A thick, two-inch piece of presidential hair was purchased for $81K last month.
It made headlines and received its fair share of jokes from late-night show hosts, because – let’s face it – it’s a welcome bit of weird news, and we all like to wonder who pays that kind of cash for a lock of hair.
At the time of the sale, the buyer was reported as anonymous by most news outlets. But it shouldn’t surprise us that the buyer is very much familiar with world of weird.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! recently announced that they were the ones who bought Lincoln’s $81K piece of hair, and it arrived at their warehouse on Sept. 17.
So what does our favorite odditorium have in store for this hair?
Are we going to see Abraham Lincoln clones running around Gatlinburg anytime soon? It is 2020, after all.
To answer these burning questions and more, Ripley’s held a panel with the experts.
Sabrina Sieck, Ripley’s Creative Content Manager, hosted a panel called “Unlocking Lincoln” with John Corcoran, Ripley’s Exhibits and Traveling Shows Director; Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris, a medical historian, TV host and author; and Dr. Dean Hildebrand from the BC Institute of Technology in the Forensics Department.
Here’s what we learned:
Why did Lincoln’s hair cost $81K?
Ripley’s already owns some presidential hair, including (believe it or not) Lincoln’s hair. So you might be wondering – what makes this Lincoln lock so special?
“You can never have too much Abraham Lincoln hair,” says Corcoran.
But it also comes down to the telegram – and the provenance of the whole acquisition, he says. This particular lock of hair was obtained by Mary Todd Lincoln’s cousin, and it stayed in the same family for years.
The telegram was included with the sale, which has some “blood or brain matter” on it as well.
And as appealing as all that blood and brain matter sounds, the telegram itself is a unique piece of history in this acquisition because it helps to debunk a conspiracy theory about the then-Secretary of War contributing to the plot to kill Lincoln.
The theory is that the Secretary of War ordered military communications to be disrupted, thus allowing John Wilkes Booth to escape. But the time stamp on the recently acquired telegram disproves that theory.
Is it normal for hair to be cut post mortem?
According to Fitzharris, it was actually very common for hair clippings to be taken postmortem during this time period. It was a memento for family members to remember their lost loved ones.
Shortly after Lincoln died, a messenger was sent to the embalmer from Mary Todd Lincoln, who requested a clipping from her husband’s hair. The family physician took some clippings and gave them out to people in the room.
“It’s an amazing piece of history,” says Fitzharris.
Why does Lincoln’s hair look blonde?
It’s worth noting that hair itself looks a bit … weird.
Lincoln was always depicted as this tall, dark-haired man, and we would assume the hair would have been much darker to match.
Instead, the hair looks almost blonde and like straw-like – almost as if someone plucked some straws from an old broom.
But the experts say that the appearance is normal.
“Undoubtedly hair will change in the decomposition process,” says Hildebrand.
They go on to note that the hair is more gray-looking than blonde when it’s viewed in-person, and it would have been natural that Lincoln was beginning to gray by the age of 56.
Does this mean now we can clone Abraham Lincoln?
Hildebrand says that the quality of a DNA sample relies on how it’s been stored.
Scientists have DNA samples from wooly mammoths that have been frozen in tundras for thousands of years. Alternatively, sometimes a DNA sample will only last a few days.
“Luckily, in this case, they kinda got lucky,” says Hildebrand. “They stored it in paper it sounds like – wrapped it up – and that actually would dry it out and it would have preserved that blood sample for a very long time.”
And while some people think that DNA is only in the root of your hair, Hildebrand says the hair shafts themselves will still have trace amounts of mitochondrial DNA.
So does that mean we can start cloning Lincoln now?
“Putting all the ethical reasons behind us, technically, we can clone organisms now,” says Hildebrand. “The technology exists. Whether or not you can do it from an old, degraded sample of course is more Hollywood and fiction than reality. Certainly, the ability to clone a human being is out there.”
“Whether or not we could actually do it from this sample, probably not.”
Exhibits at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
While it’s too soon to say exactly where this recent acquisition will end up, Corcoran says they will be working on a new display soon.
However, regardless of whether or not this new piece of hair makes its way to Gatlinburg, visitors to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium in Gatlinburg, Tenn. can currently view a lock of George Washington’s hair as well as a relic from Abraham Lincoln’s catafalque (the wooden frame that supported his casket).
“A lot of people don’t think of Ripley’s as museums,” says Corcoran. “We curate amazing objects. It’s what we do. Millions of people come to see them, and we want to put things on display to both entertain and educate people.”
Ripley’s has a total of eight attractions in Gatlinburg, which means the Smokies area is home to more Ripley’s attractions than any other city in the world.
“A Ripley’s Believe it or Not! museum is always more fun than a textbook,” says Corcoran.
To watch the full panel on “Unlocking Lincoln,” click here.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! is located at 800 Parkway, Gatlinburg TN 37738. For more information, visit their website.