Unique souvenirs of death kept to remember U.S. presidents

By Bethanee Bemis
A dried rose

Collecting souvenirs is often part of happy times in our lives. Who among us doesn’t have a shelf with a shell picked up on the beach, a crumbling dried flower from a wedding, or a fading ticket from our first concert? Not all of these objects tie us to pleasant moments, however. Tucked among the festive campaign mementos and first ladies’ gowns in the Division of Political History’s collections storage are a group of objects that people saved from somber moments: souvenirs of presidential deaths.

White ribbon with three items pasted to it: a piece of black crepe, a yellow silk ribbon, and a red wax impression of a crest. A handwritten note at the top identifies the items.

By souvenirs I don’t mean official ephemera emblazoned in black with names and life dates such as programs, ribbons, and mourning cards. (See Sara Murphy’s blog, "Commemorating a president’s life, in stationery and funeral arrangements," for more on that.) Rather, I’m referring to items saved that, without any context, would have meaning only to those who kept them—objects that were not made for the purpose of commemorating a death into the future, but that now do just that: objects such as scraps of funeral decorations people somehow kept and saved after the fact, items that perhaps briefly touched the casket or train carrying the deceased and, in at least one instance, items taken from the casket of the deceased themselves. In their desire to memorialize the president or simply capture the moment in time when a nation is in mourning, people have saved some rather unusual things. These objects don’t readily telegraph their meaning upon first glance, but in learning their origins, they take on a much more hallowed (and in some cases creepy) aura.

The first few souvenirs that come to mind, while not intended to be kept as such, are not all that strange: decorations. (I know for a fact that my mother has decorations in her basement from my first birthday party. For the record, they’ve been there for 30 years.) We have in the collection, for instance, a good amount of funeral crepe (a lightweight fabric with a crinkled texture). The decorating of funerals with black crepe to symbolize mourning has been a popular rite for many years. In the collection funeral crepe serves as a sort of continuum of material culture, connecting us through black fabric all the way back to George Washington.

Almost 70 years after the death of Washington, crepe still appeared on objects saved from President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral in April 1865.

Ornate gold sword in its sheath. A piece of black crepe is tied around the hilt.

Wooden drum with two drumsticks, decorated with black crepe.

Crepe appears in the collection again, from the funeral of President James A. Garfield in September 1881. In fact, some of the crepe used to decorate Garfield’s catafalque (the framework that supports the coffin) when he lay in state in Cleveland, Ohio, is the exact same piece used to decorate Lincoln’s catafalque when he did the same on April 25, 1865.

A bundle of black crepe with tassels. A printed note of identification sits on top.

Those who weren’t able to attend funeral festivities had to settle for objects a bit farther removed from the actual event, such as a smashed penny run over by the train carrying Garfield’s body back toward its final resting place in Ohio.

A dark, smashed penny alongside a handwritten note of identification.

It gets a bit more unusual from here.

Floral arrangements left at Garfield’s grave were kept at the James A. Garfield Home in Ohio. So many of them were saved, in fact, that the Lake County Historical Society, which oversees the home, sent some to the national collection, as they felt they had too many.

A dense arrangement of flowers. Some flowers have been placed to spell the message: Our Martyr President

Other floral remnants include a sprig of evergreen saved from a wreath that decorated Lincoln’s coffin when it came to its final resting place in Springfield, Illinois.

Sprigs of evergreen mounted on paper with tape

Often, it seems, people would save whatever they could get their hands on that was tangentially related to the president’s death.

Take, for instance, a piece of George Washington’s coffin–or two, in fact, as we have two pieces in our collection. It isn’t as rare to have pieces of Washington’s coffin as you might think. In 1831 Washington’s body was moved from an old tomb at Mount Vernon to the present one, and a new coffin was made for the new resting place. The original coffin was intended to be broken up for use in crafting souvenirs such as snuff boxes, but was found to be too rotten for this and instead bits ended up distributed among family and friends.

Piece of wood obscured by handwritten note of identification

Fragment of wood with detailed carving of a leaf, vine, berries

Some souvenirs were removed not from the coffin itself, but from the actual person of the deceased. Though possibly somewhat morbid, they are also some of the most touching of all presidential death souvenirs due to the obvious emotion with which they were removed—depending on your point of view.

On September 20, 1881, the day after Garfield’s death, his friend Colonel Almon Rockwell, who had been at his bedside since he was shot 80 days before, cut a lock of his hair as a token of remembrance. In 1884 Rockwell donated this personal souvenir to the national collection.

Three locks of hair mounted on to a piece of paper

Chester Alan Arthur II, son of President Chester A. Arthur, must have felt a similar impulse to save some memory of his father’s funeral in November 1886 when he removed the rose from his father’s buttonhole and a button from his coat before the casket was closed.

A dried rose

While not the cheeriest of souvenirs, all of these objects speak to the desire of citizens (and, in the case of Garfield and Arthur, friends and family as well) to have a tangible way to remember their president after death, a desire so great that even when a memento was a bit . . . unusual (creepy?) . . . it was still so cherished as to have been carefully saved and eventually donated to the national collection.

This is the third post in the blog series "Death in the Presidential Collections." Click here to read parts one, two, and three.

Bethanee Bemis is a museum specialist and collections manager in the Division of Political History.