Review of Wet With Blood: The Investigation fo Mary Todd Lincoln's Cloak


Reviewed: April 13, 2001
Mounted: April 27, 2001
By Erin McLeary

"Wet with Blood: the Investigation of Mary Todd Lincoln's Cloak" is a complex, layered site shaped around the "bloody evidence of President Lincoln's Assassination." The primary piece of this evidence, according to the site's introduction, is Mrs. Lincoln's cloak, which contains "mysteries" unlocked by the collaborative exploration of historians and scientists detailed in the site's pages.

"Blood" does indeed feature much bloody evidence -- not just the cloak, but frock coats, combs, bedclothes, and hair. Users are invited to examine what happened the night of Lincoln's assassination by evaluating evidence from the assassination. "Evidence" here is a tricky matter, its meaning shifting between what historians consider evidence and evidence as that class of words and objects related to a crime. Although blood-spattered, the cloak and its kin were not criminal evidence at the time. These objects were collected, preserved, and valued as relics, mementos, and talismans. "Blood" is thus in many ways about the nature of memory, the ways in which national trauma is inflicted, manifested, and healed, the power of relics, and the role of museums and historical societies in making these relics available to the public. The site is ultimately a meditation on what gets saved and why we save things.

However, the designers of "Blood" don't clearly state the above. We are nine pages into the site before we encounter any framing questions ("What happened on the night of the assassination? Who was wet with blood? How reliable are historical sources?"), and I was never quite certain as to why I should care about who, exactly, was wet with blood. (The reason -- because identifying whose blood went where through modern forensic science techniques can help authenticate objects like the cloak -- is not developed until the site's third and final major section.) Most troubling is that certain key questions and ideas -- such as historian Douglas Wilson's criteria for evaluating historical testimony -- are not introduced into the user is well into the site.

But the site's meandering nature and careful accretion of historical evidence and ideas are also the source of the site's power. After all, it is a fair description of how historians actually work. Users are introduced to conflicting eyewitness accounts, exaggerated newspaper accounts, and misleading images, as well as the potential of modern forensic techniques to sort out these contradictory sources. Sections begin exploring one idea and conclude on what seems at first to be an entirely different note. For instance, the discussion of the cloak's provenance opens by detailing how a Chicagoan purchased the cloak, which was accompanied by an affidavit from Lincoln's dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly, from an antiquities dealer in 1890. The section ends with Keckly in a home for destitute women. Along the way, we've learned about society dressmakers, the rise of ready-to-wear fashions, Mrs. Lincoln's penchant for luxury clothing, and how the development of simple dress-making systems and proportionally sized dress patterns led to the demise of the dressmaking trade and Keckly's livelihood. No longer able to support herself, Keckly sold her Lincoln relics -- which is how they ended up in Chicago. This is social history in its most playful form.

Users might do well to read the site's epilogue first, for here is where the site's creators touch upon most of their major themes -- are our most treasured objects real or fake? What does the historical record tell us? What can we learn from science? Why do our memories of historical events become lodged in physical things? It is these questions that "Blood" explores best.

As mentioned above, "Blood" lacks a clearly stated purpose and mission statement. However, it is quite comprehensive. The site attempts to guide users through complex historical questions, like determining an object's provenance or deciding whether to conduct destructive forensic tests, and encourages public feedback and interaction with the ideas it presents.

"Blood" is the result of the collaboration of an impressive range of historical and scientific researchers. Sponsored by the Chicago Historical Society, the site was developed by CHS and Northwestern University, assisted by associations ranging from the Illinois State Police Forensic Sciences Command to the Chicago Institute of Music Chorale. Contributors are clearly identified and a generic contact email address is provided in the thorough "How to Use this Site" section of the site.

The copyright date of "Blood" is easy to locate; any revision dates are less clear. All links work, and I expect the site to remain on the web for the foreseeable future. There are even promises that additional material will be added, such as a curriculum guide.

Value-added Features
This site's useful sitemap is accessible through its "How to Use this Site" section, and users might consider printing out the sitemap for reference while navigating the site (see "Technical Aspects," below). A search feature or an index would form an extremely valuable addition to this large and complex site, as objects, people, and events reappear throughout.

Technical Aspects
"Blood" does not have a text-only alternative or contain alt tags in images. On the other hand, it does provide links to all necessary plug-ins.

Navigation is complicated. Attractive navigation bars located at the top and bottom of most pages link to the other subsections of the particular section you are currently in, as well as to the table of contents. However, the table of contents is the only place where you can access all of the site's major sections, and each section's subsections are accessible only after you have entered that particular section. Users who'd like to see the Libby Prison War Museum subsection, for instance, have to remember (or guess) which section the Libby Prison War Museum is in, access that section through the table of contents, and then choose the subsection on the Libby Museum. An indication of how long each subsection is would be very helpful -- most of these are substantial, and users who neglect to use the "next" buttons on the navigation bar could conceivably miss much of the site's content. This aspect of the site's design also affects its printability: a user who wished to print out the entire site would have to do so in two page chunks.

Important bits of information are repeated for the benefit of the users who prefer to wander through sites. However, most of the subsections contain linear narratives, which need to be followed from beginning to end for maximum impact.

Aesthetics/Visual Clarity and Appeal
"Blood" has an appealing and consistent visual theme. Users enter the site through the pages of a mock Civil War era pamphlet, an effective device for orienting the users to the site's theme of evidence, and most pages are set on a background which mimics aged paper (areas of the site which show modern forensic scientists at work are set against plain backgrounds). Readability is for the most part excellent.

Overall impression of the site
My overall impression of "Blood" is very favorable.

Interpretation of Materials
"Blood" is for the most part an accessible and attractive online exhibit, with evocative images paired with short interpretive captions. Both secondary and primary sources are used and properly cited, and links to a full bibliography are provided. However, there is occasional murkiness surrounding the context of primary sources, which takes on added importance in a site that challenges its users to "weigh the evidence" and reminds its users that even eyewitness accounts are not always reliable.

Primary source documents
Most excerpts from textual sources are presented in text form, and are therefore searchable by keyword using the browser's find function, but the overall design of the site makes keyword searching frustrating. The physical location of the original material is provided. I would have appreciated larger versions of images or selected primary source materials linked to image or text files of the entire source so that I could examine the original in detail.

This site invites users to participate in the collection of primary source materials -- objects and texts -- in its discussions of object authentication, and also contains an interesting (although not interactive) database of the provenance of the Lincoln relics discussed in the site.

According to the site's designers, a curriculum guide is under development. Assuming that this guide appears, this site has much promise for elementary and secondary educators interested in challenging their students' understanding of historical evidence. Throughout the site, users are encouraged to contact the cloak investigators to "join the investigative team."

Promotion of a Community of Interest
This highly collaborative project involved the cooperation of many diverse specialists, cooperation which may assist in what Tom Thurston calls the "creation of social networks." These networks, however, are highly specialized ones, possibly accessible to historians but not to the general public. But if users' responses to the appeals throughout "Blood" for opinions and information shape the future development of "Blood," the potential for this site to promote a community of interest definitely exists.

Point Assessment for Review of Wet With Blood: The Investigation fo Mary Todd Lincoln's Cloak
(more information on PHRC's rating system is available)

Basic Criteria
Permanence and Timeliness13/15
Value Added Features5/15
Technical Aspects5/15
Overall Impression8/10

Public History Specific Criteria
Interpretation of Materials30/40
Primary Source Documents13/20
Promotion of a Community of Interest15/20

Total: 140 points -- 3.5 Earths

Erin McLeary is a Ph.D. candidate in the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation examines the use of museums in medical and public health education in North America from the 1860s to the 1940s.

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Last updated on  April 27, 2001