the hat was ever Lincoln’s. According to a spokesman for Parke Bernet, the auction house which sold it, the only evidence that it was Lincoln’s was some notes in Mr. Crocker’s file from the dealer who sold it to him. These related only that it had ‘traditionally been associated with Lincoln through the years.’

“Checking back to the long article in your special assassination issue of April, 1965, I find a photo of another beaver hat, from the Smithsonian Institution collection, which, according to the authors, Lincoln did wear to Ford’s Theater. I checked with Smithsonian curator Herbert Collins, and he tells me that the Institution does indeeed have the hat Lincoln wore when he was shot, and that it is exhibited. ‘There is no question,’ he adds, ‘as to the documentation.’

“I would be inclined to accept Mr. Collins’s word on the matter, even though there may be some small question in my own mind. You see, I have found a clipping from the February 6, 1928, Washington Star which reports the discovery of the ledger kept by the desk sergeant of the Washington Metropolitan Police in 1865. It lists hats, pistol, etc. ‘brought to the office by Supt. A. C. Richards, and found in the vicinity of the assassination of President Lincoln.’ Although part of the entry states that one of the hats was ‘supposedly to be the President’s,’ it concludes with the puzzling statement that these articles, ‘except for the beaver hat, are supposedly to be connected with the assassination.’ Of course, it cannot be determined if this refers to the hat in the Smithsonian or how accurate the ledger is. Nevertheless, if anyone wanted to see the hat Lincoln wore that fateful night, their best bet would be to go to the Smithsonian.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.