Opera glasses Lincoln was holding when shot on sale

Abraham Lincoln's Black enameled Gebruder Strausshof Optiker, Berlin opera glassesThe opera glasses Abraham Lincoln brought to Ford’s Theater to view “Our American Cousin” in binocular close-up on the night he was assassinated are going up for sale at Nate D. Sanders’ April auction.

On the night of April 14, 1865, Lincoln was holding the German-made opera glasses when John Wilkes Booth entered the Presidential Box at 10:13 PM and shot him in the back of the head. Three doctors who happened to be at the theater that night attended the mortally wounded President in the box, and then decided to move him. A shockless carriage ride to the White House being out of the question, the doctors, some soldiers in the audience and an on-duty Washington City Guard and Union veteran Captain named James M. McCamly carried Lincoln’s unconscious body across the street to William Petersen’s boarding house.

While crossing the street, McCamly saw a pair of opera glasses fall from Lincoln’s body. He picked them up and pocketed them, barely paying attention. He remained at the vigil all night. At 7:22 AM, April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died. After the President’s body was brought to the White House, McCamly was relieved of duty and went home to finally get some sleep. It was at his quarters that he realized he still had the opera glasses.

Captain McCamly commanded the Veteran Reserve Corps honor guard that accompanied Lincoln’s body back to Springfield, Illinois for the funeral. The men of the honor guard were the only ones allowed to move the coffin. James McCamly was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for this somber service.

1968 letter from Chief Curator of the National Park Service Harold L. PetersonThere is extensive documentation of McCamly’s role in the aftermath of the assassination, some of which is included in the lot. Most relevant in terms of authentication, in 1968 the Chief Curator of the National Park Service, Harold L. Peterson, wrote to Robert C. Hartt, Mrs. James McCamly’s great-grandson, that he had checked the opera glasses against the carrying case that is in the Ford’s Theatre National Park Collection and found that they “precisely fit the opera glass case.”

The opera glasses remained in McCamly’s family for three generations until they were sold in 1979 to magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes Sr. The current owner is anonymous. The last time the glasses were offered for sale in June 2011, with a pre-sale estimate of $500,000 to $700,000, they failed to sell. The Sanders’ estimate is the same exact range, $500,000 to $700,000. It’s three days before the auction and already 14 online bids have brought the price to $252,582.

I’m guessing at these prices the National Park Service isn’t in the bidding, which is a big shame because it would be great if the glasses and the case could be reunited in the Ford’s Theater collection. Fingers crossed for a public-minded benefactor.

6 thoughts on “Opera glasses Lincoln was holding when shot on sale

  1. What an interesting little footnote to such a significant event. I wonder why McCamly didn’t return the glasses to anyone once he realized he still had them; perhaps he offered and was told he could keep them?

  2. Nice story. The reason the National Park Service won’t be bidding is because their chief curator debunked the “case” story the last time the dubious glasses were offered publicly.

    According to the Washington Post article By Michael E. Ruane, Published: June 8, 2011:

    “The Park Service confirmed Wednesday that it still has that black leather, red-satin-lined case.

    But park ranger Gloria Swift, the former curator of the theater’s Lincoln artifacts, said that case is thought to have belonged to Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, whose opera glasses were also found in the box and are now in private hands.

    She said she was skeptical of the McCamly story, noting that Lincoln had been examined by doctors in the theater and doubted that his opera glasses would still have been on his person as he was carried across the street.

    “It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” she said. But “they could have been anyone’s glasses.”

  3. Would love to see it in a museum. It seems to me that items of this nature ought not to be personal property as they are national treasures. Just my personal view!!


  4. Seems like a cool piece of history. Hopefully a museum will be the winning bidder of the theater glasses so we can all enjoy them like Benjamin has said.

  5. Please make the comment that McCamly’s Medal of Honor was rescinded in the Purge of 1917. It’s erroneous awarding was corrected. The law at the time clearly stated the award had to be the result of an act of combat.

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