Wet with Blood: The Investigation of Mary Todd Lincoln’s Cloak
Created and maintained by the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University.
Reviewed June 25–27, 2001.
Wet with Blood is part forensic drama, part history, part exhibit. The site capitalizes on the fascination with DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) testing and forensic science and might be aimed at K-12 students more interested in the next episode of Law and Order than in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Students will quickly discover some fascinating material in Wet with Blood, but the site seems aimed as much at the professional curatorial community as at students.
Wet with Blood takes visitors on a virtual tour of the Chicago Historical Society’s artifacts related to the assassination of President Lincoln and the promotion after the Civil War through museums and exhibits of these relics, especially the cloak worn by Mary Todd Lincoln on the night of Lincoln’s assassination.
This site adopts the old media metaphor of a book, and visitors page through the site. The designers have used attractive layouts and strong graphics, making the site pleasant and eye-catching to work through. The site has all of the excellent marks of professional design for the Web, using the screen effectively and arranging the navigation bars carefully. The site includes a useful and beautifully arranged and produced set of period songs, sung by the Chicago Institute of Music Chorale, attractive for Web-savvy students and useful for educators looking for period music to enhance their lessons.
Wet with Blood has some limitations. The site rarely presents an original document, instead preferring to transcribe excerpts and refer to documents in the Chicago Historical Society’s collection. Occasional links from the narrative to bibliographic references are scattered and irregular. Viewers will want to see some of the documents, letters, and artifacts for themselves and weigh the evidence. The “laboratory” in the site is unfortunately a narrative, not an archive of the documentary, scientific, and physical evidence.
The most problematic part of the site to review is the narrative. “Illuminated by the lamps of powerful microscopes, the fascination of the assassination relics remains undiminished,” we are told in a misplaced modifier. Bland, throwaway sentences abound, but these are not as difficult to wade through as the statements in the epilogue that sentimentally link these events to baby boomer touchstones of the 1960s such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War. The narrators tell us that photographs from the Civil War had the same effect as television did in the Vietnam conflict, but most Americans never saw a battlefield photograph during the Civil War. Historians are very interested in how popular will in both the North and the South during the Civil War fluctuated and had political ramifications, but gross generalizations detract rather than enhance this presentation.
The microscope, rather than the book, might serve as a better metaphor for this site. What visitors need is the ability to ratchet the microscope up from the cell level to view all of the evidence.
William G. Thomas III
University of Virginia