Dave Wiegers, a retired water meter salesman and amateur photographer from Illinois, has documented about 350 busts and statues of Abraham Lincoln, on his way to writing a book on the subject.
So Wiegers was intrigued when he was noodling around on the internet recently and came across a copy of a speech given at the dedication of a bust of Lincoln in Raleigh in August 1865. He says he knows of only a handful of Lincoln statues in states of the old Confederacy, and this wasn’t one of them.
“I haven’t wasted a lot of time looking for Lincoln in the Old South, to be honest with you,” he said.
But rather than lead Wiegers to a new statue for his book, his online discovery has only rekindled interest in a 20-year-old mystery about the disappearance of the Raleigh bust.
For about 130 years, it was a fixture in the St. Paul A.M.E. Church in downtown Raleigh, where the speech Wiegers found was delivered to a crowd of African-Americans, most of whom had only recently been emancipated by the Civil War.
But during a series of break-ins at the church in the mid-1990s, the bust went missing, says the Rev. Gregory Edmond, pastor.
“All we know is that when we weren’t looking closely, it took flight,” he said. “Somebody walked off with it.”
Now Wiegers, 66, and members of the Wake County Historical Society, who are helping the church restore its century-old stained-glass windows, are hoping someone out there will recognize the bust and help return it to its rightful place at St. Paul A.M.E.
Wiegers suspects the bust is still in the Triangle somewhere. If thieves tried to sell it, he thinks it would have been to a pawn shop, since a reputable antiques dealers would ask questions about its origin and history.
“If it went to an antiques dealer and that dealer is still around, they will recognize it,” he said. “A beautiful marble or plaster bust of Lincoln doesn’t just drop in your lap from heaven. It would be memorable.”
Joining Wiegers in the search for the statue is Belle Long, a board member for the Wake County Historical Society. Hoping to learn more about the speech he’d found online, Wiegers emailed a copy to the society, where it reached Long.
She began searching old newspaper clips and found a single paragraph about the dedication ceremony in the Raleigh Daily Progress on Aug. 3, 1865, saying a bust of Lincoln would be placed in the “African Church this evening, with appropriate dedication ceremonies.”
It continued: “Whether the colored folks have purchased this memento and intend it to remain in their edifice, we do not know, but of course they will turn out en masse to inaugurate the event.”
Long knew that there was only one African-American church in Raleigh at that time, St. Paul A.M.E., so she called. Flo Avery, the church’s administrator, said yes, St. Paul A.M.E. has a bust of Lincoln.
But that bust, it turns out, was given to the church by a member of former Gov. Beverly Perdue’s administration during her time in office a few years ago. It’s a resin copy of a clean-shaven bust of Lincoln made in 1860 by well-known sculptor Leonard Volk, which can be found in gift shops and online.
The Raleigh newspaper clipping and later accounts of the dedication in newspapers in New York and Cincinnati refer to the bust as a “copy of Jones’,” a reference to Thomas D. Jones, another well-known sculptor of the day.
Edmond said it was made of white stone. Historical accounts of a convention of freed slaves held in the church two months later refer to a plaster bust of Lincoln up behind the pulpit, along with an inscription from his second inaugural address that begins, “With malice toward none, with charity for all …” (Wiegers says he’s never heard of a plaster copy of the Jones bust and suspects it was marble.)
Whether marble or plaster, it was heavy, Edmond said. By the time he became pastor in 1985, it had been moved to a pedestal in the church basement, outside the doors to the kitchen, a well-traveled path.
Edmond said the theft was reported to police, along with the loss of brass items and vestments from other break-ins. The crimes were apparently never solved.
“We never heard back from anyone,” Edmond said.
‘Someone has seen it’
There are other mysteries surrounding the Lincoln bust at St. Paul A.M.E. It’s not clear, for example, who raised the money to acquire the sculpture and arranged to present it to the church only a few months after Lincoln’s assassination.
“You could speculate on who bought it, but the fact that it ended up in Raleigh, North Carolina, that quickly after the war, is pretty unusual,” said Wiegers, who worked for Raleigh-based Sensus before he retired.
The speech dedicating the sculpture was titled “The Martyr President,” and it was delivered by Elias Smith, a war correspondent for the New York Tribune. Unlike Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, Smith’s oration goes on for many pages, with entire hymns and poems mixed in, and a big moment in the middle when the statue was unveiled.
“With solemn and grateful psalms of thanksgiving and praise, we accept from the hand of Jehovah the boon of precious freedom, consecrating in our heart of hearts the memory of the great, the good, the honest statesman, the pure and christian patriot, by whose right hand the great charter of Liberty was signed,” Smith said. “Freemen, arise, and look upon the early form of Abraham Lincoln, your martyred President.”
St. Paul A.M.E. doesn’t have any photos of the missing bust or paperwork about its origins. But Edmond says it looks like a Jones bust that appears in a photo provided by Wiegers. There are two of those, at the state house in Columbus, Ohio, and at Hildene, the Vermont home of Robert Todd Lincoln, Lincoln’s oldest son.
“I’d be willing to bet that it still exists in the Raleigh area,” Wiegers said. “Someone has seen it somewhere.”
Long said she is enlisting the support of the “history community” to get involved in the hunt. She has spoken to the State Capitol historian and the librarian at the Olivia Raney Local History Library and is putting the word out through listservs and social media.
“You never know who is going to have a lead,” she said.