Osborn Oldroyd and his Lincoln Museums

The Abraham Lincoln Home in Springfield, IL and the Petersen House in Washington, D.C. have shared similar histories.

Lincoln Petersen Home

  • Both homes witnessed the death of a Lincoln:

On February 1st, 1850, Eddie Lincoln, the second son of Abraham and Mary Todd, died at the age of 3 at the Lincoln Home in Springfield.

On April 15th, 1865 at 7:22 am, President Abraham Lincoln died at the age of 56 at the Petersen House in Washington, D.C.

  • Both homes had few owners:

The Lincoln Home was built in 1839 for the Reverend Charles Dresser.  The Lincolns bought it from him in 1844.  Robert Todd Lincoln inherited the property from his parents and he subsequently gave it to the government in 1887.  This gives the Lincoln home two owners, Rev. Dresser and the Lincoln family, before it was purchased by the government.

The Petersen House was commissioned by William and Anna Petersen in 1849 and built that same year.  When they died in 1871, the house was inherited by their children.  They sold the house to Louis Schade in 1878.  By 1896, Louis Schade sold the house to the government for $30,000.  This gives the Petersen House two owners, the Petersens and Louis Schade, before it was purchased by the government.

  • Both homes had considerable remodeling done when their namesakes lived there:

The Lincoln Home had about 5 renovations while the Lincolns lived there.  Most drastically was the alteration of the home from a 1 ½ story structure to a full 2 story home, as it still is today.

The room that would later be known as the room where Lincoln died, was not even part of the Petersen House when it was originally built.  That addition was put on in 1858.  Fire gutted it in 1863 and William Petersen rebuilt it that same year.

  • Both homes had renters:

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President and moved into the White House, he rented out his Springfield home.  When Robert Todd gained ownership of the place, he continued the practice of renting the house out until he gave it to the government.

The Petersens ran their home as a boarding house for many years.  From Congressmen to soldiers, to actors, they rented out rooms to  many needy Washingtonians.

  • Lastly, both homes shared a long-term occupant, Osborn Hamilton Ingham Oldroyd:

Osborn Oldroyd

Osborn Oldroyd was a Civil War veteran and a devoted collector of Lincoln memorabilia.  In 1883, 41 year-old Oldroyd succeeded in fulfilling the dream of any man who idols another.  Robert Todd Lincoln made Oldroyd the fifth renter of the Lincoln Home in Springfield since his father left the city to claim the Presidency.  Into this historic house, Oldroyd brought his vast collection of nearly 2,000 Lincoln items.  As had been commonplace since the death of Lincoln, many visitors came to call on the Lincoln Home, seeking to visit the home of the great martyr.  Oldroyd let them in like all of his predecessors had, but was the first to charge them admission.  He turned his collection and rented space in a Lincoln Museum.  Robert Todd accepted this exploitation as long as Oldroyd paid his rent, however, by 1885, Oldroyd was starting to fall behind his payments.  Despite not paying him, Robert Todd did not want to bring a lawsuit against Oldroyd as he feared it, “may easily cause me more personal annoyance than the loss of ten times the money.”  Rumors spread that Oldroyd was also cutting off parts of the curtains, wallpaper, and flooring, selling them as souvenirs.  Robert Todd was getting angry with his tenant whom he referred to as a “dead beat” and “rascal”, when an Illinois legislative committee approached him in 1887 to purchase the Lincoln Home.  A similar offer had been given to him in 1883, but at that time he had declined.  Even though, Robert Todd was fairly certain Oldroyd had been the catalyst for this offer, he decided to donate the property to the state of Illinois.  His donation contained two caveats, however.  “…Said homestead shall be, forever, kept in good repair and free of access to the public.”  This latter requirement was probably meant as a final jab towards his “rascal” of a tenant and his entrepreneurial exploits.  Regardless, Osborn Oldroyd was hired by the state of Illinois to be the first custodian of the house and gave him a salary of $1,000 per year.  Oldroyd undoubtedly used this salary to increase his collection at every turn.

Oldroyd’s tenure at the Lincoln Home came to an end in 1893 when he was fired by recently elected Gov. John Peter Altgeld.  Altgeld replaced him with a political friend named Herman Hofferkamp.  Out of a cushy job and a free place to live, Oldroyd was in trouble.  Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the Schade family had moved out of the Petersen House apparently fed up with the number of visitors constantly asking to see the death room of the President.  They leased the building to the Memorial Association of the District of Columbia, a group formed by Congress the year before.   When and how Oldroyd managed to convinced this group to make him custodian of the Petersen House is unknown.  According to a biography about Oldroyd written when he was alive, in 1893 Oldroyd moved his collection to the Petersen House, “at the request” of the association.  The earliest account the NPS has managed to find of Oldroyd residing at the Petersen House is June of 1898.  This was after the government purchased the house outright from the Schades in 1896.  So, whether Oldroyd went straight from the Lincoln Home to the Petersen House, or whether he had five years in between, he ultimately found a new location to show off his collection.

While he lived rent free at the Petersen House, Oldroyd did not receive a salary there.  Instead, he got back to his roots and was allowed to charge admission to his museum.  He made the whole first floor of the house his exhibit floor and he and his family lived upstairs.  The first floor of the Petersen House contained considerably less real estate than what he had previously used to showcase his collection at the Lincoln Home.  He covered practically every surface of the Peterson House with material to make up for it.  Oldroyd also had a lot of changes made to the building while he lived there.  Most noticeably, he had the back wall of the room where Lincoln died, removed.

The following are some pictures of the interior of the Petersen House when it housed Osborn Oldroyd’s Lincoln Museum:

Petersen Museum 1922

This picture was taken from within the front parlor of the Petersen House facing towards the rear parlor.  The door to the right leads into the hallway with the room where Lincoln died at one end and the entrance to the Petersen House at the other.

Oldroyd Museum 1

This photo was taken from within the rear parlor of the Petersen House in the direction of the front parlor.  This photo shows only the front parlor.

Oldroyd Museum 2

This photo was taken from the entrance of the room where Lincoln died. The bed Lincoln died in would have been located in the bottom right hand corner of this photo.

The white X marks the spot where the bed Lincoln died in was.

This photo was taken from the rear of the room where Lincoln died in the direction of hallway and Petersen House entrance. The X marks the location of Lincoln’s deathbed.

Oldroyd in his museum

During his tenure at the Petersen House, Oldroyd continued to collect and correspond with many individuals associated with Lincoln’s life and death.  In 1901, after walking the escape route of Lincoln’s assassin on foot with a camera, he published his book, “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln”.  This volume contains many of the earliest photographs we have of different parts of the escape route.

Oldroyd walking the route

By 1926, after about 30 years curating his collection at Petersen House, Oldroyd sought the help of Congressman Henry Rathbone of Illinois, to insure its preservation.  The son of Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the ill fated pair who joined Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre that night, managed to pass a bill in Congress authorizing the purchasing of Oldroyd’s collection.  Experts at the Smithsonian noted that the collection “was of little practical value”.  Despite this, Oldroyd was paid $50,000.  Oldroyd later stated that he had been offered far greater amounts for the collection by private individuals but that he wanted the collection to be in the hands of the government so that it would be preserved and enjoyed by the public for years to come.  When offered continued curatorship over the collection Oldroyd replied, “the responsibility would be too much for me to assume at my age of eighty-four years.”  Oldroyd was then given the key to the Petersen House and told that he was free to come and go as he pleased and that his accustom chair would always be there for him.

Osborn Hamilton Ingham Oldroyd died four years later in 1930.  He  is buried next to his wife of over 54 years, Lida, at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Oldroyd's grave

He may have been a “rascal” as Robert Todd Lincoln called him, but Osborn Oldroyd was also the epitome of a collector.  He devoted his whole life to acquiring everything relating to Abraham Lincoln.  For nearly half of his life, Osborn Oldroyd made his home in houses relating to the 16th President.  To the collection and study of Lincoln, Osborn Oldroyd’s name is unavoidable, particularly in the study of his assassination.  I find it entirely appropriate then, that in this picture of Rep. Henry Rathbone in front of the Petersen House Lincoln Museum, the presence of Osborn Oldroyd in his favored setting is enshrined forever:

Rathbone in front of Oldroyd's Petersen

Oldroyd in the window

House Where Lincoln Died Historic Structures Report by the National Parks Service
Life of Osborn H. Oldroyd by William Burton Benham
Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert Todd Lincoln by Jason Emerson
Lincoln Home National Historic Site
The Lincoln Assassination: Where Are They Now? by Jim Garrett and Rich Smyth

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14 thoughts on “Osborn Oldroyd and his Lincoln Museums

  1. Laurie Verge

    The August issue of the Surratt Courier has an excellent and well-researched article on Osborn Oldroyd, the man, written by Bob Allen, a longtime narrator on the Surratt Society bus tours over the Booth escape route. There will be a follow-up article on Oldroyd in the October issue – written by former NPS Ranger at Ford’s Theatre and Lincoln assassination expert, Frank Hebblethwaite.

  2. Excellent article, Dave – as always. Although Osborn seemed to have been a money-hungry, glory seeking scoundrel, I still have fond memories of reading his book “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln” for the first time – still love that book….

  3. Rich smyth

    He found a way to make a living doing what he loved. Thanks Dave!

  4. Gene C

    That last photo is incredible, and a little bit haunting too.

  5. Richard Sloan

    Your first photo is of the rear parlor. The second one is of the front parlor. As you can see through the rear door of the deathbed room, there was also another room behind it in which Oldroyd stored various pieces of Lincoln related furniture, and no doubt overflow paintings. He charged a modest admission, and I own one of those tickets of admission, which I copied for all those who attended the Surratt Soc. conference about four years ago.
    I’d like to ask you if you think there’s credence to the story that Booth lay down on the very bed in which Lincoln died a few mos. earlier, while visiting John Mathews, who was said to have rented that room for a period. Personally, I believe it.

  6. jack baumun

    Excellent article . I have an oringinal copy of ” Assassination of Abraham Lincoln” ‘ enscribed ” bought in the house in which Lincoln died , in Dec. 1918, from the author of the book”. Writing style typical of the period , you have to plow through it . A lot of information though . Sorry to read of his character flaws !

  7. Jim Garrett

    Great job Dave. Is the picture of the headstone from our sojourn? I like the final picture with Oldroyd peering through. We all owe a great debt of gratitude to Capt. Oldroyd. Thank you Dave, and thank you Bob Allen.

    • Yes, Jim. The picture of Oldroyd’s headstone is from our trip around town. Oldroyd may have been imperfect (aren’t we all) but we owe him a lot or his research and collection.

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  11. Richard Sloan

    Upon closer examination and thought, Dave, I am of the opinion that the first picture of the interior of the Oldryd Lincolon Museum is not that of the rear parlor of the Petersen House. I think it’s a room in the Lincoln Home n Springfield, when Oldroyd had his museum in it. What do you think? I don’t think there are, or ever were, short walls on either side, separating the front from the rear parlor. Also, you’ll note that some relics are in both photos. That means that either I’m right, or Oldroyd moved them from one parlor to the other, which I dont think was his style. Once they found a home in one place, they stayed there, because each area had its own theme. I think that the first picture is in an old issue of Lincoln Herald, in which it is identified as the Springfield location. .

    • Richard,

      I’ve added captions to the pictures to identify which room is which. All of these pictures are of the Petersen House and it appears that Oldroyd did move his artifacts around quite a bit. Look at the two pictures of the room in which Lincoln died and you can tell the large eagle sculpture has changed which side of the room it is on between when these two pictures were taken.



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