Thursday, April 03, 2008
My Latest Obsession: I Stand Up For Mary Lincoln
"Certainly ill luck presided at my birth--certainly it has been a faithful attendant." --fragment in a letter from Mary Lincoln, November 1869
You would have to look hard in America's history to find a woman more roundly condemned and more valiantly championed, both in her own time and more than a hundred years later, than Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. She was, in many cases, a woman before her time, intensely interested in politics and highly educated, well-versed in banking and real estate, and no stranger to international travel and the ways of European society. She was fluent in French, adept in all social situations when she chose to be, and so charming that her brother-in-law once remarked that she could "make a bishop forget his prayers." True, her moods could be mercurial, but that was to be expected for the "middle child" whose mother died in childbirth when Mary was only 6 1/2.
Her father remarried quickly, too, bringing a cold, distant woman into the house who immediately began on a second family of nine more children. Mary left for boarding school as soon as possible, where she excelled. Soon, she was able to escape permanently to Springfield, Illinois, to her sister's house, where she met and--against her sister's wishes--married Abraham Lincoln. It had not been an easy engagement, however; at one point, they had a 6 month estrangement which proved almost suicidal for Abraham. Due to the intervention of well-meaning friends, they had several meetings and the engagement was salvaged. One year later, their first son Robert was born. Three years later, Edward, who they called "Eddie" was born.
Mary, who believed that homemaking and mothering were the most noble of callings, set about making her home a haven for her children and her often absent husband, whose job took him away from his family. Nineteenth-century housekeeping was brutally hard and nonstop. And the lack of sanitation and refrigeration made illness a constant companion and threat. In 1849, Mary lost both her beloved father, for whom her eldest was named, and her grandmother. At the beginning of the following year, in February, her beloved son Eddie died of "consumption". And Mary went into paroxysms of mourning. In these Victorian times, women were expected to bear up under grief, to accept it as God's will and to be strong. Mary Lincoln never grieved that way, and she was seen as extreme and unchristian for it. She had watched her child of only four years old waste away from sickness for fifty-two days and then die. She could not bear it.
Ten months later, Willie was born. And three years later, Thomas "Tad" Lincoln joined the family. And with Mary's help and ambition, Abraham Lincoln entered the White House in 1861 with the country torn asunder and gave his inaugural address with Federal snipers posted on the top of key buildings in Washington in case any Southern "secesh" should try his luck at taking out the new President.
Already the gossips and newspapers were vilifying First Lady Mary Lincoln, who was born in Kentucky. They speculated about her loyalties. The North accused her of espionage for her rebel family; the South accused her of being a traitor. She read the papers, heard the epithets being thrown at her husband: black ape, tyrant, imbecile, gorilla. She heard of death threats against her husband as well as plots to kidnap him. Her own carriage was tampered with, causing an accident. In 1862, Tad and Willie became gravely ill with typhoid, and Willie died. The day he was buried, a tornado swept through Washington. Mary was overcome with grief, and for three weeks could not move from her bed. The President harbored fears that she had become deranged. Tad, still sickly, seemed unable to regain his health, and the country was locked in a bloody civil war.
Mary had lost two half-brothers to the Civil War, but she dared not mourn them; they fought on the Confederate side. At this time, a new wave of pseudo-science was sweeping the globe: Spiritualism. Mediums claimed they could bridge the chasm between the spirit world and the living. Mary, bereft of her two darlings and overcome with grief, began to attend seances. She convinced her husband to allow a medium to come to the White House. He humored her, and a long interest in Spiritualism followed.
On April 6 or 7 of 1865, Abraham Lincoln confided to his wife that he had an unsettling dream: he had been awakened by the sound of weeping. Wandering through the White House, he came to the East Room where he saw a catafalque on which a coffin rested with a body inside. He asked a nearby soldier, "Who is dead in the White House?" One answered, "The President." On April 14, 1865, Mary Lincoln witnessed the assassination of her husband in the chair next to her.
On May 23, Mary, dressed in the heavy black mourning that she would never, ever give up, finally left the White House. There was no provision made for her residence at the time; no money appropriated. Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer by profession, had died without a will. She and her sons lived in Chicago, for Mary Lincoln could not bear to return to Springfield, a city rife with memories of her beloved husband and their young family's early years together. They lived cheaply, and Mary worried constantly about money. She petitioned Congress for a widow's pension, but her reputation in Washington was sullied by last-days looting of the White House by souvenir hunters and petty thieves. The White House was open to the public in those days, and anything not nailed down or under the watchful eyes of guards was easy pickings. China, silver, draperies, art, even furnishings had disappeared after Lincoln's death. And an astonishing number of Washingtonians blamed Mary Lincoln. Even after some things showed up in private homes or in pawnshops, she was still called a common thief among social circles and in the newspapers.
In 1868, Mary felt defeated. She decided to leave for Europe with Tad. She was in ill health, persecuted, a pariah in her own country, a country that owed its very existence to her husband, the Martyred President. She left for Europe, hoping to take the cure in some of its most recommended health spots. Tad, under the tutelage of a scholar, began to improve in his studies, but soon became homesick after so much continental wandering. In 1871, they boarded ship, but Tad, ever susceptible to illness, caught a cold which developed into pleurisy. Back in Chicago, he worsened and in July, Mary lost her third son. This time, she was able to attend his funeral, but her only remaining child, the distant and very Victorian Robert, left inexplicably less than two weeks later for a Colorado vacation. Mary was left alone.
That fall, the Chicago fire broke out. Fighting smoke and flames, Mary escaped with a few items, losing many valuable letters, papers, and mementos of her husband. She spent the night and part of the next day along the shore of Lake Michigan. After that, she became a continental nomad, wandering Europe and North America, seeking mediums to help her make contact with her beloved Mr. Lincoln and her dead darling boys. She was especially pleased with the picture made by a spiritualist photographer which showed the spirit of her husband hovering behind her, his hands placed protectively upon her shoulders. It would prove to be the last photograph ever taken of her.
In May of 1875, her son Robert had had enough. His mother's constant mood changes, her odd behavior, her shopping sprees and her buying mania were not only embarrassing to him, but were worrisome. No longer could she be termed "eccentric"; she was, since his father's death, literally insane. He convened, secretly, a half-dozen doctors, the majority of whom had never even seen, let alone examined his mother, and presented his evidence. They wholeheartedly agreed: She needed to be confined to protect not only herself but her assets. She might spend herself into the poorhouse. Robert sent a family friend and a guard to collect his mother, who had no choice but to acquiesce with humiliation. The trial was a jury trial, and Mary Lincoln was never called to speak on her own behalf. Indeed, she had no idea until she got there and was told so that Robert was the one who initiated the proceedings. When it was all over, she was declared insane, and was ordered confined to Bellevue Place, a private asylum.
Her stay there was short because Mary Lincoln began an immediate campaign for her release, much to her son's chagrin and dismay. She wrote letters, comported herself admirably, and did not require any restraint or strong medications. She even involved the newspapers, her most hated nemeses, inviting a reporter to visit her at Bellevue and write about his impressions. It was sensational. Entering Bellevue on May 20, she was released on September 11 to the care of her sister Elizabeth in Springfield. By June of the following year, she was declared in court to be "restored to reason." Robert, it must be noted, strongly objected to both the release and to her declaration of full sanity. He did so, however, out of concern for her well-being both times, he continued to reiterate. There is not definitive evidence to the contrary. But Mary Lincoln never forgave him and, at one point, planned to shoot him with a pistol packed away in one of her trunks.
As was her usual habit, Mary Lincoln left for Europe after this battle. But she was forced by continued ill health and loneliness to return in 1880, unable to care for herself. She had fallen and broken her back, weighed now only about 100 pounds, and was nearly blind, a condition actually caused by her excessive weeping. She was unable to bear most light and spent the remaining two years in a darkened room at her sister's home, one of four that she paid rent for. One was a sitting room, one for her bedroom, and two for her sixty-four trunks of possessions, whose combined weight was four tons and caused much concern as to whether the structure of the house could bear it. Mary Todd Lincoln died on July 16, 1882, of a stroke. She would have loved her funeral, held three days later. It was full of flowers and music; the mayor declared it a holiday; thousands lined the streets. Even the newspapers printed a thick black mourning band on their mastheads.
And at the end of it all, Mary Lincoln was laid to rest with her beloved Mr. Lincoln and the rest of her family.