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Rail Splinters

Mary Todd’s Dress

December 28, 2019

Where is Mary Todd Lincoln’s 1861 Inuagural Ball dress?

“Who’s got it now?” We picture an Associated Press photograph issued on February 3, 1930. It depicts an older woman displaying a silk dress. The caption on the reverse indicates she is Mrs. O. A. Shorb, the wife of a conductor on the Southern Pacific Railroad. The item she is holding is her prized possession, retained by family members for three generations, as of the tiime of the photo. In case you don’t recognize it, it happens to be the dress worn by Mary Todd Lincoln at her husband’s first inaugural ball in 1861. It is “embroidered with velvet representing small bouquets of varicolored flowers.” Mary Todd was photographed by Mathew Brady wearing this very same dress. After her husband’s assassination, the bereaved widow starting selling off personal possessions, including jewelry and clothing. We have no doubt that the inaugural dress commanded a premium at the time and was obtained by ancesters of Mrs. Shorb. So, we know who owned it in 1930, but… “who’s got it now?” Along similar lines, we show a press photo of a Parke-Bernet Gallery employee displaying items from the Oliver Barnett Collection. She holds a framed ax handle which purportedly was one used by the great Railsplitter himself! It sold for $300 to Chick Meehan, a former NYU and Manhattan College football coach who indicated he planned to donate it to the Helms Foundation in Los Angeles. That foundation no longer exists, but has been superceded by the LA84 Foundation which maintains a collection related to athletics and sports. An email to the foundation determined that someone in the correct department would get back to us but, needless to say, no one did. I ask you… is that good sportsmanship?