DEARBORN, Mich. – Jeff Buczkiewicz stood before the chair Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was assassinated 150 years ago. He peered silently into the glass-enclosed case at the rocking chair, then snapped pictures for posterity.
“You just get drawn into these things,” said Buczkiewicz, 47, who came from suburban Chicago with his family to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. “It is a tragic part of our history and our country. I think it’s important to take it all in.”
Taking in objects from the final hours of two important American lives is a major draw to the museum. In addition to the worn, red chair Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., in 1865, the Henry Ford also owns the limousine President John F. Kennedy was riding in when he was fatally shot in Dallas nearly a century later. Museum officials say the chair and car are among the most visited artifacts in the museum, along with the bus Rosa Parks rode in when she refused to give up her seat to a white rider and helped spark the civil rights movement.
Next week, visitors will get an even closer look at the Lincoln chair: It will be removed from its enclosure and displayed in an open plaza area as part of the museum’s observance of the assassination’s sesquicentennial on April 15 — a day of free admission. Two days earlier, it will be onstage when renowned historian and Lincoln expert Doris Kearns Goodwin delivers a sold-out lecture at The Henry Ford.
Goodwin, author of “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” told The Associated Press that the chair will offer an extra “dimension” to her words and the experience of those in the room.
“There’s an intimacy to it that catapults you back in time,” she said. “And hopefully, along with that, you’re not just thinking of the death but the life that made it worthwhile.”
Lincoln’s chair has been part of the museum started by pioneering automaker Henry Ford — no relation to the theater-owning Ford family — since its founding 85 years ago. The government removed it from the theater and held it as evidence, and it ended up at the Smithsonian Institution. The wife of a theater co-owner petitioned to reclaim it, then sold it at auction to an agent working for Henry Ford.
Henry Ford also bought the Logan County Courthouse where Lincoln practiced law in Illinois in the 1840s and moved it to the outdoor area next to his museum known as Greenfield Village. For decades, the theater chair was housed in that courthouse.
Around 1980, the chair was placed inside the museum, where it’s now part of the “With Liberty and Justice for All” exhibit.
“Lincoln was one of Henry Ford’s heroes — when he decided he wanted to have this village, he wanted to collect Lincoln stuff as an educational tool,” said curator Donna Braden. “The courthouse is pretty much the first thing Henry Ford acquired related to Lincoln and the chair came soon after.”
Many visitors wonder whether dark spots on the back of the chair are Lincoln’s blood. Not so, say museum workers: The stains are oil from other people’s heads who sat in the chair before that fateful night when Lincoln was shot by a pro-Confederacy actor, John Wilkes Booth.
Steve Harris, a historic presenter at the museum, tells passers-by that Lincoln’s head would have been positioned much higher than the stain because he was 6 feet 4 inches tall (1.93 meters).
Milestone anniversaries seem to add to the impact of objects like the chair and limo. About 8,000 people visited the limo on Nov. 22, 2013, a free-admission day marking the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, so the chair is likely to draw plenty of visitors on the Lincoln anniversary.
“It really is about the power of the artifact,” said Patricia Mooradian, president of The Henry Ford, as the entire history attraction is known. “It’s less about the artifact itself than the symbolic nature of the artifact that represents a great paradigm change in the history of our country.”
Buskiewicz has also visited Dealey Plaza in Dallas where Kennedy was assassinated. “You just have to try to take it in when you’re in those areas,” he said, but he wonders “why we gravitate” toward places and things associated with these types of events.
Goodwin, whose book helped inspire Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Lincoln,” says that standing before iconic yet everyday objects provides a deep experience that transcends the moment that made them famous.
“In some ways, it’s more familiar when it’s a chair, a bus or a limo,” she said. “There’s something about the tangibility of these things.”
If You Go…
HENRY FORD MUSEUM: 20900 Oakwood Boulevard, Dearborn, Michigan; http://www.thehenryford.org/ or 800-835-5237. Daily 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $20; children 5-12, $15.
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