The Lincoln Chair

Video abraham lincoln assassination chair

What is the significance of the Lincoln Chair?

President Abraham Lincoln was sitting in this rocking chair during a production of the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, when he was assassinated on April 14, 1865.

Who was the original manufacturer of the Lincoln Chair?

The rocking chair was part of a larger parlor set purchased by Harry Ford (no relation to Henry Ford), manager of Ford’s Theatre when the Theatre opened in 1863. The parlor set was used in a lounge area of the Theater. We do not know who originally manufactured the Lincoln Chair.

Why was President Lincoln seated in a rocking chair, as opposed to a regular chair? Was this common at the time, or was it a special request by President Lincoln?

The chair was usually placed in a lounge in Ford’s Theatre, and it was offered to President Lincoln when he first started frequenting the Theatre in 1863. He found the rocker comfortable, and whenever he attended a play, it was specially brought out for him.

Lincoln RockerFord’s Theatre Presidential Box the Morning after Lincoln was Shot, April 15, 1865/THF121254

How many of that style of chair were made, and how many may still be around?

The rocking chair is known, not ironically, as a “Lincoln Rocker.” Thousands of these were mass produced, beginning in the 1850s and continuing into the 1870s. The Henry Ford owns several more of these rockers used by the Lincoln family at their home in Springfield, Illinois. Many of this type of rocker are still around.

Was the Lincoln Chair in police evidence storage for a while?

Following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the Lincoln Chair was seized as evidence by the federal government and remained in Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s office for at least two years. Our best period images of the chair come from its time in Stanton’s office. In 1867, it was transferred to the Department of the Interior, where it remained in storage. It was catalogued into the Smithsonian Institution’s collection in 1902.

How did The Henry Ford acquire the Lincoln Chair?

The Henry Ford acquired the Lincoln Chair through an auction in 1929. Blanche Chapman Ford, the widow of Ford’s Theatre manager Harry Ford, appealed to the federal government to return her husband’s property, seized at the end of the Civil War. She used a precedent set in 1913, when the heirs of Jefferson Davis sued the federal government for return of his property. Once Blanche Ford took possession of the chair in 1929, she put it up for auction. It was purchased by famed antiques dealer Israel Sack, who immediately offered it to Henry Ford. Henry Ford bought the chair and installed it in the Logan County Courthouse in Greenfield Village. He even filmed the move, unpacking, and installation.Logan County CourthouseLogan County Courthouse in March 1935, Showing the Abraham Lincoln Chair Then on Exhibit in Greenfield Village / THF121377

When was the Lincoln Chair first preserved in the glass case in Logan County Courthouse?

Photographic evidence tells us that the Lincoln Chair was always preserved in a glass case in the Logan County Courthouse, from its arrival in 1930 to its move to Henry Ford Museum 50 years later.

Why was the Lincoln Chair moved from the Logan County Courthouse?

The Lincoln Chair was always intended by Henry Ford to be displayed in Greenfield Village in the Logan County Courthouse, where Lincoln practiced law as a circuit rider in the 1840s. It was moved into Henry Ford Museum in 1979 as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of The Henry Ford. The Lincoln Chair is now a permanent and integral part of the With Liberty and Justice for All exhibition in Henry Ford Museum, which examines the history of American democracy.

Has the Lincoln Chair ever returned to Ford’s Theatre for special occasions?

No. The Lincoln Chair is on permanent display in With Liberty and Justice for All in Henry Ford Museum.

Watch The Henry Ford’s Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable and Chief Conservator Mary Fahey answer some frequently asked questions about the Lincoln Chair.

What are the stains on the Lincoln Chair?

Before the Lincoln Chair was conserved in 1996, small samples were analyzed. Most of the stains on the headrest were determined to be hair oil.

Is there blood on the Lincoln Chair?

Samples from the Lincoln Chair were analyzed prior to our 1996 conservation work. The preliminary presumptive test for blood using the chemical benzidine gave a positive result for two locations on the chair—one on the back, and the other on the front of the seat. More conclusive testing, such as DNA testing, would have required us to have a second known sample of DNA from the president or one of his decedents.

Lincoln ChairTHF159539

Why is the Lincoln Chair in this condition? And why wasn’t it reupholstered?

The fabric on the Lincoln Chair is the same fabric that was on the chair on the evening of President Lincoln’s assassination. As a museum, it is our responsibility to preserve as much original material as possible, including fragile fibers and stains. This is particularly important if the artifact is linked to a significant historical event—as this one is.

How do you keep the fabric on the Lincoln Chair stable?

In 1996, the upholstery on the Lincoln Chair was cleaned to remove dust; the springs in the seat cushion were secured from below to reduce stress on the fragile upholstery; and the upholstery was covered with a custom-dyed sheer fabric to hold the fragile upholstery in place. The sheer fabric also provides some protection from light exposure.

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