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The Murder of Lt. Foster and His Frock Coat

Friday, February 05, 2016
In our core exhibition On the Edge of the Inland Sea, you can get lost in all the stories and artifacts between the mastodon and the 1908 Holsman Car.  But one thing that caught my eye, even before becoming the curator, was a blue military coat tucked in a corner by the “Fort Howard” section of the exhibit.   Behind the Fort Howard in "On the Edge of the Inland Sea"coat is a sketch of a man pointing a musket at another man and below is a small label with a story.   The story of the coat’s owner's fate is captivating.  But the stories untold in the exhibit are even more remarkable.    

The first part of the story is what you find in the exhibit on the second floor of the museum.  The young U.S. Army lieutenant who wore this coat 185 years ago died in it. Lt. Amos Foster was shot and killed by one of his own soldiers, Private Patrick Doyle.   In February 1832, Doyle was detained in the guardhouse for being drunk and disorderly.   Alcohol consumption was a real problem at Fort Howard, especially since part of the soldier’s rations included two gills of whiskey or rum (the equivalent of four shots today).   After a few days, on February 7, 1832, Doyle persuaded a guard to escort him to the Lt. Foster’s quarters to talk to him.  After harsh words and a scuffle Doyle stole the guard’s musket and killed Lt. Foster.  Doyle was immediately arrested.  He was tried and sentenced to death in July of 1832.  It is said Doyle was hanged outside the stockade wall of the fort for all to see. 
Painting of Fort Howard from 1899 by B. Ostertac (#2704/1757)

My big question when I started to look at the coat more closely was how do we know?  How do we know what happened and the supposed words exchanged between Lt. Foster and Doyle?  How do we know this was Lt. Foster’s coat?  After I started pulling at this thread I found there is far more to this story than has been told in that label on the 2nd floor.  After digging through historical documents, different stories of the incident were revealed.  Interesting tales of Doyle’s time while he was incarcerated and even a ghostly haunting of the officer’s quarters are mentioned in people’s memoirs.  


Beyond historical documents the coat itself can tell you another part of the story.  It reveals Lt. Foster’s role in society while he wore it (a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Infantry based on the coat construction and rank insignia).  It can also share insight to his early demise.  We can clearly see where the bullet entered and exited.  We can see loss of wool from blood staining.  It is also probable the surgeon at the time, Dr. Clement Finely, tried to get at the wounds quickly.   The bottom 7 buttons appear to have been cut off, probably because they were buttoned at the time of the murder. 


   
 
The coat Lt. Foster was wearing when he was murdered on February 7, 1832 (#1988.78.1)
 Entry point of the bullet that killed Lt. Foster

Now if you look at the photograph of the coat on exhibit in our main gallery on the second floor, you may notice it has all of its buttons.  That’s because the one on exhibit there is a replica.  Why would we not put the real thing out?  Because of all the coat has been through.  It has been through 19th century Wisconsin winters, a gunshot, blood stains, and several years in an attic in Texas.  That is why the exhibit team is beyond excited to pull the real thing out of storage for Life and Death at Fort Howard.  Not only will the coat be displayed for the first time at the Neville, but the team has created exciting new ways of explore the coat and Lt. Foster’s story. 

There is so much more we can and will share about this special artifact but nothing beats seeing the real thing.  Life and Death at Fort Howard is open through April 9, 2017!

Lisa Zimmerman
Curator 

    
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