July 14, 2016
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
DNA TESTING OF MASCOT’S FEATHERS YIELD CONCLUSIVE RESULTS
MADISON, Wis. (July 14, 2016) – The Wisconsin Veterans Museum and University of Wisconsin-Madison Biotechnology Center Molecular Archaeology Group today announced that the Civil War bald eagle mascot “Old Abe” was a male, ending a 150 year-old controversy over the famed raptor’s gender.
Named after President Abraham Lincoln, Old Abe was the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment during the Civil War and was present at over thirty battles between 1861-1864.The bald eagle, widely assumed to be male, helped raise morale among men in the regiment and narrowly escaped serious injury more than once.. Old Abe became a patriotic symbol of northern victory and achieved celebrity status at rallies and parades across the country until its death in 1881.The bird’s legendary story took a turn in 1889, however, when well-known suffragette Lillie Devereux Blake began giving speeches about Old Abe having laid eggs, asserting the bird was actually female. Further evidence for this claim was made in 1915 when Old Abe’s taxidermist made a similar conclusion based on the eagle’s larger—and therefore female—size. But many, including remaining veterans of the 8th, saw these claims as scandalous, sparking a nationwide debate over the fact and fiction behind an American icon that continues to this day.
In March of this year, members of the UW-Madison Molecular Archaeology Group collected samples from four of Old Abe’s feathers that were stored at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. DNA was extracted from each sample and analyzed for the presence of either two male chromosomes (ZZ) or both a male and female chromosome (ZW). The three-month testing process yielded conclusive results, with all four samples showing measurements consistent with the male Z chromosome and none matching the female W chromosome.
“We are thrilled to have participated in an effort to solve a more than century-old mystery about a historical icon,” said Jesse Dabney, a postdoctoral scientist with the Molecular Archeology Group. “This is an incredible example of how history and science can work together and lead to significant discovery.”
“This is an exciting day and we are grateful for the efforts of the Molecular Archeology Group in helping us confirm a long-debated fact about Old Abe’s legacy,” said Michael Telzrow, Wisconsin Veterans Museum Director. “Regardless of gender, Old Abe remains an important symbol of America’s struggle to preserve its union.”
Old Abe is the inspiration for the bald eagle logo representing the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. His image was also used as the logo for the Racine-based J.I. Case for the company’s first 100 years of existence. Replicas of Old Abe can be found in Madison at the Assembly Chamber of the Wisconsin State Capitol and also at the Civil War exhibit gallery of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. Statues of the bald eagle sit atop the Camp Randall Memorial Arch in Madison, Wis., and also at the Battle of Vicksburg monument in Mississippi dedicated to the 8th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment.
ABOUT THE WISCONSIN VETERANS MUSEUM
The Wisconsin Veterans Museum is an educational activity of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs created to commemorate, acknowledge, and affirm the role of Wisconsin citizens in American military history, past and present. Located at 30 W. Mifflin St., Madison, WI, the museum is home to more than 26,000 historical objects that tell the stories of local veterans through displays from the Civil War to the War On Terror.
ABOUT THE MOLECULAR ARCHAEOLOGY GROUP
The Molecular Archaeology Group (MAG) at UW-Madison applies molecular techniques to biological remains and material artifacts in the archaeological record to explore interfaces between cultural and biological environments. The unique outlook of MAG allows researchers to investigate questions that capture cross-disciplinary interest in archaeology, biochemistry, genetics and evolution, connecting laboratory science and cultural heritage. From identifying proteins in Trojan pottery shards to reconstructing ancient human pathogen genomes, ongoing projects in MAG use the archaeological record to gain deeper biological insights into the past, impacting our understanding of the behaviors of previous cultures, as well as the evolution of organisms both living and extinct.
WISCONSIN VETERANS MUSEUM AND
UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON BIOTECHNOLOGY CENTER MOLECULAR ARCHAEOLOGY GROUP REPORT
Named after President Abraham Lincoln, Old Abe served as the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. Present at over thirty battles between 1861-1864, the bald eagle earned widespread fame by raising morale among men in the regiment and even taking a bullet alongside them during the Battle of Vicksburg. After the war, the eagle remained a patriotic symbol of northern victory and a celebrity at rallies and parades across the country until dying from smoke inhalation in 1881. But the mascot’s legendary story took a turn in 1889, when the previously presumed male eagle became the subject of speeches by well-known suffragette Lillie Devereux Blake. Blake spoke of Old Abe regularly laying eggs while kept at the Wisconsin State Capitol, asserting the famous war eagle was actually a female.
This claim gathered momentum during the suffrage movement in the early 20th century. Stories surfaced such as one of a soldier from the 8th who recalled seeing Old Abe’s eggs fed to a colonel during the war. More compelling evidence for this claim was made in 1915 when Old Abe’s taxidermist made a similar conclusion based on the eagle’s larger—and therefore female—size. But many, including remaining veterans of the 8th, saw these claims as scandalous, sparking a nationwide debate. That Memorial Day, a full page article appeared in papers across the country featuring the heated argument, going so far as to label this continued debate “a civil war as verbally bitter as those of the ‘60s”.
But having never mated, current research suggests that even those closest to Old Abe would not have positively known the bird’s gender. Both male and female bald eagles share similar plumage and can only be positively differentiated when coupled. Looking to finally put an end to the debate, the Wisconsin Veterans Museum recently decided to use its resources along with current technology to definitively answer the question once and for all—was Old Abe male or female?
Using a framed collection of feathers acquired during the museum’s early days as the G.A.R. Memorial Hall—compiled after Old Abe’s taxidermied remains were lost in the Wisconsin State Capitol on in 1904—WVM hoped to have sufficient material from which to extract Old Abe’s DNA. Conveniently, the neighboring University of Wisconsin-Madison campus provides this type of cutting-edge service through its Biotechnology Center Sequencing Facility. All that remained was seeing whether or not the feathers still contained the critical information needed for a positive identification.
This March, Professor William Aylward and Dr. Jesse Dabney of the Center’s Molecular Archaeology Group along with Associate Director Charles Konsitzke arrived at the museum to obtain samples of the feathers. Conservator Cricket Harbeck from Milwaukee was on hand to safely open the 100 year old frame as well as assist in sample collecting in order to minimize any damage to the artifacts. Four of the feathers with the most supported history, including a collection from former Capitol Old Abe handler W.H. Milward and another from then-Wisconsin governor Robert La Follette, were selected for the project.
After taking samples from the hollow quill portion (calamus) of each feather, the team, which further included Core Director Dr. Joshua Hyman and researcher Jeremy Niece at the DNA Sequencing Facility, dissolved the samples in order to extract the DNA. From this DNA they were then able to look for either the presence of two male sex chromosomes (ZZ) or both a male and female chromosome (ZW). The process took nearly three months but yielded conclusive results: all four samples showed measurements consistent with the Z chromosome with none matching the W chromosome. The team concluded these feathers originated from a male bird.
While ultimately knowing Old Abe’s gender does not change his story or his importance, it provides closure to a once hotly –contested issue and discredits some of the false stories that were once part of his legend. By using the latest scientific technology to put to rest a one hundred and fifty year old debate, it also helps keep the story of the once-famous Old Abe relevant for a new generation.