The Fates of 7 Grisly Assassination Artifacts

Abraham Lincoln's top hat, worn the night of his assassination
Abraham Lincoln's top hat, worn the night of his assassination
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

The murders of prominent political figures generally have a huge cultural impact; long after JFK's assassination, many could recall exactly where they were and what they were doing. As a result, there's a certain grim fascination around the relics of these events, some of which have been preserved in museum and private collections for decades—or even longer. Below are seven such assassination artifacts from the past few centuries.

1. ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S TOP HAT

At an impressive 6 feet and 4 inches, Abraham Lincoln was the tallest U.S. president, a fact that was enhanced by his fondness for wearing a top hat. On the night of April 14, 1865, as he set off for Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. to watch the play Our American Cousin with his wife Mary, Lincoln put on his hat, complete with black hatband worn as a sign of mourning for his son Willie. Lincoln reportedly enjoyed the play and laughed several times.

Then, at 10:15 p.m., actor and disgruntled Confederate John Wilkes Booth slipped into the president’s box and shot him in the head. Booth jumped onto the stage and broke his leg, but still managed to escape on horseback. Lincoln was taken to a nearby boarding house and doctors were called, but efforts to save his life were unsuccessful. He was pronounced dead at 7:22 a.m. the next morning.

The War Department took Lincoln’s hat and other items from where they fell at Ford’s Theater for safekeeping. In 1867, the hat was transferred to the Smithsonian Institute, where it was hidden away in a basement storage room because the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry, felt its appearance would provoke agitation. He stated that the hat should not go on show “under any circumstance." However, by 1893 enough time had passed that the Smithsonian allowed the hat to be exhibited by the Lincoln Memorial Association. Today it is a prized possession at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and a potent reminder of Lincoln’s enduring status.

2. JEAN-PAUL MARAT’S BATHTUB

French revolutionary, physician, and journalist Jean Paul Marat
French revolutionary Jean Paul Marat
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jean-Paul Marat was one of the most prominent voices of the French Revolution, leading the radical Montagnard faction and writing essays on political theories. He also suffered badly from a skin condition (doctors today aren't sure what kind, though one popular hypothesis is that it may have been eczema), and spent many hours writing in a medicinal bath to relieve his symptoms. On July 13, 1793, Charlotte Corday, a young supporter of the rival Girondin faction, tricked her way in to see Marat, pretending she had important intelligence for him. After Marat scribbled down the names she supplied, Corday lunged at him, stabbing him and causing him to quickly bleed out. Corday was captured and sent to the guillotine, while the bathtub was apparently squirreled away by relic hunters.

The Montagnard revolutionaries quickly realized that the terrible murder scene could serve as propaganda, and Madame Tussaud was reportedly called in to take a wax cast of Marat. The celebrated painter Jacques-Louis David was also asked to paint The Death of Marat, which went on to become one of the most famous paintings of its day. In 1885, the bathtub was sold to the Musée Grévin in Paris, where a grisly waxwork scene was created depicting Marat in his bath. The scene, with original tub, is still on view today.

3. THE FLOOR TILE ON WHICH JAMES GARFIELD FELL

James Garfield had been president for just four months when, in July 1881, he was fatally shot by Charles Guiteau, who was angry after being looked over repeatedly for a government post. Garfield was catching a train at Baltimore and Potomac Station in Washington, D.C. when he was shot twice, falling back on the floor and exclaiming “My God, what is this?”

According to legend, the tile on which he fell was afterwards pulled up from the floor by an unnamed individual who later presented it to Garfield’s son. (Was it actually the tile Garfield fell on, or was it just one of the tiles from the floor? No one knows for sure.) The relic was one of many collected by people who felt the need to preserve the scene of this historic tragedy. Garfield’s son donated the tile to the Smithsonian, where it remains today.

4. ARCHDUKE FRANZ FERDINAND’S BLOODSTAINED SHIRT

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia riding in their car minutes before their assassination
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia riding in their car, minutes before their assassination
STR/AFP/Getty Images

As heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand was not a welcome visitor to Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo, which had been annexed by the empire in 1908. When the Archduke and his wife Sophie rode through the streets on June 28, 1914, crowds thronged their open-top car, hiding a number of disgruntled would-be assassins. One threw a bomb at the car; it bounced off the hood and into the crowd, exploding and injuring several people. After attending a meeting at the Town Hall, the Archduke insisted on traveling to visit those injured in the attack—a fatal mistake. As the Archduke's motorcade made its way to the hospital, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip saw his chance. He fired two shots at the car, hitting Sophie in the abdomen and Franz Ferdinand in the neck.

The death of Franz Ferdinand set off a chain of events that contributed to the outbreak of World War I. The blood-spattered shirt he wore that day was preserved as a relic by the Jesuit priest who read the couple the last rites; it was acquired by the Austrian Military Museum in Vienna in 2004, but is only rarely on show due to its delicate condition.

5. THE BULLET THAT KILLED GANDHI

1940s portrait of Mohandas K. Gandhi
Wikimedia // Public Domain

On January 30, 1948, as Mahatma Gandhi was walking through a crowd to a prayer meeting, he was shot three times at point-blank range by Nathuram Vinayak Godse. A Hindu nationalist, Godse detested Gandhi's pleas for peace during India's religious violence, and his calls for tolerance toward Muslims. Gandhi fell to the ground and was later pronounced dead.

Gandhi had been such an influential figure for his promotion of non-violent protest that his death was mourned the world over. His iconic status meant that any items associated with the great man became revered, and in 1961, a collection of objects once owned by or otherwise related to Gandhi opened as the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi. Among the museum’s most prized exhibits are the bloodied loin cloth Gandhi was wearing when he was shot, and one of the three bullets that took his life.

6. JACKIE KENNEDY’S PINK SUIT

President and Mrs. Kennedy arriving at Dallas in 1963
President John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy arriving at Dallas in 1963
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Jackie Kennedy was famous for her style, as epitomized by the bright pink Chanel-style suit she wore on the day in November 1963 that her husband, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. When JFK was shot through the neck and head while the pair rode in open-top car through Dallas, he slumped down onto Jackie’s lap, and the side of her suit became soaked in blood. Just hours later, after JFK had been pronounced dead and his body loaded onto Air Force One, Jackie—still clad in the blood-spattered suit—stood stoically at the side of Lyndon B. Johnson as he was sworn in as president.

Jackie finally removed the suit at the White House the following morning, and a maid placed it into a bag. It was later reported that when aides had suggested she change clothes earlier she had refused, saying, “I want them to see what they have done.” Her mother put the unwashed suit into a box and wrote on top: “Jackie's suit and bag—worn November 22nd, 1963." Caroline Kennedy donated the suit to the National Archives in Maryland, where it's stored with the proviso that it remain out of public view until 2103, to avoid dishonoring the president's memory or causing grief to his family.

7. THE ICE AXE USED TO KILL TROTSKY

A black-and-white photograph of Leon Trotsky at his villa
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Leon Trotsky was, alongside Lenin, one of the leaders in the founding of the Soviet Union. But after a power struggle with Joseph Stalin, it was Stalin who succeeded Lenin, sowing the seed for a lifelong antipathy between him and Trotsky. The latter became increasingly critical of Stalin’s absolutist style, and by 1929, he had been expelled from Russia. Trotsky was eventually granted asylum in Mexico in 1936—but his card was marked.

The first attempt on Trotsky's life came in May 1940, when a gunman peppered his home with bullets. Trotsky and his wife, by some miracle, survived. The next attempt involved a Spanish communist named Ramon Mercader, who had infiltrated Trotsky’s inner circle over a period of years. On the morning of August 20, 1940, Mercader arrived at Trotsky’s highly fortified compound, claiming to want Trotsky to read a draft of an article he had written. When Trotsky welcomed him into his study, Mercader plunged an ice axe into the politician's skull, fatally wounding him. Trotsky died the next day. The Soviet Union denied responsibility, but today many historians believe that Stalin was behind the attack.

The axe was taken into storage as evidence at the Mexico City police station and later removed by secret police officer Alfredo Salas, who claimed he wanted to preserve it as an historical artifact. Salas passed it on to his daughter (or granddaughter—sources differ) who stored it under her bed for 40 years before deciding to sell it. Keith Melton, an American collector and author of espionage books, purchased the axe for an undisclosed sum. In February 2017 he hosted a talk at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., where the axe was displayed to the public for the first time in over 75 years.

10 Historically Disappointing Time Capsules

eag1e/iStock via Getty Images
eag1e/iStock via Getty Images

Unearthing a time capsule should be an exciting affair, a chance to see mysterious items hand-picked long ago as apposite examples of a bygone era. Unfortunately, these buried tubes of old garbage rarely live up to the hype.

"Ninety-nine percent of time capsules will remain boring as hell to the people that open them," says Matt Novak, who runs Gizmodo's Paleofuture site. Novak is a self-professed time capsule nerd who has seen enough capsule disappointments to keep his hopes in check. "Time capsules are both optimistic and selfish," he tells Mental Floss. "Optimistic in the sense that they represent a belief that not only will anyone find them sometime in the future, but also that anyone will care about what's inside."

Time capsules as we know them are a relatively new invention that became famous in 1939 with the burial of the Westinghouse Time Capsule at the World's Fair. This highly publicized capsule, which is not scheduled to be opened until the year 6939, contains both quotidian items and extensive writings on human history printed on microfilm (along with instructions on how to build a microfilm viewer). It was an ambitious project, with engineers specially designing the capsule to resist the ravages of time. Most time capsules, however, aren't equipped to be buried underground.

"Burying something is literally the worst way to preserve it for future generations," Novak says, "but we continue to do it." Contents are routinely destroyed by groundwater, so most time capsules reveal little more than trash chowder.

Still, Novak holds out hope for "rare one percenters—those time capsules that not only have something interesting inside, but also survived their journey into the future without turning into mush." The following 10 time capsules, however, fall firmly in the remaining 99 percent.

1. Derry, New Hampshire comes up empty

Just this week, residents of Derry, New Hampshire gathered at the local library to witness what they hoped might be an important moment in the town's history: the opening of a 1969 time capsule, which they believed might include some memorabilia from famed astronaut Alan Shepard, who was a Derry native. Instead, they found ... nothing. Absolutely nothing.

"We were a little horrified to find there was nothing in it," library director Cara Potter told the media. While there's no written record of exactly what was inside the safe, we do know that the time capsule had been moved a couple of times over the past several decades. And that the combination was written right on the back. "I really can’t understand why anyone would want to take the capsule and do anything with it,” Reed Clark, a 90-year-old local, told the New Hampshire Union Leader. But local historian Paul Lindemann says that, "There very well may have been valuable items in there" (including something of Shepard's).

2. The past comes alive in Tucson

In 1961, Tucson, Arizona's Campbell Plaza shopping center—the first air-conditioned strip mall in the country—celebrated its grand opening. To make the event truly memorable, developers buried a time capsule beneath the mall, forbidding anyone from opening it for the achingly long time period of 25 years.

When 1986 finally rolled around, another celebration was held for the capsule's unearthing. Three television crews captured the moment when workers, accompanied by a former Tucson mayor, excavated the capsule and cracked it open. Archaeologist William L. Rathje was on hand, and he later reported its contents as "a faded local newspaper (in worse condition than many I’ve witnessed being excavated from the bowels of landfills) and some business cards."

3. Bay City makes peace with its waterlogged history

In 1965, workers at Dafoe Shipbuilding Co. in Bay City, Michigan buried the “John F. Kennedy Peace Capsule.” It was to remain buried for 100 years—until city council members got antsy in 2015 and ordered for it to be unearthed five decades sooner than originally intended.

When crews unsealed the giant capsule, they found it was totally drenched: The shipbuilders responsible for sealing the capsule couldn't prevent it from taking on water. Many of the items were paper ephemera that didn't survive their 50-year submersion.

Non-paper items that could be identified included, according to MLive.com, “an old pair of lace-up women's boots, large ice tongs for carrying blocks of ice, a slide rule with a pencil sharpener, a pestle and wooden bowl, a centennial ribbon, a coffee grinder, a filament light bulb, an old non-electric iron and lots of Bay City Centennial plates, a 1965 Alden's Summer Catalogue, papers from Kawkawlin Community Church, and booklets from the labor council.”

4. Westport Elementary's too-successful capsule

In 1947, the superintendent of Westport Elementary School in Missouri buried a time capsule that wasn't to be opened for another 50 years. He left a note detailing this fact, but he forgot to include any information about the capsule's location. When it came time to retrieve it, no one knew where to start digging. ''We're calling it a history mystery,'' said a teacher who was tasked with finding it. She had little to go on, as the school's original blueprints—like the capsule itself—were lost.

5. The smell of history on Long Island

For its 350th anniversary in 2015, the residents of Smithtown in Long Island, New York opened a time capsule that had been buried in front of town hall in 1965. An unveiling celebration was held, and a crowd of more than 175 gathered to watch town officials dressed in colonial costumes dramatically reveal its contents.

These included, according to Newsday, "a proclamation of beard-growing group Brothers of the Brush, papers, and paraphernalia from the town's 300th anniversary events, a phone book, an edition of The Smithtown News, pennies from the 1950s and '60s, a man's black hat, and a white bonnet.”

Town residents and officials alike came away unimpressed. "I would have thought those folks would have used a little more imagination and put some artifacts from that time in the time capsule," Smithtown's then-supervisor Patrick Vecchio said.

Kiernan Lannon, the executive director of the town's Historical Society, told Newsday, "The most interesting thing that came out of the time capsule was the smell. It was horrible. I have smelled history before; history does not smell like that. It was the most powerfully musty smell that I've ever smelled in my life."

6. A time capsule worse than going to class

In 2014, New York Mills Union Free School District students filed into an assembly hall to watch the opening of a 57-year-old time capsule. The capsule, buried under the school’s cornerstone, was revealed to contain "a 1957 penny, class lists, teacher handbook, budget pamphlet, and letterhead." In a video of the unearthing, you could hear stray boos from disappointed students who expected much more than letterhead.

7. Norway's anachronistic treasure trove

The residents of Otta, Norway had been eagerly awaiting the day when they'd get to open a package that had been sealed in 1912 and given to the town's first mayor in 1920, along with a note: "May be opened in 2012." Townspeople hoped it contained oil futures, while historians optimistically predicted relics from a 400-year-old battle.

The parcel was opened at the end of a lavish ceremony that featured musical performances and speeches. The crowd, which included Princess Astrid of Norway, had to wait 90 suspenseful minutes (in addition to the 100 years since 1912) before they got down to business.

The Gudbrandsdal museum's Kjell Voldheim had the honor of opening the package. Inside he found ... another package. Inside that package were miscellaneous papers, and Voldheim narrated for the crowd as he pored through the items. “Oye yoy yoy," he said ("almost in exasperation," according to Smithsonian), as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Included among the lackluster documents were newspapers dated from 1914 and 1919, a few years after the package had presumably been sealed. While deemed authentic, the find was nonetheless confusing.

8. New Zealand's rare find

In 1995, a 100-year-old capsule thought to contain historical documents was opened by hopeful scholars in New Zealand. According to The New York Times, "all they found was muddy water and a button.”

9. Michigan's capitol mess

The Michigan State Capitol celebrated its 100th birthday in 1979, and officials marked the occasion by opening a capsule that had been buried beneath the building's cornerstone. While the itemized list of the capsule's contents was intriguing—"1873 newspapers, a state history, a history of Free Masonry, a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a silver plate inscribed with Lansing officials’ names, and other papers on specialized topics"—it wasn't included in the actual box. The actual items that were buried wound up being destroyed.

“They’re in very bad shape,” Robert Warner, the late director of the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library, said. Water damage had ruined the fragile paper documents, and Capitol anniversary revelers had to gamely celebrate a box full of sludge.

10. Keith Urban's time capsule confusion

Australia's Pioneer Village Country Music Hall had been left in disrepair, which is what made the discovery of a plaque on its grounds in 2014 so exciting. Perhaps there was promise buried beneath the abandoned venue. Hidden behind overgrown vegetation, it read:

Pioneer Village Country Music Club
10 yr Time Capsule
Placed by Mayor Yvonne Chapman
This Day 4th July 1994
To be Re-opened 4th July 2004

As recounted by Paleofuture, the capsule's opening was a decade overdue, though fans who used to frequent the music hall said they already knew what was inside: a photo of a young Keith Urban. The musician got his start at Pioneer Village, and the photo was buried to celebrate the local star.

Oddly, a different capsule from 1994 was discovered on the music hall's abandoned grounds in 2013. Keith Urban fans eagerly opened it, thinking they had found the photo, but were left disappointed when it proved to be empty. So, by process of elimination, a photo of Keith Urban had to be in the more recently discovered capsule. Unless there's a third capsule, in which case they should probably just give up and buy a Keith Urban photo on eBay.

This story has been updated for 2019.

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

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