Artifact Spotlight: Laura Keene Dress

1/5/2021 cbw

By Dr. Christian McWhirter

This is a piece of the dress worn by Laura Keene the night of Lincoln's assassination. She was probably the most famous actor in America in 1865 and it was a big deal that she was appearing in "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre. That's probably why Abraham and Mary Lincoln made sure to see her on April 14.

By that time, Keene had enjoyed a long and eventful career on stage and even as a theater-owner in New York and San Francisco. She knew everyone in the theater community, including Edwin Booth, with whom she traveled to Australia.

Her shock, however, was as great as everyone's when Edwin's brother murdered the president during her performance. Wanting to help however she could, Keene grabbed some water and raced up to Lincoln's box to give it to him. At one point, she rested his head on her dress, which is where those dark streaks on this piece came from — they are his blood.

Keene was shattered by the experience but "the show must go on," and she continued to tour with "Our American Cousin." About a year later, she came with the play to Lincoln's hometown, Springfield, Ill. While there, she paid her respects to the fallen president and donated this piece of her dress. After the completion of Lincoln's tomb, the piece became part of its artifact collection. In the mid-20th Century, it joined the rest of the collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Keene around the time of the Civil War

It is an intimate reminder of how two prominent people's lives came together only for a moment during one of the most tragic episodes in American history.

Dr. Christian McWhirter is the Lincoln Historian at the ALPLM

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