The affidavit got separated from the relic, which wasn’t necessarily surprising, given that for more than half a century, priceless Lincoln treasures were kept in a basement beneath the Old State Capitol where the Great Emancipator delivered his infamous “House Divided” speech in 1858. Not until 2008 did the museum’s staff realize the connection between the affidavit and the ax, discovering a piece of history that is now on prominent display at the nation’s pre-eminent Lincoln museum.
“For the serious historian and history buff, all roads lead to Springfield,” says Harold Holzer, a New York–based author and historian who is considered a leading authority on Lincoln. “That’s where the greatest exhibits are that document Lincoln’s life. To my mind, there’s nothing better in the country.”
That wasn’t always the case.
Thomas Schwartz remembers the way things were when he became the curator for the Lincoln collection in 1985. The state’s Lincoln collection was kept in the Illinois State Historical Library, which was criticized at least twice by the state auditor general for failing to properly preserve and catalog pieces due to a lack of funds. More priceless Lincoln relics sat unprotected under water pipes in the capitol’s basement, just one freeze away from ruin. When the state-of-the-art Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum opened in 2005, Schwartz, now the director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum in West Branch, Iowa, kept a vintage file cabinet that had housed Lincoln’s china in the basement as a reminder of how far the state had come in preserving Lincoln’s legacy.
"It’s that connection between the old Illinois history library and the Lincoln collection,” Schwartz says.
With the museum just seven years old, new discoveries keep coming. Consider a four-volume set of works by Edgar Allan Poe, acquired by the state in the 1970s, that came from a house in Vermont owned by Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s eldest son and the only one of his four children, all boys, who lived past the age of 18. The elder Lincoln was an avid Poe fan who could recite “The Raven,” the Baltimore author’s signature poem, from memory.