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Now That's a Pretty Penny

Daniel Weinberg's Lincoln bookstore does a brisk trade in all things Abe.



In Daniel Weinberg's 20 years as the owner of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, a River North historical book and artifact store, thousands of items connected to the 16th president have passed through his hands. At one time or another he's seen a Lincoln family bed, a desk from the courthouse where Lee surrendered to Grant, and the original document ordering the execution of the people convicted of conspiring in the president's assassination. He's even held a scrap of cloth stained with Lincoln's blood--a remnant from the dress of the woman who cradled the president's head in her lap as he lay dying on the floor of Ford's Theatre.

Weinberg's newest link to Lincoln's last days is a document signed by the president and his entire second cabinet just days before the assassination. Originally donated to the Chicago Sanitary Fair (a precursor to the Red Cross) as a fund-raising tool, it's extremely rare because the second cabinet existed for only a few weeks--Lincoln began his second term in office March 4, 1865, and was assassinated April 14. Like everything else in the shop, the document is for sale; its asking price is $45,000. But prospective buyers may have to hurry. "I had just a few days a document signed by Lewis and Clark. Boom, came in. Boom, gone," Weinberg says. "I didn't have time to enjoy it."

The shop's primary focus is Lincoln and the Civil War, but five minutes of browsing can also yield a letter from Theodore Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill's autograph, or an original photo of a baleful-looking General Custer. Weinberg also carries new, out-of-print, and rare books. Much of the store's business is conducted over the phone or online, but a few customers come in to browse the stacks. Patrons run the gamut from private collectors to institutions to ordinary Civil War buffs, from governors Jim Edgar and Rod Blagojevich to an illiterate man who collected books on Franklin Roosevelt. "He just admired the man so much he felt the importance of the word was enough for him," Weinberg says. Another customer confessed that every night before going to bed he went into his library and patted his first editions good night.

"Look at this," says a customer bent over a glass display case on a recent Saturday afternoon. "John Wilkes Booth. Holy crow."

"Holy crow?" his companion says dryly.

"Can you imagine that?" the first man says, not listening. "John Wilkes Booth's autograph!"

The store was founded by Ralph Newman, a former minor-league baseball player who in 1932 quit his job at a bank to open the Home of Books, a general-interest secondhand bookstore. Under the influence of two regular customers--Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg and General William Tecumseh Sherman biographer Lloyd Lewis--Newman eventually decided to specialize, giving the store its present name in 1938. The shop moved several times to various downtown locations before finding a long-term home at 18 E. Chestnut. It moved to 357 W. Chicago Avenue, its present location, about 20 years ago.

Newman went on to found the now-international Civil War Round Table movement, which comprises groups of enthusiasts who meet regularly to hear presentations on topics like "The Union Surrender of Harper's Ferry" and "Custer and the Civil War." He also served as president of the Illinois Historical Society and the Chicago Public Library's board, befriended Lyndon Johnson and Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas, wrote or edited some 20 books, and served as a consultant on the creation of Disneyland's animatronic Lincoln figure. At the time of his death in 1998, the college dropout was known as one of the world's leading Lincolniana experts.

Like his predecessor, Weinberg knew little about Lincoln or the Civil War when he began working in the store. Discouraged by the dearth of teaching jobs, in 1971 he quit the NYU doctoral program where he'd been studying the history of Tudor and Stuart England to work with Newman. A year later he bought in as a partner.

"Ralph Newman told me it took him 14 years to feel comfortable in the business. With his help, it took me 12," Weinberg says. "I had an interest in American history, but I didn't know the essentials. If a photograph comes through, one has to learn about the morning of the battle. You have to learn all the background, but that's the fun and joy of it."

Much of Weinberg's work consists of authenticating the items brought to him for sale. "There are forgers out there, and fairly good ones," he says. Over the years he's accumulated a small number of items that turned out to be fake. One of them was made by Joseph Cosey, an early-20th-century forger who acquired a stash of paper similar to the kind Lincoln wrote on and used it to create documents that he then sold or traded for liquor. "He would go to a dealer, dressed shabbily, saying, 'I've been settling my aunt's estate. These aren't real, are they?'" Weinberg says, laughing.

He feels his responsibilities keenly. At stake are not only his shop's reputation and his customers' money--a letter written by Lincoln can sell for $16,000, depending on its content and condition--but the historical record. And sometimes Weinberg's work reveals details about long-ago figures in a way that history books can't. Some time ago Brown University let him borrow an original glass-plate negative of an 1863 photograph of Lincoln. He used the negative to make enlarged, sharpened prints. "You can see his left hand, and it looks like rubber. There is a guy who worked the plow and the ax a lot," he says.

After more than 30 years in the business Weinberg is familiar with just about every bit of Lincolniana out there. But he still covets a few items he hopes will surface one day, such as the original Widow Bixby letter, which Lincoln wrote to a woman in the mistaken belief that she had lost her five sons in the Civil War (he had been misinformed by the governor of Massachusetts--only two of the widow's five sons had died). And the copy of the Gettysburg Address that Lincoln actually used when delivering the speech may still exist. In recent years a seller has claimed to have the second page of it--but, Weinberg says, "the vast majority of us don't believe it one hoot."

At the moment he's working on his second book about Lincoln's death. The first volume, Lincoln's Assassins: Their Trial and Execution, written with historian James L. Swanson and published in 2001, focused on the eight people convicted of conspiring with Booth. The next will address the assassination itself, and a third will cover Lincoln's funeral and the mourning that engulfed the nation.

One of Weinberg's most exciting recent acquisitions was an actor's script for a play called The Rake's Progress--signed J.W. Booth on the front. "Now there's something you gotta take a giant step back from," Weinberg says. "Don't inhale yet. Is it good, or is it a forgery?" As it happened, the script had been annotated in the same handwriting as the signature. That would be much more difficult to forge than a signature alone.

The script has since sold for about $19,500, and the scrap of cloth bearing Lincoln's dried blood--valued at more than $25,000--was snapped up as well. "Very early on I had to learn that I was a collecting voyeur," Weinberg says. "My collection happens to be the shop, and day by day it changes." He's already had a few nibbles on the document signed by Lincoln and his second cabinet.

But there's one item Weinberg says he'll never sell--a Lincoln signature in which the president accidentally transposed the o and the n: Linclon. "It's the only known instance of Lincoln misspelling his name," Weinberg says. "I mean, I've done that before. It brings him closer to me. Or me closer to him."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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