Publication Date

March 23, 2010

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

Post Type

History Education


  • United States


Digital Methods, Public History

On April 14, 1865, just five days after the close of the Civil War, Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, retold the story from the night of Lincoln’s assassination, remembering how the First Lady’s cloak was wet with blood.

“The story of Lincoln’s assassination fascinated an American public steeped in the sensationalism and sentimentalism of the Civil War era,” and that fascination continues today. One of the Chicago Historical Society’s prize artifacts is Mary Todd Lincoln’s alleged cloak from the night of her husband’s death. Is it really her cloak and is it really covered in Abraham Lincoln’s blood? Together with Academic Technologies at Northwestern University the Chicago Historical Society has created Wet with Blood, an interactive website that explores the mysteries of Mary Todd Lincoln’s cloak.

This interactive website reads much the way a physical book would, complete with a table of contents to guide the user through the night of the murder, the artifacts, and the investigation into their authenticity. The Chicago Historical Society obtained most of these artifacts from Charles Gunther’s 19th-century Libby Prison Civil War Museum, which housed relics from not only Lincoln’s assassination, but also artifacts and archival records that capture stories from America and Chicago during the 1890s.

Since many 19th-century museums contained both authentic and inauthentic artifacts, the Chicago Historical Society organized an investigation in their textile conservation laboratory to determine the authenticity of Mary Todd Lincoln’s cloak. The website allows users to explore the laboratory via one of three paths:

  1. Return to the Scene of the Crime
    1. An Evening at Ford’s Theatre
    2. Vigil at the Petersen’s House
    3. The Earthly Remains
  2. Investigation by Private Eyes – Collaborative Investigation of the Lincoln Relics
    1. DNA Analysis
    2. Partners in Crime
    3. Weighing the Evidence – Evaluating the Historical and Scientific Evidence
  3. The Bloody Evidence
    1. The Story of Libby Prison – The Charles Gunther Collection
    2. The Assassination Relics

Outside of the main investigation of the artifacts, users can explore some of the other many special features on the site. Some of the special features include Farewell, Father, Friend, and Guardian, George F. Root’s tribute to Lincoln, which was composed, published, and performed in Chicago for Lincoln’s funeral; a virtual panoramic of the First Lady’s cloak, where users can rotate the cloak under infrared light, intensifying the blood spots; a microscopic examination of Clara Harris Ford’s dress swatch and Mary Todd Lincoln’s cloak; and a Civil War jukebox that brings users back to music’s yesteryear.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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