For nearly a half century, it was one of Pittsburgh’s most enduring mysteries: what happened to the ornate hotel bed that Abraham Lincoln slept in during a stopover on the way to his first inauguration in Washington, D.C.?
Lincoln’s train pulled into downtown Pittsburgh on a stormy Valentine’s Day 1861. Despite sleet and rain, more than 15,000 supporters turned out to greet the president-elect, crowding into the lobby of the venerable Monongahela House Hotel. Zouave Cadets formed a colorful cordon, allowing Lincoln to pass to his room. He briefly addressed the crowd from his balcony, then delivered a speech the next day as the nation stood
on the brink of civil war.
“I repeat, there is no crisis,” Lincoln declared, “except such a one as turbulent men can get up whenever they please.” He later climbed aboard the train and continued on, avoiding a potential assassination attempt in Baltimore before slipping into the nation’s capital in disguise on February 23. The following week, Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th president of the United States of America.
The heavy Victorian walnut bed used by Lincoln at the Monongahela House was a mix of late Rococo Revival and early Neo-Renaissance styling, representative of fine hotel furniture of the day. According to newspaper articles, Lincoln stayed in the same room occupied a year earlier by the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. It subsequently would be used by nine more presidents, though not necessarily while they were in office. Three of them – Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley – were assassinated.
“I don’t know whether (the bed) has been cursed or not,” Andrew Masich, president and chief executive officer of the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “But no one knew exactly where it was.” The mystery was solved last October when a carpenter climbed into the eaves of an Allegheny County maintenance shed to fix a leaky roof. There, covered in burlap, was the missing bed, along with an elegant wooden commode containing a porcelain chamber pot, two chairs and nearly 70 other pieces of wood from the Monongahela House. They had been removed before the old hotel was torn down in 1935, and given to the county for display in a museum.
The furniture was covered with feathers from a mattress that had virtually exploded. Beetles and mites were found in the bedding, along with a half-dozen snake skins. After county officials were alerted, experts confirmed that indeed this was the bed that Lincoln slept in. If there was any doubt, blueprints from the Monongahela House were found with it. The artifacts have been moved to the history center for study and conservation. Masich hopes they will remain there and become part of a major exhibit planned for the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in 2009. Masich puts no dollar value on the bed, saying that museums do not appraise such items.
“These are treasures for our community that are priceless,” he said.
– Bob DeWitt