MADISON, Wis. – In the frantic minutes after John Wilkes Booth fired a fatal shot into the president’s head 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln’s unconscious body was carried across the street from Ford’s Theater to a rooming house.
The stricken Lincoln was placed diagonally on a bed too small for his lanky frame on April 14, 1865. When he died the following morning, a photographer snapped a photo of the blood-spattered bed, sheets, blanket and pillow.
The beige cotton bedspread carefully stored in acid-free white tissue paper in a temperature- and humidity-monitored room at the Wisconsin Historical Society may have been on Lincoln’s deathbed. Or it might not have been.
Almost a century after it became part of the historical society’s collection, the bedspread was tested this week by a University of Wisconsin-Madison textile scientist and a Wisconsin Crime Lab official to see if the faint stains on the blanket are blood. Results are due next week.
The knitted bedspread was donated to the Historical Society in 1919 by Wisconsin State Journal owner and editor Richard Lloyd Jones. A dozen years earlier, he had been contacted by a woman who told him that she and her sister were nieces of the woman who owned the Petersen boardinghouse where Lincoln died. Their aunt gave the sisters the bedspread.
Jones was an editor who had written about Lincoln and had purchased Lincoln’s birthplace. When he donated the bedspread to the historical society, Jones could not recall the women’s names.
Leslie Bellais, a curator at the historical society, said the blanket in the deathbed photo is not the one in the society’s collection. But she said it’s possible it was among other pieces of bedding used to cover Lincoln.
To determine whether the stains on the bedspread are actually blood, Bellais contacted Majid Sarmadi, a professor of textile science.
Sarmadi used a needle to delicately pull a tiny fiber from the bedspread before snipping it with a scissors and handing it to Daniel Campbell of the Wisconsin State Crime Lab. Campbell, forensic scientist supervisor of the DNA section, used a cotton swab soaked with sterile water to dab at a few of the tiny dark stains before placing them in collection boxes and envelopes.
If analysts at the crime lab can’t find nuclear DNA, the samples will be sent to the FBI, and if that isn’t successful, they’ll be sent to a lab in Texas for more sophisticated mitochondrial DNA analysis.
If DNA is found, it would be almost impossible to determine if it’s Lincoln’s, since many people have handled the bedspread and there are no living Lincoln descendants.