The unusual artifact also contains tresses from First Lady Mary Lincoln, members of the president’s cabinet and senators
The “Hairy Eagle,” as it was dubbed more than 150 years ago, stuns all who see it, probably because the wreath is made entirely from human hair. And not just any hair. It was woven with tresses provided by President Abraham Lincoln, his vice president and cabinet members, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and numerous United States senators, as well as First Lady Mary Lincoln and three cabinet members’ wives—37 people in all. Measuring roughly a foot in diameter, the eagle-adorned artwork is accompanied by an index showing exactly whose hair was used for each section of the sculpture.
“This piece is just astounding,” says Robert Searing, a curator at the Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) in Syracuse, New York, which houses the relic. “The first time I saw it, my jaw hit the floor; I couldn’t believe it. First of all, the fact that it is human hair, and that it is so incredibly well-crafted. And then obviously, as a historian, as somebody who has a deep affection for Abraham Lincoln … words escape me. … There’s not another item like this anywhere as far as we know. And the provenance is indisputable.”
Commissioned as a fundraising tool for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a quasi-governmental agency run by volunteers seeking to ensure the health and safety of Union soldiers, the wreath was displayed prominently at the Metropolitan Fair, a charity event held in New York City in April 1864. Guests paid $1 for the opportunity to sign their names in a book accompanying the artifact. The goal was to raise $1,000. At the close of the fair, the wreath was to be presented to the Lincolns as a keepsake.