Lincoln’s boots tell their tale
By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent
When President Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, bootmaker Michael Anthony Carnacchi was moved to write him. Sebastopol’s own Apple Cobbler offered to make him a pair of boots like President Abraham Lincoln wore.
The president didn’t take him up on the offer, but somehow the National Park Service at the Ford Theater got wind of Carnacchi’s rare skills and contacted him, inviting him to come and examine Lincoln’s boots.
Carnacchi, who learned his craft in Texas and made many Western boots, has his own pair of ante-bellum boots and is familiar footwear styles from before the Civil War.
“They are very different. They are much lighter, but very well made,” he said. “Men wore them for everything from going to work to dancing or going to funerals. When a man had his boots made, they were an investment intended to last all his life.
“Look at these. They are 165 years old, and in still in good shape,” he said.
Carnacchi flew East and got to evaluate the Lincoln boots thoroughly. It was the first time a professional bootmaker had done so.
He pulled on white gloves and measured them thoroughly, inside and out every possible way, determining they were about size 12½, not the size 14 catalogers had thought. He used lights and mirrors to check out the interior. He made ink impressions of the bottoms of the boots.
“I felt the impression every bone in Lincoln’s feet had made, where and how he had worn them. I felt a real connection to him.”
Read the Washington Post story about his visit by clicking here.
Carnacchi searched through old photographs of Lincoln, looking at the boots. He says they have a distinctive crease he can spot in photos. He read journals of Lincoln’s contemporaries for any mention of footwear. He tracked the history of Lincoln’s boots.
“Four days after his 50th birthday, Lincoln was in New York and just down the street from the finest bootmaker in America, named Conrad Loch. He went in to order boots and put $10 down. A good pair of boots then cost $12.50. The ones Lincoln ordered on Feb. 16, 1859, were top of the line and cost $19.50,” Carnacchi said.
“It took 10 months to make them because Loch’s shop was very busy. Lincoln owned no shoes, only boots. That was true of lots of men then.”
Lincoln also had a suit made that year that became his favorite. He wore it and the boots during his campaign for the presidency and at his inaugurations. Since Carnacchi saw them, the suit and boots have been put on public display.
Lincoln was wearing the boots the night John Wilkes Booth shot him. He was carried to a boarding house across the street so a doctor could tend him. The boots ended up under the bed. William T. Clark, the boarder who had rented the room, found them after Lincoln’s body was removed.
He pawned them, using them as collateral for a loan to go West to the gold fields. He never reclaimed them, and they ended up in the hands of a school teacher who brought them to her classroom every year on Lincoln’s birthday for the kids to see, try on and play with. They were finally obtained by the Park Service.
Carnacchi made a second trip to Washington, D.C., and this time the Park Service wanted him to evaluate John Wilkes Booth’s boots as well as Lincoln’s.
The doctor who treated Booth removed them. Because they had Booth’s name in them, they were taken as evidence after he was apprehended.
“Booth was literally down at his heels when he killed Lincoln,” Carnacci said. “He couldn’t afford to have his heels replaced.”
Carnacchi also was asked to examine something that had curators puzzled.
After Lincoln was elected, bootmaker Peter Kahler persuaded the president to let him make another pair of boots. He took the many painstaking measurements and made an ink impression of Lincoln’s foot.
Lincoln was buried in Kahler’s boots. Until Carnacchi could explain exactly what the numbers meant, no one in the Park Service understood Kahler’s measurements.
They made a copy of the Kahler papers for him. He will use them to make a pair of boots like Loch’s and donate them to the Capitol to be labeled, “These are the shoes to fill.”
Carnacchi is writing a book about both men’s boots, his evaluation of them and what he has discovered in his research.
“I am also writing a play about that fateful night,” he said. “Mary and Abe will talk about his boots as he dresses for the theater. Wilkes will complain about his being out of repair.
“The folks at the Ford Theater are excited about it.”
That’s not the only way Carnacchi has been inspired by Lincoln’s boots.
“I am going to make a limited numbered edition of Lincoln boots,” he said. “Western boots take me 50 to 70 hours to make. These boots will probably take over 100 hours a pair, but I am not sure just how long they will take.”
The originals were made of Russian calf that is no longer available, but Carnacchi has discovered other leather very similar. He has already arranged with a craftsman to have it embossed with the same design used on the Lincoln boots.
And just how are boots made?
“The last comes first,” quipped Carnacchi. He shapes a wood or plastic last to the exact measurements of the foot. The insole is shaped to the last. He makes the uppers and sews the insole, welt and upper together.
Ante-bellum boots had no toe boxes inserted like modern Western boots do. The outer soles are also lighter.
Anyone who wants one of the numbered editions of Lincoln boots should get in line now. Maybe now that he has been re-elected, President Obama will take Carnacchi up on his offer, and buyers will have to wait as long as Lincoln did for his boots.