Sunday, April 14, 2019

April 14th: A Date in Infamy - Abraham Lincoln and the Titanic

It was on April 14, 2012 - exactly 100 years ago to the day that the ill-fated ocean liner, Titanic, struck an iceburg - that my family and I made our way to The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, and viewed with awe the wonderful exhibit dedicated to the ship.
While we waited to 'board' the Titanic, I thought I'd take the opportunity to give a quickie tour of the Henry Ford Museum to my then future daughter-in-law.  I pointed out just some of the amazing collection of historical items this place has, such as the camping equipment once belonging to George Washington and a writing desk once owned by Thomas Jefferson. 
The rocker President Lincoln was 
sitting in when he was shot on 
April 14, 1865.
Just imagine...
But the piece of American history that I felt was most significant to see on this particular date - April 14 - was originally owned by Henry (Harry) Ford (no relation to the auto-magnet).  Harry happened to work at the Ford Theater in Washington as the treasurer.  When he had heard that President Lincoln was coming to catch the performance of the play  "Our American Cousin"  he brought in a rocking chair that was originally part his bedroom furnishings;  he felt it was suitable for such an important man. 
I don't believe I need to go into the details of what occurred next - hopefully, those of you reading this know what happened on that fateful April 14 in 1865 in Washington City  (Washington D.C.)...the evening the President Lincoln was shot...but I did explain it in some detail to my future daughter-in-law who,  though she was aware of Lincoln's assassination, was not aware of many of the details pertaining to it. 
Other visitors near us, by the way,  heard me speaking about the Lincoln events of this night and gathered around the display to eye the chair with a bit more reverence.
I must admit that being there,  147 years to the day, staring at what is perhaps the most famous chair in American history,  still sends chills down my spine.  
But it actually didn't necessarily end there,  for three years later, on the actual 150th anniversary of this tragic event, the curators of  The Henry Ford Museum brought the chair out of its permanent temperature-controlled glassed-in exhibit  (see above left),  which is part of the  'With Liberty and Justice For All'  exhibit, and into the open for the public to see up-close and personal,  something that, to my knowledge, hasn't occurred in decades.
Of course, I was there taking all kinds of pictures, for who knows when such an occurrence might happen again.
Roped off and guarded by Civil War reenacting soldiers,
here we see the infamous Lincoln Rocker up close and personal.
So how did automobile magnate Henry Ford acquire such a historical object as the Lincoln Rocker?
When Ford began collecting all things American back in the early days of the 20th century, folks from all over were very happy to help him out by sending him all of their "junk" they had stored in their basements and garages.  Items of little use, including old-time farm implements, cooking and heating stoves, yarn winders, eating utensils, furniture, watches & clocks, spinning wheels, guns, tools, toys...the list goes on and on.
Little did they know that what they were giving away  (and in some cases, selling)  would one day become museum pieces - objects that told the story of the average  (and not-so-average)  American of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Other museums at the time held paintings of the great artists, furniture of kings and queens, and items that people of great wealth once owned.  But that wasn't what Mr. Ford was interested in.  He wanted to show the things that made America great.  He wanted the light to shine on folks like you and me - everyday people.
As the collection grew to an enormous measure,  Ford realized he needed a place to store all of his treasures and decided to build a museum,  originally called the Edison Institute, after his hero Thomas Edison.
Over time, the things that Ford obtained grew beyond the everyday items that he'd been finding: George Washington’s camp bed and trunk from the late 1700’s,  more classic automobiles than you can imagine, trains and more trains, buggies and carriages, pre-WWII airplanes, an original 1940’s diner, the car that Kennedy was killed in, a writing desk belonging to Mark Twain, and another belonging to Edgar Allen Poe, and still another that belonged to Thomas Jefferson, a teapot and other items made by Paul Revere,  Henry Ford’s very first car known as the Quadricycle, an original MacDonald’s sign from the 1950’s, lighting apparatuses through the years, 19th century quilts, spinning wheels…
The collection of Americana here is mind-boggling.
 But, of everything in the collection inside the Henry Ford Museum, there is nothing as unique a piece of American History that goes beyond the scope of what other museums have, including the Smithsonian has: the Lincoln Rocker.
From another angle.

And a clear look at of the back of the chair.

Going back to our April 14, 2012 visit to The Henry Ford Museum: as I mentioned,  on this particular date and time the museum also had an amazing exhibit about the Titanic.  And given the fact that it was the 100th anniversary to the date made it all the more haunting.
The Titanic exhibit wall
  We then got in line to “board” the Titanic;  the outside exhibit wall where we waited was painted to look like the great ship.  As we entered we were handed boarding passes - each one having a name and short biography of actual Titanic passengers; at the end of the exhibit you could find your name to see if you lived or died.  (Surprisingly, all in our group were on the survivor list.)
Inside, the exhibit was laid out very well.  There were many original artifacts brought up from the wreckage site at the bottom of the ocean including cups, bowls, and plates, some articles of clothing including a work shirt and a bowler hat, eyeglasses, a tape measure, toothpaste bowl, shaving kit, bottles of perfume with some of the 'smellum' still inside, cooking oil with some oil still inside as well, cooking pots, sheet music, a boat whistle, jewelry, and just so much more.  
(all items pictured in this next group of photos are original Titanic artifacts found on the ocean floor unless otherwise noted as 'replicas')
Razor and case

Nickel Pot
Bowler Hat

A wool work shirt
Perfume vials with stoppers

Toothpaste bowl lid

Replica of 3rd class plate

Replica of 1st class plate
Replica of 2nd class plate

To think that these items survived after sitting at the bottom of the ocean from 1912 to 1985, and now we can view them!

 As we moved along we suddenly found ourselves staring down a very authentic reproduction of the 1st class hallway – my gosh!  I must’ve stood in that part for over five minutes just taking it all in.  It truly felt like you were there, if only for split second intervals. Then, turning the corner we came upon – this was awesome – the Grand StaircaseYes! - - - there it was, in all its opulent glory!  Just as I'd seen in old photographs and in the movies!
This was another one of those you are there moments  (I suppose it takes a deep love and passion for history to get these moments).  As a family, we had our photograph taken as we stood upon the steps of this magnificent reproduction.  For some reason, the RMS Titanic corporation does not allow photography inside their exhibit, but they did have their own photographer there offering to take pictures...for a price.  Yes, I fell for it - it was just too amazing to not have a souvenir like this. 
Yes, here is my family (including my son's girlfriend) standing on an exact replica of the Grand Staircase. This picture was taken on April 14, 2012
 Another interesting reproduction was of the lower level steerage corridor, including the constant sound of the great ship's motor rumbling in the background, which those in steerage heard. 
They had also reproduced a 1st class and a 3rd class cabin side by side so one can see easily the class difference.  The rich expected such elegance, but for the poor, the third class accommodations were, in many cases, much better than what they were used to.
There are some who feel that nothing should have been brought up from the wreckage, that it should have all remained two and a half miles down below the ocean in complete darkness as a memorial. 
I respectfully disagree. 
I cannot think of a better way to remember than to have these items displayed in such a way and to see them with one's own eyes.  It's in this way the legacy can be carried on for generations.  That’s why I have no problem with them bringing up the artifacts for this purpose – and only for this purpose of display and remembrance, not for private ownership.
The Titanic exhibit is magnificent , and I plan to visit at least once or twice more before it ends in September.
But our day still wasn't over, by the way...
We drove back to our house and had a few friends join us to watch the James Cameron version of the Titanic movie.  Now, I know there will be those who will chide me in my choice of the three or four major Titanic movies available, but I chose the Cameron version based on a number of reasons: 
~ it's the most historically accurate portrayal of the ship itself, taking the viewer in nearly all areas of Titanic  (except for the 2nd class - that area is noticeably missing)  including into the boiler rooms. The attention to detail is astounding.
~ the picture and sound quality of the movie draws the viewer right in. Modern technology can help bring the past to life, can't it?
~ it shows the ship breaking apart - no other actual movie that I know of, aside from documentaries, shows this
~ and finally, I just really like this version.
'nuff said.
The "movie" Titanic

Watching the movie directly after seeing the exhibit was, simply put, an engulfing experience. And knowing that this day was the 100th  anniversary of the Titanic hitting the ice burg, I felt it was a fine way to pay tribute – not all tributes and memorials need to be sullen. Just respectful.

This day for my family and I  - and our friends that joined us - will be long remembered...

 - - - - - - - - - - 

A week after I wrote this post I took my then 82 year old mother to Greenfield Village and then to the Titanic exhibit.  She loved both!
Mom warmed herself next to the Firestone Farm fireplace

Me and my mother on the Titanic's Grand Staircase

Experiencing history is my solace.  Many co-workers and friends of mine look at me sideways at my love for history, especially of the American variety.  And to research the story behind the objects can make all the difference in the world, especially in an attempt to gain interest from others, especially kids.
I hope for April 14th, and even April 15th  (for that's the date when Lincoln actually died from his wounds, and the date when Titanic actually sank),  you will give a small commemoration, whether by reading some of the  many books on both subjects, or even watching a quality movie (there are a few of those, believe it or not, such as  "Lincoln"  starring Daniel Day-Lewis or the infamous  "Titanic"  movie from the 1990s.
Maybe even simply reading this blog post.

Until next time, see you in time.

To read more about the early life of Lincoln, please click HERE

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