The Murder of Lt. Foster and His Frock Coat

In the Generations Gallery, you can get lost in all the stories and artifacts between the mastodon and the 1908 Holsman Car. But the stories untold in the exhibit are even more remarkable. There is one storied blue military coat tucked in a drawer in the Exposed Collections wall. The story of the coat owner's fate is captivating. 

Painting of Fort Howard from 1889 by B. Ostertac

189 years ago, 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 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.

Entry point of the bullet that killed Lt. Foster

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.  After digging through historical documents, different stories of the incident were revealed.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Beyond historical documents, the coat itself can tell you another part of the story.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

In the old exhibit “On the Edge of the Inland Sea” the real coat was not on exhibit, instead there was a pristine replica.  Why would we not put the real thing out?  The coat has been through a lot!  It has been through 19th century Wisconsin winters, a gunshot, blood stains, and several years in an attic in Texas.  When we were in the initial stages of redesigning the gallery, we knew we wanted to display the real thing.  We were able to do this safely in a drawer in the Exposed Collections wall of the Generations Gallery.  By being in a drawer it’s protected from constant light exposure and damage that can happen when historic textiles are exhibited on mannequins for a long period of time. 

There is so much more we can and will share about this special artifact, but nothing beats seeing the real thing. 

Lisa Kain

Curator

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