Last moments of famous people fascinate us. Perhaps as a holdover of the Victorian notion of “making a good death” as a way to ensure making one’s way into heaven, we often believe we can better understand the lives of individuals by knowing how they conducted themselves in their final hours. This is why compendiums of last words are so popular. It’s also why we have a handful of objects in our collection that are purported to be from the last moments of the lives of several presidents.
It should be noted that this fascination isn’t limited to those close to the deceased, either physically or temporally. The catalog cards we at the museum use to provide quick cheat-sheet style notes on an object generally offer a short physical description. Occasionally another line gives the “who, when, and where” of the object’s use, but not always. On each card for the objects discussed here, though, the writer made a point to note that the object was from the last moments of the president who used it. The need to call this out shows how deeply ingrained this fascination with last moments is. That even museum professionals, who have the privilege of working with objects that have reached “relic” status all the time, made note of the objects’ association with the last moments of these great men indicates that the desire to capture the last moments of these leaders is almost universal.
President George Washington
We start, as so many American narratives often do, with George Washington. On display in The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden is the easy chair in which Washington sat a short time before his death on December 14, 1799. On that day, Washington was confined to his bedroom with an increasingly acute illness, the symptoms of which included an inflamed, painful throat, and difficulty breathing. Around 5 in the afternoon those attending helped him to sit up, perhaps hoping that would ease his breathing. Still, the general died between 10 and 11 that night. His final words are recorded as “’Tis well.”
President Thomas Jefferson
Another Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, famously passed on July 4, 1826, on the same day as John Adams, Jefferson predeceasing Adams by several hours. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Jefferson’s final letter, written June 24, addressed the meaning of Independence Day. Writing to Roger Weightman, the mayor of Washington, D.C., Jefferson apologized for being unable to accept the city’s invitation to attend its celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He wrote:
“the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government. that form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. . . . For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”
In its exhibition on Thomas Jefferson, the Library of Congress described the letter as “one of the sublime expressions of individual and national liberty.” It is no wonder, then, that these final public words were soon immortalized and disseminated on objects like this ribbon from our collection.
President Abraham Lincoln
Washington and Jefferson both passed in the comfort of their own homes. Unfortunately, several of our presidents have been felled by assassination. It is the last moments of three of these presidents, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley, for which we have some of the most personal and touching objects—saved, perhaps, in an effort to make some sense or meaning out of what seemed an irrational death. Interest in saving something from a president’s final minutes, it would seem, increases when his death is unexpected or tragic.
On the evening of April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln enjoyed a cup of coffee, discarding the cup on a White House windowsill. He put on his signature top hat and departed for the theater, where he would be assassinated. Immediately after Lincoln was shot, the actress Laura Keene, on stage performing in Our American Cousin the moment the trigger was pulled, rushed to the president’s box to offer him water and cradled his head in her arm, drops of his blood staining the cuff of her costume. Dr. Charles Leale, an army surgeon, also ran to render aid to Lincoln. The cuffs of Leale’s shirt were stained with blood in the process. The last coffee cup from which Lincoln drank, his top hat, and the bloodstained cuffs were saved and eventually donated to the museum.
President James Garfield
James Garfield was shot by an assassin while preparing to board a train out of town at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C., on July 2, 1881. He died from his wounds on September 19. Garfield’s son preserved a physical remembrance of his father with the indication that the object, a black overcoat, had been worn only a short time before Garfield’s death.
President William McKinley
While attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901, President William McKinley was shot while greeting citizens. He died ten days later. Like that of Lincoln, the coffee cup from which McKinley drank just prior to his death was recognized after the fact as an object worth saving. It can now be seen, along with the wallet and penknife that McKinley was carrying the day he was shot, in our exhibition The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden.
These objects are the physical manifestation of an impulse that compels us to elevate rather ordinary objects to reliquary status due to the possibility that they were associated with a president in the last moments of his life. Perhaps saving and displaying these poignant objects helps us as a nation to process the deaths of leaders we’ve looked to as figures who were supposed to remain larger than life itself.
Bethanee Bemis is a museum specialist and collections manager in the Division of Political History.