Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the December 1996 issue of BLADE. Read more from BLADE‘s archives with this collection.
Abraham Lincoln’s Knife
George Morris is an antique collector in Monmouth, Illinois. His home is filled with treasures from ages past, but one of his most precious artifacts is seldom seen within the walls of his historic home. The little knife with which he is so careful is said to have once belonged to Abraham Lincoln.
Morris acquired the knife about four years ago. His benefactor stipulated that he not tell exactly where he got it and that he not put it on public display. He has twice gotten permission from the benefactor to display the knife and had to ask again before telling the tale.
Origin’s of Lincoln’s Knife
Lincoln, after a stop in Monmouth, Illinois, during his senatorial campaign against Stephen Douglas, visited his longtime friend Sumner Phelps in Oquawka. It was there that the benefactor’s grandfather, Bill Boden, is said to have witnessed the passing of the knife to Phelps. Boden’s daughter-in-law, Agnes Boden, later recalled the story her father-in-law had told her in an essay titled, A Little Town Where Old Friends Met:
“There was a striking resemblance between the two men (Lincoln and Phelps). They could easily have passed as brothers. Many had noticed and spoke of it when they sat together in the Phelps carriage. Lincoln must have noted it too for he played a cute joke on his friend day,” Bill Boden said.
“After telling how he had won a knife, to the merriment of all present, especially S.S. (Sumner) Phelps, who was boisterously laughing, Lincoln, with a twinkle in his eye, took the knife out of pocket and said, “Sumner, this knife was given to me to keep until I found a homelier man than myself, so I present it to you.”
The knife was passed down through the Phelps family and eventually was given to Frank Boden, Bill Boden’s son and the husband of Agnes Boden. In 1941, Will Phelps, the grandson of Sumner, signed an affidavit in Rock Island County, Illinois, attesting to the authenticity of the knife Morris now has.
“It’s Not Insurable”
Though he casually slips the knife in and out of his pocket when showing is to visitors, Morris regularly keeps the knife and affidavit secured in a safety deposit box in a bank. He takes such precautions because the knife is a one-of-a-kind.
“It’s not insurable,” he said. “There’s no way you can appraise it. It’s worth whatever somebody will give you. Something like that can’t be replaced.”
Morris said he plans to keep the knife as long as he lives. What will become of it then, he hasn’t decided.
“The state has heard about it and they say they’re not interested,” he said. however, for some strange reason, state officials keep calling him about it, he added.
Morris said he wouldn’t consider giving it to the state unless it were accepted as 100-percent authentic.
And there’s the rub.
Kim Bauer, historical research specialist for the Henry Homer Lincoln Collection at the Illinois Historical Library, said more concrete evidence is needed to verify the story.
The joke of giving a knife to someone with instructions to pass it on to a homelier person was a common one in the mid-1800s, and Lincoln’s humble appearance may have won him many a jackknife.
“I’d like to believe (Boden’s story),” Bauer said. “It’d be great if you could (verify it), but too much time has passed.”