Tracing Lincoln's Footprints
In Boots Likely Worn on Fateful Night, Expert Finds Clues to Presidential Persona
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009
The flashlight beam lit up the dark interior of Abraham Lincoln's left boot, as if the inside of a tomb, and at the bottom was the smooth and shiny indentation made by the martyred president's heel.
The odor of fine leather still clung to the top of the boot, where white cloth pull straps were sewed. When the light hit a maroon section of the hide, bootmaker Michael Anthony Carnacchi whispered: "Aha. There's your original color."
A group of National Park Service curators and conservators craned to peer inside -- and, in a way, back in time, to the night in 1865 when Lincoln pulled on his boots and clomped to the carriage that took him to Ford's Theatre.
"Whew," Carnacchi said. "Amazing."
It was a solemn moment this week when Carnacchi, along with Park Service museum curator Gloria Swift and other Park Service experts, probed the interior and exterior of the hallowed items simply labeled "Boots, Lincoln's" on a typed catalogue card.
The square-toed, shin-high boots, wrinkled and darkened, lay like relics on white acid-free paper atop an examining table in Room 22 of the Park Service's Museum Resource Center in Landover.
They were handled with reverence by cotton-gloved experts, aware that these were probably the boots that were taken from Lincoln's feet when doctors stripped off his clothes in the room where he died.
Lincoln's are among the nation's most famous boots, along with those of Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee, said D.A. Saguto, master boot- and shoemaker at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Boots can speak clearly of their owner, he said. "No other garment that we wear retains such an imprint of the person who wore it," Saguto said. As with Lincoln's, a footprint is often left on the sole, he said.
Lincoln is known to have had problems with his feet, said Blaine V. Houmes, a physician and Lincoln expert from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "He frequently complained," Houmes said, although it's not clear what the problem was. One account says his feet were frostbitten when he was a young man. He also might have had corns or bunions, Houmes said.
Carnacchi, 46, of California, asked the Park Service this year -- the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth -- for permission to examine Lincoln's boots. The Park Service, which has custody of the clothing Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated, agreed.
It was the first time the boots had been examined in detail in almost 20 years, the Park Service said, and the first time in recent memory that they have been scrutinized by a professional bootmaker.
Carnacchi, sporting a long ponytail and a pair of elegant black boots, arrived at the resource center Monday with a bag filled with instruments -- calipers, a large dental mirror, notebook, hide samples, measuring tape, flashlight, magnifying glass and a kind of carbon paper on which he made detailed outlines of the left boot. He went back yesterday for more work.
He said that portions of the boot top seemed to be made of bookbinding-quality Moroccan goatskin. He said the boots seemed more like a size 12 1/2 than the 14 stated on the catalogue card. And he discovered a decorative cross-hatching pattern on the heel that had not been noticed.
Through a magnifying glass, Carnacchi saw that sections of the upper parts of the boots were embossed with a minute geometric pattern. Inside, he found more evidence of the original maroon color that had been worn away on the outside. The boots were originally black and maroon.
Carnacchi also confirmed that a set of 14 numbers that appear on a tracing of Lincoln's feet represent a standard set of bootmaker's measurements, said to have been made in the White House by Peter Kahler in 1864. It is unclear whether the Ford's Theatre boots were made from the tracing.
The 15-inch-tall boots, which were the apex of gentlemen's fashion, are also strikingly lightweight. But they might not have been that comfortable. There's a crease along one side of the left boot and indications near the toe that suggest an imperfect fit, Carnacchi said. "This boot was a little short on him."
The Park Service says it acquired the boots in 1947 from a Massachusetts woman whose grandfather, Justin H. Hatch, had been given them by William T. Clark. Lincoln died in Clark's rented boardinghouse room, and historians think Clark used the boots as collateral for a personal loan from Hatch.
Carnacchi noticed that there were six layers in the heel stack, which were reinforced with hobnails.
When Lincoln walked on a wooden floor, the sound would have been commanding.
"You would have known when the president walked in the room," he said.