Strange and Slightly Spooky: Unique Findings at Illinois College

Samantha Sauer
Illinois College Archivist, Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives
Curator, Paul Findley Congressional Office Museum
Assistant Professor of History
samantha.sauer@ic.edu

Jenny Barker Devine
Associate Professor of History
Illinois College
jenny.barker-devine@ic.edu

I am a lone arranger at Illinois College. I manage and coordinate our archive and museum, and I also teach courses in public history, offered in the Department of History, Philosophy, Political Science, and Religion.

Founded in 1829, Illinois College is the oldest degree-granting institution in the state and is located in Jacksonville, Illinois. In 2014 the College received a $200,000 Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), resulting in its first archive – a state of the art facility, the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives at Illinois College. As a three-year old young archive for a 188-year old institution, there is much to do. The campus also is home to the Paul Findley Congressional Office Museum, one of the few museums of its kind in the nation. There are daily “found in the collections” moments, each revealing information and often prompting questions. I share with our students that each artifact and every document has a story. Here are two stories.

A Piece of “Hair-itage”

It is Friday, April 17, 2009. There is no modern archive – or an archivist – at Illinois College. Searching through stacks of papers, oversized leather-bond texts, and collapsing boxes, an unopened envelope postmarked 1983 is spotted on a shelf in the library. Dr. Jenny Barker-Devine, associate professor of history, and the campus reference librarian at the time, Mike Westbrook, opened the 26-year old envelope. Inside the sealed package was a picture of Mount Vernon, embroidered in 1815 with human hair.

Hair Piece (pre conservation)
1815 embroidery of Mt. Vernon by Frances “Fanny” Macklin Ellis Wilkinson, using human hair, pre-conservation. Photo of Jenny Barker Devine, Associate Professor of History, Illinois College.

After a little detective work, the ad hoc archivists discovered the piece was embroidered by a young Frances “Fanny” Macklin Ellis Wilkinson, aged fourteen or fifteen, living in Virginia. Born in 1801, Fanny would be married a couple years after completing this piece in 1818, before dying almost two years later at the age of 19, shortly after the death of her son, Ira Wilkinson. Young Ira and his father then left Virginia, first to the frontier of Kentucky and then further out west to Jacksonville, Illinois in 1830, when the town was just five years old. Ira went on to become a prominent citizen of Jacksonville and a law partner with the future Civil War governor of Illinois, Richard Yates (a 1835 graduate of Illinois College).

The skills and artwork shown in this picture grant some insight to the life of a young middle-class woman at the start of the nineteenth century. The embroidered image of Mount Vernon is significant, showing that just fifteen years after George Washington’s death, his home was already considered a landmark. Today, the piece has seen been conserved and enjoys a nice climate controlled storage space in the new archive. To learn more about this piece and its history, explore Dr. Barker-Devine’s reflection of its discovery on her blog in a post from 2012.

post conservation
1815 embroidery of Mt. Vernon by Frances “Fanny” Macklin Ellis Wilkinson, using human hair, post-conservation. Photo courtesy of the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives at Illinois College.

 

The Lobster’s Tale

Congressman Paul Findley is a 1943 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Illinois College. Established in 2011, the museum serves to collect, preserve, and make available manuscripts and artifacts related to his life and career.   The museum’s collection contains material related to Findley’s career in the U.S. House of Representatives, his lifelong interest in Abraham Lincoln, and his involvement in the quest for universal human rights and justice in the Middle East. Congressman Findley represented the 20th Illinois Congressional District from 1961 to 1983. The museum is in historic Whipple Hall, on the Illinois College campus in Jacksonville, Illinois. Nestled on a shelf between his congressional office desk and Abraham Lincoln’s law office sofa is a preserved lobster.

The lobster, a gift to Representative Findley in 1974 from Mohammed Motie, foreign minister of South Yemen, is a unique crustacean. (As far as I know, it is the only such lobster in our collections and the area.) The crustacean is also an artifact of Representative Findley’s inaugural visit to the Middle East – the “Mission to Aden.”

lobster1
Lobster gifted to Congressman Paul Findley from Mohammed Motie, foreign minister of South Yemen, during Findley’s “Mission to Aiden,” in May 1974. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Papp, Public History Graduate Intern, Illinois College.

In May 1974 Paul Findley visited the Middle East for the first time. In Findley’s words – his goal was to “end the abuse of the human rights inflicted on one of my constituents by an Arab Government.” The constituent was a young man, Ed Franklin, serving a five year solitary imprisonment in Aden, the capital of the then People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, best known as South Yemen. Franklin had been traveling from Ethiopia to Kuwait, with the airplane landing briefly in Aden for repairs. While waiting, Franklin snapped photos of the harbor and airport, before the police mistook him for a spy. A year later, Franklin was still in prison. The U.S. Government did not have a presence in the country. Representative Findley’s mission was considered an act of desperation and would prove to be Findley’s most “substantial effort in constituent service.”

To free Franklin, Findley traveled to South Yemen and met with President Salim Rubyai Ali and Foreign Minister Mohammed Motie. Meetings involved an exchange of gifts, including a piece of pottery made by Findley’s young daughter and an Arabic edition of an Abraham Lincoln biography. After further discussion, the Congressman’s well-rehearsed plea was interrupted by President Ali, who quickly agreed to release Franklin. Findley would later describe the trip as the most “productive of many foreign trips [during] Congress and since.”

Findley received unique gifts from the leaders – an antique ceremonial dagger, an oil painting of rural Yemen, and the mounted lobster. Each of these gifts are currently on display in the Congressional Office Museum, helping document the Representative’s first of many trips to the Middle East. Of all the objects on display in the museum gallery, the lobster gets the most questions.

 

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