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Lincoln Museum Foundation Asks State For Help In Paying Off Debt

Daisy Contreras
NPR Illinois
An Abraham Lincoln impersonator opens testinomy during a House hearing for the Lincoln museum foundation .

The foundation set up to support Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum has been struggling with debt. Tuesday, officials from the group asked Illinois lawmakers for help.  

The private non-profit Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation needs $9.2 million to pay off a $23 million loan used to purchase a collection of mostly Lincoln artifacts in 2007. Without the money, foundation officials say they will have to auction off some of the items to meet the October 2019 payment deadline. 

Lawmakers have been critical of the group’s handling of finances and lack of transparency with the public. 

Republican state Rep. Tim Butler of Springfield said foundation members need to work together and find a solution. 

“I don’t know if you’re going to get state funding,” he said. “I don’t hold the gavel and I’m not the governor, but I have a hard time going to bat for state funding in the current environment, I’ll tell you that right now.”

Among the 1,400-piece collection is a fur stovepipe hat allegedly belonging to Lincoln as well as blood-stained gloves Lincoln was carrying on the night of his assassination. 

The $6.5-million hat has been at the center of controversy after the foundation commissioned the FBI to perform DNA testing and not publicly disclosing the results. 

Now, Lincoln experts continue investigating after those tests provided insufficient in verifying provenance. 

Sam Wheeler, state historian and Lincoln expert, said his team has been working on the hat for about two months by sifting through thousands of newspapers using digital tools that weren’t available a decade ago. Wheeler said he’s done extensive traveling to southern Illinois and visited several courthouses as part of his investigation. 

Lincoln purportedly gave the hat to a southern Illinois farmer, who then passed it on to his son. The son’s widow signed an affidavit in 1958 confirming the story, Wheeler said.

Democratic state Rep. Ann Williams of Chicago said she’d like to keep “one of the most premier collections in the country of Lincoln artifacts” within the state and available to the public. She chairs the Tourism, Hospitality & Craft Industries Committee, which heard testimony Tuesday on the foundation’s request. She said she’s open to continuing listening to all stakeholders if the state steps in to help.

“There will be a different conversation going forward if we do end up participating in any way with state dollars directly,” she said. 

A Lincoln presenter opened testimony Tuesday and made a plea for legislators to focus on the value of the entire collection and not just the stovepipe hat.

“In your hands and not mine is my legacy,” he said. “My legacy is more than just a hat. I ask that you please bear it well.” ?

Daisy reported on statehouse issues for our Illinois Issues project. She's a Public Affairs Reporting program graduate from the University of Illinois Springfield. She also graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology, and has an associates degrees from Truman College. Daisy is from Chicago where she attended Lane Tech High School.
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