'Living With Lincoln': HBO Doc Follows the Keepers of His Legacy

Tonight on the eve of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, HBO will air a documentary about how five generations of one family have taken on the "glorious burden" of preserving the 16th president's legacy.
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Abraham Lincoln Photo

The Lincoln portrait that appears on the penny is part of the Kunhardt family’s collection, the subject of the HBO documentary “Living With Lincoln,” which airs tonight. (Photo: Kunhardt Family/courtesy of HBO)

Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth – a shocking tragedy that sent the war-torn nation into mourning.  On that day, as Lincoln watched the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., Booth snuck into the president's private booth above the stage and fatally shot him in the back of the head with a .41-caliber derringer. Edward Curtis, an army surgeon who attended the president's autopsy, would later recount that the medical team stopped and stared at the bullet that fell from the president's brain, writing: "There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger—dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world's history as we may perhaps never realize."

As we remember that fateful day 150 years ago, HBO will air Living With Lincoln, a documentary that follows one family that, over the course of five generations, dedicated itself to collecting, preserving and archiving photos and artifacts relating to the 16th president. Documentary filmmaker Peter Kunhardt, along with co-director Brian Oakes, explores how his ancestors began collecting Lincoln memorabilia in the years following the Civil War and carried on the tradition for decades, amassing an important historical archive in the process.

Among the treasures are the now-iconic portraits of Lincoln that were used on the penny, the $5 bill and the image used to create Lincoln’s likeness on Mount Rushmore, collected by Kunhardt's great-grandfather Frederick Hill Meserve. 

For some family members, including the director's grandmother, Dorothy Kunhardt, author of the classic children’s book Pat the Bunny, and his father Philip, a former managing editor of Life magazine, the collection became an obsession. The documentary reveals how safeguarding history is sometimes what the director calls a "glorious burden," but in the end reveals the humanity of a great American hero and the keepers of his legacy.

"Living With Lincoln" debuts tonight at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.