The Proposed Auction of Ronald Reagan's Blood Isn't Surprising

A consumer appetite for creepy presidential relics is hardly new -- or rare.

The attempted assassination of Reagan, left, and a vial of blood purportedly drawn from him. (Reagan Presidential Library; PFC Auctions)

Ronald Reagan is often portrayed in hagiographic terms -- as the patron saint of the modern Republican party, to his partisans, or mockingly as "Saint Ronnie," a huckster prophet, to his detractors.

The comparison will get a bit more literal with the sale of a true medieval-style relic. A British company, PFC Auctions, is currently entertaining bids for a vial of the late president's blood; the bidding closes on Thursday and, as of writing, was approaching $12,000. The blood was collected in 1981, when deranged would-be assassin John Hinckley shot the president in Washington, D.C. The sale has elicited predictable disgust and outrage, both in the public and on the part of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. "If indeed this story is true, it's a craven act and we will use every legal means to stop its sale or purchase," John Heubusch, the foundation's executive director, said in a statement. (It has also elicited equally predictable jokes: "Is it too late for the vial of Reagan blood to run for the GOP nomination?" "The appropriate thing to do with the Reagan blood would be to trickle it down on some poor people.")

But as grotesque as the auction might be, it's hardly surprising. The still-young United States -- deprived of the bones, blood, and fading locks of centuries-old saints, as well as a state church to celebrate them -- has long made a habit of fetishizing relics from our late presidents instead. After Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865, a famous photograph of the bloodstained sheets in Washington's Peterson House where he had lain entered popular circulation, and artifacts were distributed. The bed in which he died is now in the Chicago History Museum. A stained pillow ended up in the Peterson House, and a chair went to the Henry Ford Museum. But as James Swanson wrote in Bloody Crimes, a stained coverlet in the photograph disappeared, apparently taken by souvenir hunters.

The other most famous presidential victim of an assassin's bullet is no different. Earlier this year, the hearse that carried John F. Kennedy's body from a Dallas hospital to Air Force One in November 1963 sold for the eye-popping sum of $160,000. The pink suit splattered with his blood that Jackie Kennedy wore -- which has been described as "a sacred relic of a national nightmare" -- is stashed in the National Archives. It was donated anonymously and won't be on view until 2103, although the continued obsession with all things Kennedy suggests there will be an audience for it even then. Meanwhile, the National Museum of Health and Medicine, which has just reopened in suburban D.C., contains a vertebra from James A. Garfield, complete with a hole from the bullet that killed the 20th president.

With luck, America won't see a president assassinated anytime soon, although that will only increase the value of the few pieces of macabre merchandise we have. Meanwhile, the Reagan vial may be distasteful, but it's as American as mom, baseball, and apple pie -- or perhaps supply-side economics, winning one for the Gipper, and jelly beans.