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Question of DNA testing on purported Abraham Lincoln hat splits state panel

The Abraham Lincoln hcollecti Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Museum Springfield.  |  Rich Hein~Sun-Times

The Abraham Lincoln hat in the collection of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 15, 2013 1:43PM

SPRINGFIELD — Citing a “credibility gap,” members of a state historic panel that oversees the Abraham Lincoln presidential museum pressed Wednesday for DNA testing to determine if an iconic stovepipe hat actually ever belonged to the beloved president.

The request drew an angry reaction from the museum curator, who snapped that the controversy is “a dead issue.’

The full seven-member panel didn’t vote, with its chairman, Sunny Fischer, questioning the need for testing but leaving open the possibility the matter could get a more thorough airing when the board next meets in June.

“I really think we have a credibility gap with this hat,” said Tony Leone, a member of the state Historic Preservation Agency Board, who wants the hat tested by the Illinois State Police’s forensic lab in a bid to establish whether it really was Lincoln’s.

The Chicago Sun-Times last year raised questions about the $6.5 million stovepipe hat’s background because the museum’s explanation of where it came from conflicts substantially with a 57-year-old affidavit describing its ownership trail.

The museum maintains Lincoln gave the hat as a token of thanks to a southern Illinois farmer at an 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas, but a descendent of that farmer claimed in a 1958 affidavit that her father-in-law got it from Lincoln “during the Civil War in Washington.”

Beyond family lore, no evidence exists that the farmer, William Waller, ever made the long trip to the nation’s capital, and Lincoln never returned to Illinois after becoming president. Nor is there any evidence — such as a newspaper clipping, a letter, diary entry or photograph — to prove a hand-off occurred at the 1858 debate.

The hat, which bears the mark of a Springfield hat maker and is Lincoln’s size, was part of a $23 million collection the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation acquired in 2007 from Lincoln collector Louise Taper, who also sits on the foundation’s board.

“I haven’t heard an explanation that fully satisfies me about the provenance of the hat. I’m sure somebody can explain it beautifully, but I just haven’t heard it,” said board member Shirley Portwood, a retired Southern Illinois University history professor who said she was troubled by the “large gap” in the hat’s history and believes DNA testing is in order.

“There’s a period of time where it’s not clear where the hat was, and I, as a historian, would have a problem with that. Even in a paper I was writing about it, I would have to have a footnote that said, ‘according to family lore, such and such,’ rather than it had been documented for the entire … 150 years,” Portwood said.

The panel did not vote on Leone’s push to have the hat tested for Lincoln’s DNA, a difficult task since Lincoln has no living descendents and his blood exists on precious artifacts from his assassination that might have to be altered for testing purposes.

When Leone brought up the idea, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum’s curator, James Cornelius, angrily interrupted Leone and belittled his idea.

“This is a dead issue,” Cornelius snapped. “Dandruff, bone, hair, forget it. It’s not there.”

In an interview last year, Cornelius explained why the museum tied the hat’s origin to Lincoln’s 1858 debate appearance rather than how the Waller affidavit described things a century later.

“I guess you’d say we’ve taken something of a historic liberty in re-dating it to a much more plausible time and place,” Cornelius said then.

He declined to take reporters’ questions after Wednesday’s meeting.

Fischer, the board’s chairwoman, said she has concerns about “the potential damage” that DNA testing might cause to the hat and any artifact bearing Lincoln’s blood from the night of his assassination and embraces Cornelius’ explanation of how the hat wound up with William Waller.

“That’s history. We accept it,” Fischer said.

Earlier this month, the museum put the hat on a six-month public display. The description of the hat presented to visitors contains no mention of its conflicting provenance despite encouragement to do so from state Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale) and Wes Cowan, co-host of the PBS-TV show “History Detectives” and an expert in historical artifacts.

Both Leone and Portwood have asked to see a copy of the original appraisal that was done on the hat and the rest of the Taper collection. But so far, the state agency has not been given that information by the foundation.

“Because of all the questions raised about it,” Portwood said, referring to the hat, “it makes me even more anxious to see the appraisal. It’s the question I as a historian would raise: who appraised this, how, what method they used.”

Chris Wills, a spokesman for the state Historic Preservation Agency, acknowledged his agency asked to see the appraisal from the foundation last November but has not been given a response in nearly three months.

“It’s better to ask them why they haven’t been able to provide it,” Wills said.

The foundation’s CEO, Carla Knorowski, has ignored repeated questions from the Sun-Times regarding DNA testing of the hat and did not respond Wednesday to questions about the appraisal.

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