Friday, April 27, 2012

Lincoln's Opera Glasses From Assassination Night Come To Auction

By Stephen J. Gertz

The opera glasses owned and held by Abraham Lincoln at the moment of his assassination on April 14, 1865 at Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C. are being auctioned during an online sale closing on Monday, April 30, 2012 by Nate D. Sanders Auctions. The current bid is $252,582 with only fourteen bids cast thus far.

President Lincoln brought these German-made glasses to assist in his enjoyment of the show, a light-hearted farce entitled Our American Cousin, starring Laura Keene.

During the third scene in the second act, John Wilkes Booth gained entry to the Presidential Box where Lincoln was seated beside his wife, and fired his Philadelphia Derringer pistol into the back of Lincoln's head behind his left ear. Immediately after Lincoln was shot, Laura Keene entered his box and cradled the wounded President's head in her lap. Booth managed to escape the chaotic scene, and Lincoln, unconscious, was carried out of the theater and across 10th Street to a nearby boarding house by a huddle of doctors, soldiers and guards.

Among the guards was  Captain James M. McCamly, an on-duty Washington City Guard and 70th New York Volunteer Infantry veteran. McCamly noticed the glasses had fallen from Lincoln's body, picked them up off of the ground and put them in his pocket. Abraham Lincoln died the next morning, and McCamly served as commander of the honor guard that was part of the Lincoln funeral procession to his burial in Springfield. 

Letter from the Chief Curator of the National Park Service.

Along with the actual pistol that fired the fatal shot, The Ford's Theatre National Park collection houses the carrying case into which these glasses fit ''precisely,'' according to a 1968 letter from the Chief Curator of the National Park Service, Harold L. Peterson. A copy of this letter is included, as is an affidavit from the McCamly family, in whose possession the glasses remained for generations before being bought by the Malcolm Forbes estate.

Affidavit from the McCamly family.

These black enameled Gebruder Strausshof Optiker, Berlin, opera glasses measure 1.5'' high, 4'' across at their widest point, and 3.75'' in length when fully extended. Each ocular tube contains a pair of glass lenses measuring .5'' and 1.5'' in diameter with a late-turned threaded eyepiece. Central spindle contains focus adjustment wheel. Gilt metal throughout. One of the small lenses is chipped from the inside.

This is an amazing artifact, still functional, from one of the most fateful nights in American history. In addition to the provenance documents,  the glasses' sales history will be provided by the auctioneer.

Yes, opera glasses are not books, much less rare books, but these are Abraham Lincoln's opera glasses. To hold them in your hand is to be as close to Lincoln at his assassination as one could possibly be 147 years afterward. They tell quite a story. That's what books are all about. This pair of opera glasses has history written all over them.

Images courtesy of Nate D. Sanders Auctions, with our thanks.

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