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Date On Lincoln Document 'Started To Look A Little Hinky,' Archivist Says

Jan 25, 2011 (All Things Considered)

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One of the more amazing stories of the day is the news that a Virginia historian has admitted he altered a presidential pardon written by President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1864, to make it appear as if Lincoln had signed the document a year later — on the day he was shot by John Wilkes Booth.

The National Archives says Thomas Lowry, 78, has confessed that he changed the "4" to a "5". He did it while visiting the Archives' research room, using a fountain pen. According to the Archives, Lowry wanted notoriety — and in 1998 he did get national attention when he came forward to claim he'd discovered what might have been the last piece of paper signed by Lincoln.

(Update at 11:05 a.m. ET: The Washington Post is reporting that Lowry now says he was pressured into confessing and denies he changed the date on the document. He's pointing a finger at an unnamed Archives staffer. The Archives denies that allegation. Our original post resumes after this parenthetical update.)

In the years since Lowry's claim, Archives acting chief of reference Trevor Plante often showed the document to visitors during VIP tours. But over time, he says in a video produced by the Archives, it "started to look a little hinky to me." The "5" looked a little darker than the rest of the date and a "ghost image" started showing through from underneath. Further research showed references to a pardon that had been written in 1864.

Lowry, after being confronted with the evidence, admitted what he'd done, the Archives says. It is a crime — but the statute of limitations has expired, so he won't be prosecuted. Lowry has, however, been banned from the National Archives.

Here's that video from the National Archives:

Update at 4:50 p.m. ET: We've added a link to audio of Serri Graslie's report from All Things Considered at the top of this post. You can also listen to Bob Edwards' archived 1998 interview with Lowry on Morning Edition.

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