Portrait of Abraham Lincoln Memorial

The Secret Lives of Objects: Abraham Lincoln's Stovepipe Hat

Feb. 4, 2020 • Studies Weekly
top hat Abe Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated

SI Neg. 95-5528. Date: 1995.
The Top Hat, worn by President Abraham Lincoln the night he was assasinated at Ford’s Theatre, April 1865. From the Smithsonian exhibit, “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden.”
Credit: Richard Strauss (Smithsonian Institution)

At 6’4″, President Abraham Lincoln was a very tall man, even by today’s standards. He chose to stand out even more by wearing a top hat. As biographer Harold Holzer explained in a 2013 Smithsonian Magazine article, even if his clothes were a bit worn — as they sometimes were — when Lincoln gave a speech in his tall stovepipe hat, “at least he would look taller than any man in the city.”

Stovepipe hats of Lincoln’s era were tall with flat crowns, and a flat brim. They were usually made from stiffened felt and either beaver fur or silk. Lincoln was known to have more than one stovepipe hat, each typically seven or eight inches tall.

With the hat’s height added to his own stature, historians believe his fashion choice “made Lincoln easy to spot in a crowd.” So easy, in fact, that it’s possible his hat got him into a little trouble.
Lincoln was riding on horseback to a summer cottage in August, 1864, when a sniper fired a shot at him. Private John W. Nichols of Company K was on guard duty that night, and found the hat later with a bullet hole through it.

top hat Abe Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated

Courtesy Smithsonian Institution

After his 12-year-old son Willie died in 1862 of typhoid fever, Lincoln added a black silk mourning band to every stovepipe hat to symbolize his deep ongoing mourning and remembrance.
This particular hat, purchased from J. Y. Davis, a Washington hat maker, also bore a three-inch mourning band. The last time he wore this hat was that fateful day when he attended Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. After his assassination, the hat was found on the floor beside his chair.

According to the Smithsonian, after Lincoln’s death, the Smithsonian Institution was given this hat. But the institution’s secretary, Joseph Henry, ordered it not to be exhibited because “there being so much excitement at the time.”

It stayed in a basement storage room, until 1893, when the institution lent it to an exhibit hosted by the Lincoln Memorial Association. It is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian.