On October 16, 1858, Katherine Foote Marsh (then Katherine Foote) attended the seventh and final senatorial debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Katherine was only 21 at the time but knew that this was a pivotal moment in history. She saved the dress she wore to the debate and passed it on to her son Charles. He wrote a note describing the dress’s importance and attached it to the collar before passing it on to his daughter, Ruth, when he died in 1985 at the age of 102. It is now in the possession of Ruth’s daughter, Mary Jane Chapman.
Mary Jane grew up hearing the story of this dress but wanted to find proof that her great-grandmother truly wore it at the Lincoln-Douglas debate. She called Hayner Genealogy & Local History Library and made an appointment to come in and get help with research. The staff gathered a stack of relevant books for Mary Jane. She opened the book on the top of the stack and there, on page 36 of Alton: A Pictorial History, by Charlotte Stetson, was a picture of the dress. Even in black and white, the dress’s pattern is distinctive enough that Mary Jane recognized it instantly. Mary Jane later realized that she actually already owned Stetson’s book, so the evidence was on a bookshelf at her house, and she didn’t even know it.
The picture in Stetson’s book is a photo of the painting Last of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates by George I. Parrish. It was presented to the City of Alton by Illinois Bell Telephone Co. on May 13, 1970, and is still on display at Alton City Hall. The shawl and bonnet depicted in the painting no longer exist (or may have been artistic embellishments), but the dress itself is in surprisingly good condition. The colors may have faded slightly, but the pinks, greens, and other bright hues still shine.
The painting is part of a series of twelve commissioned by Illinois Bell for the Illinois sesquicentennial celebration. The series, titled A History of Illinois in Paintings, was displayed at various public and academic libraries and other venues across the state.
The dress complements our current Lincoln exhibit and will be on display in the Genealogy & Local History Library through mid-February.