For one day, the glass case protecting the red-cushioned rocker at The Henry Ford will be removed, offering museumgoers a rare, closer look at one of the most famous artifacts in American history.
As every school child knows, President Abraham Lincoln was sitting in the comfortable chair at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth on the evening of April 14, 1865, just days after the end of the Civil War. Lincoln died the following day.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Great Emancipator's death on Wednesday, the presidential rocker — sans glass — will be placed on a special stage in the Henry Ford Museum (look for it under a hanging giant airplane). What's more, museum goers can see the chair free of charge, thanks to Target. Historic photos of the rocker's arrival in Dearborn decades ago and lectures by curators will complement the one-day exhibit.
"This is an extraordinary event," says Jim Johnson, senior manager of creative programs at The Henry Ford. "It's a combination of things coming together and a sponsor allowing us to have a free day that has brought the chair out front and center. It's not really a celebration. It's a somber event."
The chair also will be out of its enclosure and on display during a special lecture Monday evening by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author of "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," the inspiration for Steven Spielberg's award-winning film "Lincoln." The event at the museum's Anderson Theater is sold out.
The Henry Ford held a similar, one-day free event in November 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. The limousine Kennedy was riding in on that tragic day in Dallas also is part of the museum's collection of iconic American artifacts.
Except for conservation efforts and transport to an exhibit in Grand Rapids a few year's back, Lincoln's chair has rarely been out of its glass enclosure since it arrived at Greenfield Village in 1930.
"This is very unusual," Johnson says. "It's not likely to happen anytime in the future again."
It's been a curious road from Ford's Theatre to The Henry Ford.
Originally purchased as part of a set of lobby furniture for the theater, the rocker became a staff favorite, prompting the theater's co-owner, Harry Ford (no relation to Henry) to stash it in his apartment to keep it from being too worn. The chair was brought into the theater for special occasions, including Lincoln's visit on April 14.
Immediately after the assassination, the War Department seized the chair as criminal evidence against the conspirators. Afterward, the chair languished in a leaky Smithsonian warehouse until the widow of the theater co-owner petitioned for its release in the late 1920s.
An agent for Henry Ford bought the rocker at an auction in 1929.
"Ford was very eager to have it," Johnson says. "Henry Ford, like so many people at the time, thought well of Lincoln and was inspired by him. (Lincoln) fits in with the men and women represented here who came from ordinary beginnings and became great Americans."
Ford had the perfect place for the rocker. He had already relocated the Logan County Courthouse from Illinois, where Lincoln began his career as a circuit lawyer, to his developing village in Dearborn. The chair remained in the log courthouse until the late 1970s, when it was moved to the museum. It's now part of the "With Liberty and Justice For All" exhibit.
Over the years, myths have surrounded the chair.
"A lot of people seem to think you were allowed to sit in it at one time at The Henry Ford," Johnson says. "That's never been the case, as far as we know. There's evidence that it was put in a case very quickly after its arrival here and no one had access to sit on it."
A stain on the chair's back is often believed to be blood, but it's actually water damage from its years in the Smithsonian warehouse. During conservation efforts in 1999, two distinct spots tested positive for blood. Unfortunately, because of the inability to pursue DNA testing at the time, it's unclear who the blood belongs to.
Lincoln's wound did not bleed a lot and he slumped over, unconscious in the chair. One of the president's guests that evening, Major Henry Rathbone was stabbed severely as he tried to prevent Booth from escaping. He bled profusely.
"It appears people did have access to the chair (at the Smithsonian)," Johnson says. "People sat in it and used it as a break chair. What's thought of blood on the back of the chair is hair oil. People wore all kinds of products in their hair back then and as they sat in the chair and leaned back, the oil would be absorbed. The spots have darkened with age."
One thing is for certain. The worn, familiar chair continues to touch Americans.
"It's absolutely extraordinary," Johnson says. "When people think of the Henry Ford, they think of automobiles, but the chair sticks in their mind, too. It's such an extraordinary piece. People feel a connection to Lincoln. It's something that really resonates with folks."
9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday
Lectures at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
The Henry Ford