Why President Theodore Roosevelt Wore A Lock Of Lincoln's Hair Around His Finger

U.S. Secretary of State John Hay sat down at his desk on March 3, 1905, and penned a letter. The next day, Teddy Roosevelt would become U.S. president after a landslide victory at the polls. He'd been the nation's leader since September 1901 when an assassin shot and killed William McKinley in Buffalo, New York. This inauguration signified Roosevelt's position as commander-in-chief not by happenstance but by his country's overwhelming choice.

On Hay's desk sat a special gold ring he planned to give Roosevelt. The ring had ties to Hay's former boss, Abraham Lincoln, who Hays had been with at his death in 1865. "Please wear it tomorrow; you are one of the men who most thoroughly understand and appreciate [sic.] Lincoln," Hay wrote to Roosevelt, according to "All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt." Hay had the ring sent to Roosevelt that day, and the president was absolutely delighted with the gift.

Who was John Hay? 

President Teddy Roosevelt immediately sent a letter to John Hay. "Surely no other President, on the eve of his inauguration, has ever received such a gift from such a friend," Roosevelt wrote, per "All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt." "I am wearing the ring now; I shall think of it and you as I take the oath tomorrow." Hay had both Abraham Lincoln's and Roosevelt's monograms engraved on the ring, along with a quote in Latin from the ancient Roman poet Horace. Inside the ring, under glass, were several strands of Lincoln's hair cut from his head just after he died. Hay had paid $100 for six of the strands, the equivalent of several thousand dollars today. During the Victorian era, taking hair from the dead as a memento was commonplace.

Hay, born in 1838 in Indiana, met Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, where he studied law. He would serve as President Lincoln's private secretary up to the time of Lincoln's assassination in 1865 and was by his side when he died. Hay would later serve various presidents in various roles, including McKinley and Roosevelt as secretary of state, until his death in July 1905.

Lincoln's hair ended up in other places too 

This wasn't the first ring with presidential hair in it John Hay had given out to a U.S. president. Hay had given a similar gold ring containing hairs from George Washington's head to Teddy Roosevelt's predecessor, William McKinley. Hay also gave a Washington hair ring to President Rutherford B. Hayes, who served as the nation's leader from 1877 to 1881. Lincoln's hair also ended up elsewhere.

You'll find Lincoln's hair in several museums, including the Chicago History Museum and the Gettysburg National Military Park. Ripley's Entertainment Inc., the folks of Ripley's Believe It or Not fame, also own a thick chuck of Lincoln's hair they paid $81,000 for in 2020. Most of Lincoln's hair that's still around was cut from his head after he'd died. But perhaps the most unusual use of his hair — along with that of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, members of his cabinet, and U.S. legislators of the time — came about when he and the others were all still alive. An artist wove pieces of their hair into an eagle design dubbed the Hairy Eagle. This unusual artifact is owned by the Onondaga Historical Association in Syracuse, New York.