DC Mythbusting: Lincoln Edition

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘Samuel Gordon’

Had enough of the tourists yet?  Not only do they stand on the left of Metro escalators and block entire sidewalks with their matching-t-shirt armies, half of what they’re saying about the monuments and memorials in our city is wrong.  The Lincoln Memorial is the subject of several monumental myths, so this week we’ll look at myths regarding our 16th President: is Robert E. Lee sculpted into the back of Lincoln’s head at the Lincoln Memorial?  Are Lincoln’s hands supposed to be showing his initials in American Sign Language? And why is  a portrait of George Washington hanging at the Lincoln Presidential Box at Fords’ Theatre?

Photo courtesy of
‘Lincoln Memorial’
courtesy of ‘kimberlyfaye’

Robert E. Lee in Lincoln’s Head: There’s a persistent myth out there about what exactly is carved into Lincoln’s head at the Lincoln Memorial.  It just looks like hair to me, but people swear that a profile of Robert E. Lee is carved into the back of Lincoln’s head (visible in the photo above).  So did the sculptor really carve Robert E. Lee into the tufts of Lincoln’s hair?

Nope.  This one is pretty easy to bust, since people who think they see Lee’s face can’t even agree on whether it is Lee’s profile in Lincoln’s hair or Lee’s full face.  But the National Park Service steps in here, saying, “There are several wayward tufts of Lincoln’s wavy hair, but nothing more.”  Apparently people keep claiming to find new profiles of people in Lincoln’s hair, including Ulysses S. Grant and Jefferson Davis.

Photo courtesy of
‘Lincoln Memorial – Lincoln & His Right Hand – 9-30-08’
courtesy of ‘mosley.brian’

‘A’ and ‘L’ in Lincoln’s Hands: It’s something we’ve all learned in school– Abraham Lincoln was a supporter of the deaf community, having signed the enabling legislation for Gallaudet University in DC.  Supposedly there’s a reference to this at the Lincoln Memorial– Lincoln’s hands are signing the letters ‘A’ and ‘L’ as they rest on his chair, symbolizing his initials.  So are Lincoln’s hands meant to signify his commitment to the deaf community?

Nope, the National Park Service says it’s all just a coincidence.  On their Lincoln Memorial page the NPS writes, “The sculptor, Daniel Chester French, used molds cast in 1860 of Lincoln’s hands to guide his work. Given that they both were in a fist-like arrangement, he decided to relax one of them so the statue would not look as tense.”  But it is coincidental that sculptor Daniel Chester French had a deaf son and was familiar with American Sign Language, and had used fingerspelling in a previous sculpture for Gallaudet University— so coincidental that Gallaudet University has posted an FAQ saying that they think the ‘A’ and ‘L’ are probably intentional, despite what NPS may say.

Photo courtesy of
‘Rehearsal, Ford’s Theatre’
courtesy of ‘Jenn Larsen’

Portrait of Washington on Lincoln’s Booth: Ford’s Theatre is best known as the site of President Lincoln’s assassination, and the Presidential Box has been preserved as it was back in 1865.  But any visitor to Ford’s Theatre would realize that the presidential portrait displayed on the booth is not that of Lincoln (as would be assumed), but of George Washington.  What gives?

It was an attempt to make the box “presidential”.  Back in 1865, staff at Ford’s Theatre got word that Lincoln would be attending a performance on April 14, 1865, and they rushed to put together a booth to suit the President.  They draped flags in the booth, added more comfortable seating, and, in order to signify the booth as the Presidential Box, hung a portrait of George Washington.  You see, these were the days before a Presidential Seal existed, so a portrait of Washington was used to symbolize all things presidential.

And while we’re at the Lincoln mythbusting, here are a couple more: there’s no significance to the number of steps up to the Memorial (there are 57, and Lincoln died at age 56), and Lincoln is not buried there (he was buried in Springfield after his death in 1865).  But there is one symbolism factoid that is true– the 36 columns at the Lincoln Memorial are meant to represent the 36 states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death.

Looks like there are lots of myths out there about the Lincoln Memorial and the man featured in it.  But we can safely say there’s no Robert E Lee sculpted into Lincoln’s head, there’s probably no significance to the way Lincoln’s hands are resting (but it’s definitely a big coincidence), and the Ford’s Theatre folks didn’t accidentally put out the wrong presidential portrait.

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

9 thoughts on “DC Mythbusting: Lincoln Edition

  1. I know I’m different by saying this but I like seeing all the tourists. It means we have a great city and all is well. I love chatting them up and asking where they are from, etc.

    Also, sometimes the tourists know more about the sites than we do.

    I’ll confess my ignorance on this one, and say I didn’t even know the myths about Lincoln.

    Anyway, great work as usual Shannon. I have a list of places I should have visited by now and the Lincoln Memorial is one of them. I’ve been there, but haven’t taken the time to go and absorb it all.

    Gotta get there. Lincoln was the greatest President of them all.

  2. I think we all have enough depth to enjoy and appreciate the tourists while simultaneously being irritated by them, Jay. Or at least I can say for sure that I do.

  3. I definitely appreciate that the tourists enjoy our city as much as I do, I just wish they’d stay out of my way when I’m late for work!

  4. And don’t forget about the typo!
    if you’re looking at Abe, the wall to the right has a typo carved.
    It’s about 1/4 of the way down, and its obvious that an “E” was originally carved where an “F” needed to be!

  5. You’re totally right, Maggie– I read about that one while looking for Lincoln myths, and it’s true. They noticed the typo and filled it in pretty quickly, but you can still tell that there was originally an ‘E’ there.

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  7. One other thing I heard was that there’s the hint of a profile of Abe carved on the back of his head.

  8. One other error on the memorial is that date of statehood for Ohio. The roman numerals say 1802, but Ohio became a state in 1803 (although there is some debate to the actual statehood ranging from 1802 to 1953)

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