Object of the Month

A relic of April 1865: a locket containing the hair of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln hair locket Gold, crystal, hair

Abraham Lincoln hair locket


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  • [ This description is from the project: Object of the Month ]

    This small but ornate gold locket conceals a lock of hair said to have been cut from Abraham Lincoln’s head on the night of his assassination. It was given to the Society in 1895 by Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar of Concord, Massachusetts, who had received it decades earlier from a friend who had acquired it from one of Lincoln’s attending physicians that fateful night.

    A secular reliquary

    Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a relic as “an object esteemed and venerated because of association with a saint or martyr.” Although we have no martyr’s bones here at the Historical Society, this Lincoln hair locket (one of two in our collection) is among several relics associated with various historical figures and events. As Matthew Dennis notes in the preface to his American Relics and the Politics of Public Memory, relics can take many forms (most of which can be found at this Society):

    They could be “corporeal” (skulls, bones, blood, teeth, hair, nails, and assorted lumps of flesh). They could be noncorporeal items that were possessed by or came into direct contact with a significant individual or event, including articles of clothing … pieces of personal property … or other associated residual things … manuscript items or printed books, written texts, letters, and scraps of paper bearing an autograph signature or graphic inscription, or even the grooved footpaths of Christ or the ruts of western pioneers’ wagons. In whatever form, their common, essential characteristic has been (and remains) their extraordinary ability to connect those in their presence directly to the past …

    And, indeed, whether this locket or other pieces of mourning jewelry in the collection; hair from George Washington and Alexander Hamilton; the fish hook supposedly made from the bones of Capt. Cook; a cannonball found near the battlefield at Lexington; or tangled roots from the Liberty tree; all have the power to connect researchers to the past as much as, if not more than, words on a page. Although over time, the Massachusetts Historical Society has become primarily a repository of manuscripts, books, and like materials, the need to collect artifacts, “artificial and natural curiosities … which may elucidate … natural and political history” as well was part of the Historical Society’s mission from the beginning.

    “Yesterday, I received from Judge Hoar”

    On 5 January 1895, Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar transmitted a parcel containing a gold locket and a letter to the Massachusetts Historical Society, of which he had been a member since 1864. In it, he delineates the history of this relic:

    I desire … to present to the Massachusetts Historical Society a gold locket containing a lock of hair taken from the head of the murdered President, Abraham Lincoln, on the evening of his assassination by Booth. It was given me about the year 1871 by Capt. Geo. D. Wise, a graduate of West Point, who was mustered out of the U.S. Volunteer Service as Brevet Brigadier General Oct. 1, 1867, and whose daughter had recently married my eldest son. General Wise told me that he was in Washington on the evening of the assassination, and that one of the medical men attending on the President took the lock of hair from Lincoln‘s head and gave it to him. He said he was an intimate friend, and told me the name of this physician, which I do not feel quite sure that I remember, but my impression is that it was Dr. Robert K. Stone. General Wise said he had the lock of hair divided, and set in two separate lockets. The one which he gave to me has been in my possession ever since … It does not seem to me that so interesting a relic, commemorative of such an historical event, should be intrusted permanently to the possession of private parties, but should rather be held by some public historical institution, or other public body, where it may gratify the interested curiosity of that great number of people “who are touched by identicals.”

    Even on his deathbed, Hoar was cognizant of the importance and lasting value of this piece of the past. The members of the Historical Society rushed a letter back to him, accepting the gift and thanking Hoar for “intrusting to its charge an object of such great and ever increasing veneration and interest.” At the end of January, Hoar passed away after insuring that this memory of Lincoln’s life and death would live on in tangible form and be accessible to the public in perpetuity.

    Who was Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar?

    Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar was born in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1816, the son of Samuel and Sarah (Sherman) Hoar. He entered Harvard at age 15 and eventually studied law there, passing the bar in 1839. In 1846, Hoar was elected to the Massachusetts Senate and two years later, helped his father to establish the Free Soil Party of Massachusetts which opposed the extension of slavery to the west. After appointments to the Court of Common Pleas and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Hoar was named Attorney General of the United States by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1869, a tenure that lasted but a year. In 1870, Grant requested Hoar’s resignation, desperately needing the support of southern senators, who wanted a southerner in the post of Attorney General. He went on to serve on the commission that settled the Alabama Claims, and after a term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Hoar returned to Concord to practice law. He is buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord beneath a stone lauding him as an “invincible champion in a righteous cause.”

    For further reading

    Beutler, Keith. George Washington’s Hair: How Early Americans Remembered the Founders Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2021

    Dennis, Matthew. American Relics and the Politics of Public Memory Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2023

    Hoar, Ebenezer R. "Letter presenting the locket", Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2nd series, volume 9 (1894-1895), p. 267-268

    Nehama, Sarah. In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2012

    Storey, Moorfield. “Memoir of Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, vol. 45 (1911-1912), p. 531-540

    Storey, Moorfield and Edward W. Emerson. Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar: A Memoir Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1911