SPRINGFIELD – Friction over attempts to verify an iconic stovepipe hat’s connection to Abraham Lincoln has prompted the director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum to sever financial ties to the organization’s fundraising arm at a critical juncture for the nonprofit foundation, which is struggling to pay back millions of dollars borrowed to buy the hat and other artifacts related to the 16th president.
Alan Lowe told The Associated Press that he dissolved his $25,000-a-year consulting deal with the Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, offered two years ago as an inducement to lure him to Springfield.
He wanted to forestall questions about his commitment as head of the 12-year-old library and museum, which he said now is “at odds on some issues” with the foundation.
“I don’t want there to be any question about my priorities,” Lowe said. “Therefore, I felt it was best to give up my contract with the foundation.”
Lowe indicated his irritation in a statement last month after WBEZ Chicago reported that the foundation had commissioned secret studies in 2013 and 2015, including DNA analysis, to develop unassailable evidence that a 19th-century stovepipe hat linked to Lincoln actually belonged to him. The test was inconclusive, and historians who studied it suggested that the museum “soften its claim about the hat.”
Lowe said he wasn’t fully appraised of the reviews until August.
“The foundation should always provide prompt, complete information to the presidential library,” Lowe said in the statement. “It should work with us to seek the best ways of preserving Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.”
Discord is something the foundation can’t afford. It still owes $9.7 million a decade after borrowing $23 million to buy the hat and 1,400 Lincoln-related artifacts and documents from collector Louise Taper. The foundation announced last spring that it wants to pay the balance by the time the note is due in October 2019. The AP reported in August that the search had begun for an auction house to handle selling parts of the collection if necessary. The situation catapulted into pop culture status with Lincoln fans starting a GoFundMe campaign.
The 54-year-old Lowe arrived in Lincoln’s hometown in July 2016 from his post as inaugural director of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas.
The $175,000 salary offered by the Lincoln museum was less than Lowe’s previous pay. Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office asked the foundation, which operates separately from the state-agency museum, to supplement that figure with a $25,000 annual contract for Lowe’s expertise as an ex-officio board member and assistance with fundraising, foundation board vice chairman Nick Kalm said.
Neither Lowe nor the foundation would provide a copy of the contract.
“Unfortunately, he feels that we’re at odds,” Kalm said. “The sole purpose of the foundation’s existence is to support the museum, all the artifacts and all the staff, right up to the executive director.”
To date, evidence that the hat sat atop Lincoln’s 6-foot-4 frame has rested on a southern Illinois farmer’s claim that Lincoln gave him the hat in friendship. A 1958 affidavit from a descendant of the farmer indicates that the gift came when the farmer visited Lincoln in Washington after 1861.
Kalm said Lowe was told about the foundation’s historical and scientific studies in January, about the time that foundation officials were asking Rauner’s office for $5 million in tourism grant money – raised by visitors paying hotel taxes – as a “challenge” grant to private donors to match and resolve the debt.
Kalm acknowledged that Lowe’s financial break with the foundation hurts its money-raising capacity, and “it gives the administration another excuse not to do the right thing” and use tourism grant money to preserve what Lincolnphiles see as a sacred collection.
But the administration was reluctant to step up before the hat brouhaha and it has raised hackles among other influential personalities, including Rep. Tim Butler, the Springfield Republican who holds the Illinois House seat Lincoln occupied from 1836 to 1842. He plans a hearing on the hat and testing issues when the Legislature returns to the Capitol in November.
Kalm tried to steer attention away from the controversy, noting the 1,400 items go well beyond the hat and include Lincoln’s presidential seal, bloody gloves from the night he was assassinated, White House china, his quill pen and more, which he deemed “essential to the future and success” of the museum.
“We went to significant lengths to further confirm the provenance of the hat through outside investigations, but they were inconclusive,” Kalm said. “They also didn’t say it’s not Lincoln’s hat.”