Lincoln: The McGill collection

by Justin Wayne Lutz

A hand-coloured lithograph depicts Lincoln being lifted to heaven (Photo: Owen Egan)

Thanks to Steven Speilberg’s Oscar-winning film, Abraham Lincoln has been the focus of much attention in recent weeks. (And, thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis's cheeky Oscar acceptance speech, we will always wonder what the film might have been like had Meryl Streep played the title role).

Lincoln, Speilberg’s adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin's best-selling book Team of Rivals, has earned more than $200 million worldwide in box office revenues. The movie racked up 12 Academy Award nominations, winning three. Lincoln follows the 16th American president's determined political maneuvering as he focuses his energies on outlawing slavery in the U.S.

Fans of the film might be surprised to learn that McGill’s Rare Books and Special Collections is home to a rich and unique collection of Lincolniana – ephemera from the Lincoln presidency that includes 3,500 monographs, 1,050 pamphlets, several paintings, sculptures and even some chairs that the great man probably once sat on. One of the most impressive Lincoln collections outside the U.S., it’s been referenced in books (including Sarah Vowell’s acclaimed Assassination Vacation) and provided source material for PBS documentaries on Lincoln’s life.

The most prized item housed in the collection is surely young army surgeon Charles Sabin Taft's diary – as in the same Dr. Taft that was with President Lincoln on the night he was shot at the Ford Theatre.

A portion of the diary by army surgeon Charles Sabin Taft, who treated Lincoln after
he was shot and witnessed the U.S. president’s death (Photo: Owen Egan)

Not only did Taft witness the aftermath of John Wilkes Booth’s assault on Lincoln – “I saw a man leap from the [president’s] box, shouting as he did so, ‘Sic semper tyranis’ [Latin for ‘Thus always to tyrants’]” – he rushed to the dying Lincoln’s side to provide medical care. When Lincoln later breathed his last, Taft noted in his diary that, “My hand was upon the President's heart and my eye upon the watch of the Surgeon General."

The collection includes 20 letters written by Lincoln, as well as a rare bill of sale from the state of South Carolina for the purchase of a young slave for $850. It also includes an actual fragment of the linen cloth that was wrapped around Lincoln's head after he was shot.

All of these artifacts were donated to McGill in 1986 by Joseph N. Nathanson, MDCM’19, a longtime Cornell University medical professor. Nathanson’s interest in Lincoln was sparked innocently enough – his daughter asked for help for a school assignment on Lincoln’s life. Her homework eventually led to decades spent assembling an eclectic collection of papers and artifacts related to Lincoln and the times in which he lived.

An assortment of items connected to Lincoln’s funeral from 1865 (Photo: Owen Egan)

For Richard Virr, the head of Rare Books and Special Collections, “the most interesting part of the collection and its greatest scholarly interest lie in the visual materials – how Lincoln has been represented during his life time and after.” Virr’s favourite item in the collection is a hand-coloured lithograph depicting Lincoln being transported to heaven in the company of angels.

“I like it because it is so rich iconographically,” Virr explains, “it recalls things, including the apotheosis of Louis XVI or Napoleon, but here used for a very ‘republican’ theme, and the kneeling figure recalls those in [Benjamin] West’s The Death of General Wolfe."

files from Daniel McCabe, BA'89