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Autographs of famous and infamous featured in National Archives exhibit

From Hitler and Hussein to Hancock and Hepburn, signatures and the stories behind them are the focus of an indelible National Archives exhibit that opened March 21 and continues through Jan. 5.

Dorothea Lange's signed photo shows jobless men lined up to file claims for unemployment compensation in the Great Depression. It's in "Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures" exhibit Mar. 21-Jan. 5 at the National Archives.
Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1938. National Archives, Records of the Social Security Administration.

"Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures" ranges from a real "John Hancock" to an "X" by Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman on her petition for a pension for her Civil War work as a scout and spy, as well as signatures that began lives, changed lives, or ended lives.

They're accompanied by illustrations, photographs, artifacts, or other items. About 40 of the objects and documents have never before been displayed.

The unique exhibit also features "signature styles", like a Michelle Obama dress; a Jacqueline Kennedy pillbox hat -- even Michael Jackson's signed patent application for anti-gravity shoes.

Other signatures poignantly capture history:

  • Slave trade: A pen used by President Thomas Jefferson to sign/enact 1808 legislation to end the slave trade; clearly, it did not. An 1820 ship declaration from the port of Baltimore, signed by ship inspector Charles Robinson, who wrote that those aboard, except for one, "acknowledge themselves to be Slaves for Life."
  • Great Depression: A Dorothea Lange signed, vintage photograph print shows dozens of men lined up to claim unemployment benefits. "Lange believed that her role as a photographer was to promote political and social change by documenting compelling scenes..." wrote National Archives curator Jennifer N. Johnson, who curated the exhibit.
  • World War Two era: a Jewish tailor's letter pleads with President Franklin Roosevelt for an escape from Budapest because of "political happenings". An interned Japanese American's signed loyalty oath is displayed next to a photograph showing an internment camp. Some 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry -- 65 percent of whom were American citizens -- were sent to internment camps during the war.
  • McCarthy era: Katharine Hepburn, in a 1950 letter appealing for the parole of imprisoned, blacklisted "Hollywood 10" writer Ring Lardner, risked the destruction of her career. She had worked with Ringgold Wilmer "Ring" Lardner, Jr., on the film "Woman of the Year". He had won the Best Screenplay Oscar® for it, and she was nominated for Best Actress. A photo of her accompanies the letter.
  • Civil Rights era: Jackie Robinson, in 1958, wrote to President Eisenhower after Ike urged blacks to have patience in their struggle for equal rights. "I respectfully remind you, sir, that we have been the most patient of all people," Robinson wrote. "17 million Negroes cannot do as you suggest and wait for the hearts of men to change. We want to enjoy now the rights that we feel we are entitled to as Americans." A photo shows Robinson with President Eisenhower.

Here's more in a variety of categories:


  • Adolf Hitler's marriage proposal to Eva Braun: "Are you willing to take Our Fuehrer Adolf Hitler as your husband". A day and a half after their marriage, the newlyweds committed suicide together while Russian troops approached Hitler's bunker. His will and their marriage certificate signature pages are displayed with a photo of him lovingly petting his German shepherd.
  • Saddam Hussein's elegant card says "Thank you for your kind greetings", sent to President George H.W. Bush soon after his inauguration in 1989. About a year later, President G.H.W. Bush would launch the Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, to retaliate against Iraqi dictator Hussein for invading Kuwait.
  • John Wilkes Booth's ever-so-polite calling card saying, "Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home?" Booth left it for Vice President Andrew Johnson hours before the assassin killed President Lincoln.

Famous/taking care of official business

  • Gen. George Washington's 1783 letter humbly asks the Continental Congress how he should retire as Commander-in-Chief after the Revolutionary War.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1863 letter of recommendation for Walt Whitman to obtain a government job. Emerson praises Whitman as "a man of strong, original genius, combining, with marked eccentricities, great powers & valuable traits of character & a self-relying large-hearted man, much beloved by his friends; entirely patriotic and benevolent in his theory, talks, & practice."
  • Duke Ellington's registration for the World War One draft, and Julia Child's application for the OSS, precursor of the CIA. She was hired, and is believed to have functioned as a spy before winning renown as a chef and TV star.

Signature styles

  • FDR's fedora; Gen. Eisenhower's "Ike" jacket; Jackie Kennedy's pillbox hat worn during JFK's 1960 Presidential campaign...
  • Photos of the "Johnson treatment" -- LBJ used his 6' 4" stature and Texas country talk "to intimidate, badger, flatter, or plead in order to achieve his political goals," wrote curator Johnson.
  • Michelle Obama's crimson and black Narcisco Rodriguez dress she wore the night Barack Obama was elected America's first African American President. "I always say that women should wear whatever makes them feel good about themselves. That’s what I always try to do."


  • Truman, Stalin, and Churchill autographed the program for a concert during the Potsdam Conference near the end of World War Two. It was the only time Truman and Stalin would ever meet.
  • The Shah of Iran expressed his "highest esteem" for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the inscription on his 1962 White House speech saying "My people have at all times looked up to the United States."
  • Los Angeles Lakers shirt was signed by the team, including Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and given to President Reagan in 1988. The team had just won their fifth championship of the decade.

This magical exhibit is a champion.

For more info: "Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures", National Archives,, Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery, on the National Mall at Constitution Avenue and 7th Street, Washington, D.C. 202-357-5000. Free. March 21-Jan. 5, 2015.

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