SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Abraham Lincoln's black stovepipe hat is an icon. It seemed to enhance his height, emphasize his dignity and, I suppose, keep his head warm. There's a stovepipe hat at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois soiled and slightly brown with age that Lincoln said to have given it to William Waller, a farmer and political supporter in Jackson County, Illinois, and kept by his family for decades. But that veracity of that hat's been questioned.
This week, several members of the state panel that oversees the Lincoln Library called for the Illinois State Police to conduct DNA testing of the hat to see if Abraham Lincoln ever really wore it. William Waller's family had kept the hat, along with the story that Lincoln had given it to the farmer as thanks for his support at one of his famous 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas. But the Chicago Sun-Times has discovered a 1958 affidavit in which a Waller descendant says Mr. Lincoln gave her father-in-law the hat, quote, "during the Civil War in Washington." Of course, there was no cellphone camera to record the moment the hat was handed over; no tweet to bleat, look what some Illinois pol gave me instead of a windshield scraper.
Louise Taper, the California collector who donated the hat to the library, says she's untroubled by the discrepancy. Family stories get muddled and mashed together all the time, she told us. The hat fits. It's 7 1/8 - Lincoln's size - and in those days, top hats were custom-made and bears the mark of his Springfield hat maker. Over the years, every scrap of paper on which Abe Lincoln scribbled is preserved and analyzed. But when farmer Waller got that hat, be it in Illinois or Washington, D.C., Abe Lincoln was on the edge of failure - losing a senatorial campaign or a civil war - not the kind of fame that got his face carved into mountainsides. But farmer Waller kept that hat his whole life and passed it on to his son, who was a five-term state legislator who died in 1956. His second wife sold it to a collector and attached that affidavit.
James Cornelius, the Lincoln Library's curator, told us that calls to test the hat for DNA are not even a bad idea. DNA tests on a 160-year-old hat would not be conclusive and could harm what is, after all, not a bloody shirt in a murder trial, but an historical artifact. And the suggestion that the hat be vacuumed for Abe Lincoln's dandruff just made him laugh. In the end, Lincoln's legend is larger than a size 7 1/8 hat.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: Hats off. You're listening to NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.