Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Recent Headlines: No to DNA Test; Looking for Mary; Michael Burlingame

Museum Decides No DNA Testing on Lincoln's Blood (for now)

Three weeks ago I posted a brief note about John Sotos' request to run DNA tests on a piece of the pillowcase with Lincoln's blood, taken from the room in which he died.  This week, the museum board voted not to allow testing at this time.

This is not a surprising development, for a host of reasons.  Any testing of the artifact will lead to some destruction of the artifact.  Considering the relatively small size of the strip of the pillowcase, any museum would be understandably squeamish about approving such testing.

I was going to write an extensive post about this, but then I discovered that Ann Tracy Mueller, at her blog Lincoln Buff 2, has already published an outstanding article about this issue.  Her take is much more detailed than anything I would write, includes comments from several key Lincoln scholars -- including Harold Holzer wisely questioning the provenance of DNA on the pillowcase.  (Interestingly, when this story came out, it was called "Lincoln's Shroud of Turin."  Given the controversy of the physical testing of the real Shroud of Turin, some of these issues, such as possible contamination of the artifact over the years, make it highly unlikely that any results of such testing would be indisputable.)  All I can say is: Go read it.

The only thing I would add to Tracy's excellent article is the humorous observation given to me by a teacher a few years ago.  (I paraphrase): Archaeology is the systematic destruction of that which is studied.  In order to study a square of ground, working through the layers of history, one much destroy recent layers to reach older layers.  So often, science is like this.   The History Channel convinced the National Park Service to take core samples of the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Cabin in order to run carbon-dating tests (the wood tested dated to the 1850s and 1860s).  The NPS knew that the wood would be destroyed in the testing, but the cabin has a large amount of wood (even though it is slowly deteriorating).  There are some strands of Lincoln's hair around, but they'd be destroyed in any testing, so testing is very unlikely.

Looking for Lincoln -- Mary Lincoln, That Is

In all of the hoopla around the Lincoln Bicentennial, most of the attention has been focused on Abraham Lincoln.  But Janis Cooke Newman, author of the recent historical novel Mary (which I recently purchased but haven't read yet), offers a fine article in The LA Times focusing on the often unfairly maligned Mary Lincoln.

Michael Burlingame at Illinois College (courtesty of YouTube)

Noted Lincoln scholar Michael Burlingame spoke in April at this year's Illinois History Symposium, hosted at Illinois College.  He considers the question of whether there is anything new to write about Lincoln -- an interesting thing for him given his recent 2000+ page, two-volume biography on Lincoln.  Someone has thoughtfully posted his lecture (in four parts) on YouTube, each linked below.    (A tip of the hat to Kevin Levin at the very fine blog Civil War Memory for writing about this video previously.)

Additionally, Wayne Temple, longtime Deputy Director of the Illinois State Archives and author of many books on Lincoln -- and like Burlingame, a legendary source of support to other Lincoln scholars -- spoke at the symposium.  Temple told the fascinating history of the unused Lincoln tomb in downtown Springfield, where certain movers and shakers had wanted to bury the martyred president (close to the railroad station, as a tourist attraction).  His lecture is posted on YouTube in three parts, each linked below.

1 comment:

Lincoln Buff 2 said...


Thanks for your very kind words about my blog post -- and for your hard work on Lincoln as well. I get too busy most of the time to read as many other blogs as I'd like. I need to get to yours often and will make it a point to do so.

All the best,