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Posts Tagged ‘Mary Todd Lincoln’

Abraham Lincoln, February 5, 1865. He would live less than 3 more months.

Abraham Lincoln, February 5, 1865. He would live less than 3 more months.

It was the morning of Friday, April 14, 1865, the last full day of Abraham Lincoln’s life. It was a beautiful spring day. The president was looking forward to an evening at the theater. Plays relaxed him, expecially comedy. There were some who looked down on him for being a theater-goer. They considered it lowbrow entertainment, especially for the commander-in-chief. Who were they to deny Lincoln a few minutes away from his troubling thoughts?

But that was all behind him now. The War Between the States was over. The terrible suffering had come to an end. Abe and his wife, Mary, had lost two sons to illness. That afternoon, he and Mary took a leisurely carriage ride. They spoke of the future together. Abraham was very happy. He said to Mary:

“We must both be more cheerful in the future.”

Abraham Lincoln's carriage that took him, Mary, Major Rathbone, and Clara Harris to Ford's Theatre on the night of his assassination. The carriage is a 4-passenger barouche. When the doors are opened, steps unfold.

Abraham Lincoln’s favorite carriage. It was the carriage that took him, Mary, Major Henry Rathbone, and Clara Harris to Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. The carriage is a 4-passenger barouche. When the doors are opened, steps unfold.

Major Henry Rathbone

Major Henry Rathbone

Shortly after their return to the White House, they dressed for the theater – Ford’s Theater – to see “Our American Cousin” starring Laura Keene. Mary and Abe had had a dickens of a time finding someone to attend the performance with them. They had invited 12 people and all had declined. It was Good Friday, the most solemn day on the Christian calendar, and not a day many folks sought entertainment. Most were busy, some disapproved of theater in general. The Grants – especially Julia, the General’s wife – could not stand the idea of being confined in a theater box with Mary and her explosive temper.

Clara Harris photographed by Mathew Brady, ca. 1860-68.

Clara Harris photographed by Mathew Brady, ca. 1860-68.

Finally, a young couple the Lincolns were fond of – Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris – accepted their invitation. Henry and Clara had just become engaged. Oddly enough, Clara was Henry’s stepsister. When Henry’s father died, his mother married Ira Harris, Clara’s father.

The two couples arrived at Ford’s Theater in the president’s carriage after the performance had already begun. As the four entered the presidential box, decorated with American flags and a painting of George Washington, the actors froze on stage. The orchestra struck up “Hail to the Chief.” The audience clapped, cheered, and waved.

“The president,” remembered one theater-goer, “stepped to the box-rail and acknowledged the applause with dignified bows and never-to-be-forgotten smiles.” (1)

The applause died down as the Lincolns, Clara and Henry took their seats. Abraham settled into a rocking chair Ford had brought up from his office especially for him. He sat on the far right of the box. To the left, Mary pulled her chair close to her husband’s, nestling up to him at one point, and slipping her arm through his. On the left side of the box, Clara sat in a stuffed chair. Henry sat on a small sofa behind her and in the back of the box. Mary fretted that Henry couldn’t see the stage well from the sofa and said so.

One of the biggest laughs in the play came in the third act when the male lead delivered this line:

“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh?” he paused. “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal – you sockdologizing old mantrap.”

This line always got a big laugh. Tonight was no exception. The audience – including the president – laughed and clapped. They made so much noise that only the people in the box heard the crack of a gunshot, as actor John Wilkes Booth had planned. Booth had crept into the presidential box and, with a derringer, shot the president in the back of the head.

an image of the Lincoln assassination showing, from left to right, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Major Henry Rathbone, President Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth

The “Assassination of President A Lincoln” showing, from left to right, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Major Henry Rathbone, President Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth

The rest was blue gunsmoke and confusion. The president was slumped forward in his chair with no visible wound. He looked as if he was sleeping. Henry grabbed the gunman who held his gun in one hand and a dagger in the other. Booth dropped the gun and slashed Henry in the arm and the head. Because of Henry’s interference, Booth was unable to make a clean jump out of the presidential box onto the stage below.  Booth caught his foot as he jumped, landing on the stage at a weird angle, and breaking his leg. Henry shouted into the audience, “Stop that man!” Clara yelled, “The president has been shot!”

John Wilkes Booth flees across the stage of Ford's Theater after having assassinated President Lincoln. He shouts "sic semper tyrannis!" (thus always to tyrants" and, perhaps, "The South is avenged."

John Wilkes Booth flees across the stage of Ford’s Theater after having assassinated President Lincoln. He shouts, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (Latin for “Thus it shall ever be for tyrants,” the Virginia state motto) and, perhaps also, “The South is avenged.”

Though Henry was weak from loss of blood and his wounds were serious, the president’s wound was mortal. By the next morning, the president was dead.

Henry survived the attack and, in 1867, he and Clara were married. They had three children. But all was not well with Henry. Perhaps because of his head wound, his mental health rapidly deteriorated. He heard voices and believed he was being persecuted and tortured. He became jealous of his wife’s attention to their children. Clara lived in utter terror of what Henry might do.

Eighteen years after Lincoln’s assassination, Henry Rathbone reenacted Booth’s brutal attack on President Lincoln – within his own home. Armed with knife and pistol, Henry attacked his family, murdering Clara with a pistol, trying to kill his children, then stabbing himself.  He lived and was declared insane. He was institutionalized in Germany for the rest of his life.

(1) Fleming, Candace. The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary. New York: Random House, Inc., 2008.

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Mary Todd Lincoln in mourning clothes, 1863. Even during the period in 1862 and 1863 when Mrs. Lincoln was in mourning for her son Willie and wore only black, she managed to go further into debt for new clothes. By 1864, she told Elizabeth Keckley: "The President glances at my rich dresses and is happy to believe that the few hundred dollars that I obtain from him supply all my wants. I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity... If he is elected, I can keep him in ignorance of my affairs, but if he is defeated, then the bills will be sent."3 Only on January 1, 1865 did she completely shed her mourning attire.

Mary Todd Lincoln in mourning clothes, 1863. Even during the period in 1862 and 1863 when Mrs. Lincoln was in mourning for her son Willie and wore only black, she managed to go further into debt for new clothes. By 1864, she told Elizabeth Keckley: "The President glances at my rich dresses and is happy to believe that the few hundred dollars that I obtain from him supply all my wants. I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity... If he is elected, I can keep him in ignorance of my affairs, but if he is defeated, then the bills will be sent." Only on January 1, 1865 did she completely shed her mourning attire.

After her son Willie’s death at age eleven on February 20, 1862,  Mary Todd Lincoln went into deep mourning. She traded in her sparkling jewels, frilly white and colorful gowns, and flowered bonnets made fashionable by her icon the French Empress Eugénie (click to read earlier post) for widow’s weeds of dull black crepe. Her stylish White House parties were put to the side. Gaiety gave way to sadness. Mary had lost her favorite son, the perfect one, the one she considered most like her husband.

After Willie died, Mary’s youngest son, eight-year-old Tad, still tossed with the same typhoid fever that killed his brother. He lay critically ill nearby, but Mary, incapacitated by grief, would not and did not rush to his side to nurse him. Meanwhile, Willie’s embalmed body was laid out in the Green Room of the White House and his coffin was open. Mary mustered enough energy to place a sprig of laurel on Willie’s chest before retreating to her bedroom and shutting the door. She took to her bed, weeping and sobbing  in such uncontrolled spasms that she became quite ill.

She did not come out of her bedroom to attend Willie’s funeral and never again entered the Green Room or the second floor guest room where Willie died. She rid the house of all of Willie’s toys and clothes and forbade his and Tad’s best friends, the Taft boys, from ever returning to the White House to play.

During Mary’s tormented period, Abraham, also heartbroken at his son’s death, sent for help. Two of Mary’s  friends, a nurse, and Mary’s sister Elizabeth heeded the calling. One of the friends was the esteemed Washington seamstress Elizabeth Keckley. In memoirs she wrote with a ghostwriter six years later, she recalled a day when President Lincoln led his distraught wife (whom he called “Mother”) to the window, pointed to the lunatic asylum at a distance from the White House, and said,

 “Mother, do you see that large white building on the hill yonder? Try and control your grief or it will drive you mad and we may have to send you there.”

The recently widowed Queen Victoria wearing mourning clothes at Balmoral, Scotland, 1863. She is riding "Fyvie" and is accompanied by her faithful servant John Brown. Her husband, Prince Albert died in December of 1861 of typhoid fever or perhaps cancer of the stomach. For forty more years, the rest of Victoria's life, she wore black widow's weeds. Suspicion was aroused by Victoria's partiality to John Brown as a servant; most of the members of the Royal Household referred to him as "the Queen's stallion" and defamatory pamphlets referred to her a "Mrs. Brown." A 1997 film with Judy Dench titled "Mrs. Brown" was about the possible love affair.

The recently widowed Queen Victoria wearing mourning clothes at Balmoral, Scotland, 1863. She is riding "Fyvie" and is accompanied by her faithful servant John Brown. Her husband, Prince Albert, died in December of 1861 of typhoid fever or perhaps cancer of the stomach. For forty more years, the rest of Victoria's life, she wore black widow's weeds. Suspicion was aroused by Victoria's partiality to John Brown as a servant; most of the members of the Royal Household referred to him as "the Queen's stallion" and defamatory pamphlets referred to her as "Mrs. Brown." A 1997 film with Judy Dench titled "Mrs. Brown" was about their rumored love affair.

It was three weeks before Mary could even be persuaded to get up out of  bed and put on her mourning clothes. Queen Victoria (1819-1901) now became the First Lady’s fashion model. Victoria’s husband Prince Albert had died unexpectedly just three months earlier and Victoria had plunged herself and her entire staff into the deep black dress of mourning. Following Victoria’s lead and further compounding her debt to clothing merchants (click to read an earlier post), Mary Lincoln ordered an entire new wardrobe of dull black crepe dresses, bonnets, and weeping veils.

For more than a year, six months longer than was called for in the mourning manuals of the day, Mary wore first-degree mourning. Her black crepe straw bonnet was so heavily veiled that she could not turn her head, which gave her an odd appearance as she was always facing forward. She became a very public mourner. She wanted to draw attention to her grief as if she was the only one who had lost a child at a time when Civil War soldiers were dying in record numbers from Mississippi to Maryland on the nation’s bloody battlefields.  During her mourning, she cancelled the Saturday afternoon Marine Band Concerts held on the White House lawn, explaining that, “When we are in sorrow, quiet is necessary.”  She bought black jet jewelry to accent her sooty “widow’s weeds” and used writing paper with the thickest margins of black.

Finally, in 1863, Mary ordered another new wardrobe, running up yet more bills, and moved into the stage known as half-mourning, exchanging her lusterless black for fabric in lavender, gray, and somber purples with a little touch of white at the wrist. (1)

 

Click here to access my related post, “The Madness of Mary Lincoln.” Also, for more posts on the Lincolns, view the drop down menu, “Categories,” in the left column, find at the top, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and click.

(1) Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987)

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Willie Lincoln

Willie Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was deeply interested in psychic phenomena. Following the death of his eleven-year-old son, Willie, (1850-1862) of typhoid fever, Lincoln was consumed with grief. He was persuaded by wife Mary to participate in several séances held in the White House. Mary believed that professional mediums could pierce the veil between this life and the next, thus allowing her and her husband to communicate with their dead son. Once Lincoln attended a seance in which a piano lifted up and moved around the room. It was in the opinion of the mediums who worked with President Lincoln that he was definitely “the possessor of extraordinary psychic powers.” (1)

Séances became popular during and after the Civil War as Americans longed to reconnect with their many loved ones killed in the violence of the Civil War

Séances became popular in the mid-to-late 19th Century as Americans longed to reconnect with their many loved ones killed in the Civil War.

The day after his first election to the presidency in 1860, Lincoln called his good friend journalist Noah Brooks (1830-1903) into his office. He had been startled by a vision of seeing two of his faces at once in a mirror and wanted to tell Brooks about it. Brooks made a written record of the conversation, later including it in his White House memoirs, Washington in Lincoln’s Time (1895). Adapted from Brooks’ work, these are Lincoln’s words:

Abraham Lincoln photographed by Mathew Brady, February 27, 1860

Abraham Lincoln photographed by Mathew Brady, February 27, 1860

It was just after my election in 1860, when the news had been coming in thick and fast all day and there had been a great “hurrah, boys,” so that I was well tired out, and went home to rest, throwing myself down on a lounge in my chamber. Opposite where I lay was a bureau with a swinging glass upon it (and here he got up and placed furniture to illustrate the position), and looking in that glass I saw myself reflected nearly at full length; but my face, I noticed had two separate and distinct images, the tip of the nose of one being about three inches from the tip of the other. I was a little bothered, perhaps startled, and got up and looked in the glass, but the illusion vanished. On lying down again, I saw it a second time, plainer, if possible, than before; and then I noticed that one of the faces was a little paler — say five shades — than the other.

Abraham Lincoln photographed by Alexander Gardner, February 5, 1865

Abraham Lincoln photographed by Alexander Gardner, February 5, 1865

I got up, and the thing melted away, and I went off, and in the excitement of the hour forgot all about it — nearly, but not quite, for the thing would once in a while come up, and give me a little pang as if something uncomfortable had happened. When I went home again that night I told my wife about it, and a few days afterward I made the experiment again, when (with a laugh), sure enough! the thing came back again; but I never succeeded in bringing the ghost back after that, though I once tried very industriously to show it to my wife, who was somewhat worried about it. She thought it was a “sign” that I was to be elected to a second term of office, and that the paleness of one of the faces was an omen that I should not see life through the last term. 

(1) Wallenchinsky, David and Wallace, Irving. The People’s Almanac (New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1975)

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eugenie
As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Mary Todd Lincoln slavishly followed the fashion lead of the Empress Eugénie, Empress Consort of France (1853-1871), the wife of Napoléon III, Emperor of the French. The empress’ style was reported in detail by the Vogue magazine of the day, Godey’s Lady’s Book. In 1860, age 32, the Empress Eugénie was considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe. At a ball, she outshone all other women. It was said that every man was in love with her. Her friend, the Princess de Metternich recalled that, on one occasion, the empress was

“attired in a white gown spangled with silver and dressed with her most beautiful diamonds. She had carelessly thrown over her shoulders a sort of burnous of white embroidered with gold, and the murmurs of admiration followed her like a trail of lighted gunpowder.”

In 1862, the Empress Eugénie set the fashion world on fire. She appeared at the races, one of the biggest social events of the year, without a shawl, a bold move for a society woman, especially for an empress. She was wearing an elegant, off-the-shoulder gown by the very up-and-coming couturier Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman who had recently opened the haute couture shop, “The House of Worth,” in Paris. The empress did not want the lovely gown hidden from view. The world of fashion took note. “The streets of Paris were soon buzzing with ladies without shawls.”

From her childhood days, Mary Todd Lincoln adored being the center of male attention. Once she became the First Lady, she longed to become a fashion trend setter. Ignoring the dowdy style of the English Queen Victoria, she modeled herself after Empress Eugénie, sticking flowers in her hair and bodice, piling on the jewels, and opting for expensive gowns that dipped in the bust and shoulder. Husband Abraham Lincoln called Mary’s dresses her “cat-tails.” Mary tried hard to be fashionably dressed but she was generally displeased with the result; the hooped dresses and yards of fabric swamped her short frame and the excess jewelry and ornamentation was overwhelming.

Mary Todd Lincoln in a photograph by Mathew Brady, November 1861, in a heavy white silk dress onto which Washington modiste Elizabeth Keckley had sewn 60 velvet bows and countless black dots.

Mary Todd Lincoln in a photograph by Mathew Brady, November 1861, in a heavy white silk dress onto which modiste Elizabeth Keckley had sewn 60 velvet bows and countless black dots.

Mary’s departure from the high-necked muslins worn by Western women brought swift condemnation from Oregon Senator James Nesmith, a guest at an 1862 East Room reception, who wrote to his wife of the 43-year-old “weak-minded Mrs. Lincoln and her sorry show of skin and bones. She had her bosom on exhibition, a flower pot on her head – There was a train of silk dragging on the floor behind her of several yards in length.” Mary Lincoln, continued the senator, who used to “cook Old Abe’s dinner and milk the cows,” now seemed eager “to exhibit her milking apparatus to public gaze.”

Mary’s plunging necklines caught Abe’s eye, too. “Whew,” he is quoted as saying, “our cat has a long tail tonight – if some of that tail was nearer the head, it would be in better style.”

(1) Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1987)

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Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882)

Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882)

When Mary and Abraham Lincoln moved into the White House in 1861, Mary was 43 years old, a time when women her age dressed in somber grays, dull browns, and boring blues. But not Mary Todd Lincoln. For her, expensive clothes were a mark of importance, of breeding. She proceeded to dress like a peacock, draping herself in bold blues, crimson, yellow, and royal purple, attracting a lot of unwanted unattention and sparking criticism from the Washington social elite. Brought up among the overdressed ladies of Kentucky, her gowns and bonnets were ornamented with flowers, lace, dots, and bows sewn on yards of velvet, taffeta, and silk at a time of war when soldiers were going without blankets. Mary took her fashion cues from Eugenie, Empress of France, whose parties and clothes appeared in line drawings and detailed descriptions in one of Mary’s favorite magazines, Godey’s Lady’s Book.

Buoyed by a grandiose sense of self-importance coupled with her new position as the president’s wife, Mary demanded what she wanted. She expected everyone to do her bidding. She was surprised when clothing merchants sent her bills. The line between purchase and donation was fuzzy. Mary looked for donors to buy her gowns and hats, rewarding them with political favors. When she blew her four-year budget for White House renovations in under a year, she contrived several plots to secretly defray her debt. In one instance, she ordered the White House gardener into selling manure from the stables at ten cents a wagonload. It raised more stink than cash. (1) Her spending eventually came to light and became a national scandal. Lincoln was mortified and had to deal with it, all the while referring to it benignly as his beloved Mary’s silly “flub-a-dub.”

Willian's of Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington's best known milliner at the time, made Mary Todd Lincoln's bonnets. Unfortunately, he also made bonnets for Mrs. Horatio Taft.

Willian

Now, back to what we were saying about Mary and her clothing:

It was an April evening. The Marine Band was playing a concert on the White House lawn. Mary and President Lincoln had invited many guests, among them Mrs. Horatio Taft. As Mrs. Lincoln approached Mrs. Taft, she spied something she wanted. Mrs. Taft was wearing a stunning bonnet trimmed with pretty purple ribbons that tied beneath her chin. Willian, the stylish French hatmaker, had just finished making Mary a bonnet with the same pretty purple ribbon. However, Willian had run out of the pretty purple ribbon before finishing Mary’s bonnet and Mary had been forced to settle for chin ties in a quieter shade of lavender. Mrs. Lincoln wanted Mrs. Taft’s pretty purple ribbons. She approached Mrs. Taft, reeling her aside, and insisted that Mrs. Taft hand over the ribbons.

Mrs. Taft was angry, but what could she do? Her mind raced with worry. Her husband Horatio was a government appointee, chief of the U.S. Patent Office. Mrs. Lincoln could get him fired and then how would they pay for teenage Julia’s private school? At a time of war, what job could Horatio get? So, begrudgingly, Mrs. Taft handed Mrs. Lincoln the pretty purple ribbons.

Later, when Julia Taft was grown up, she wrote about the incident with Mary Lincoln in her memoir, Tad Lincoln’s Father:

“This illustrates an outstanding characteristic of Mary Todd Lincoln – that she wanted what she wanted when she wanted it and no substitute!”

(1) Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1987)

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penny

penny-with-lincoln-memorial

In one week, the nation will celebrate the 200th birthday of our most revered president, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 – April 14, 1865). To commemorate the birthday of our 16th president and the issuing of the first penny a century ago, the U.S. Mint is issuing four new pennies. The “heads” side of the penny bearing Lincoln’s image remains the same while the “tails” side will alternate four new designs which represent the four major aspects of President Lincoln’s life:

Birth and early childhood in Kentucky (1809-1816)
Formative years in Indiana (1816-1830)
Professional Life in Illinois (1830-1861)
Presidency in Washington, DC (1861-1865)

Click here to see the unveiling of the images of the new coins at a ceremony held last September in Washington, D.C.

I hadn’t intended to write about Abe Lincoln today. Rather, for days now, I’ve gorged myself reading about his wife Mary, hoping soon to come to the end of the book and Internet material on her and get down to blogging. Well that is an impossible task. There is no end of Lincolnology. At last count, there were upward of 15,000 books about Abe and Mary, more than about any other person except Jesus.

A visit to the official website of the Lincoln Bicentennial assures me that I can blog all year on the Lincolns and be in step with the rest of the country, as celebrations and exhibits go on for the next eleven months.

While I was googling the image of the Lincoln Memorial which I present here, I got all misty-eyed.

Lincoln statue within the Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln statue within the Lincoln Memorial

What a great man Abraham Lincoln was. After reading about his life with Mary, I come away with even more admiration. What a difficult woman Mary was and so selfish, too (see my Feb. 3, 2009 blog below). I’ll give her credit for her abolitionist efforts but what a drag she was on our president during the darkest time of our nation’s history! She was jealous of his time away from her. He was running the country!

When I was in elementary school, February was the month we celebrated two presidents’ birthdays – Lincoln’s on the 12th and Washington’s on the 22nd. This was before there was an official “Presidents’ Day,” a day set aside to celebrate the birth of all presidents and before February became “Black History Month.” My teachers would always have a beautiful bulletin board displayed with a calendar, white doilies with red hearts for Valentine’s Day, and black cardboard cut-outs of Lincoln’s and Washington’s silhouettes. I love February.

I learned that Lincoln was poor and lived in a log cabin, that he was humble, gave speeches outdoors, and chopped firewood. We heard the Mason Weems fable that Washington could not lie to his father about chopping down a cherry tree.

washington_cherry-tree

My birthday comes two days after Washington’s. As a result, I’ve always had cherry pie instead of cake for my special dessert, because of George chopping down that cherry tree. On one birthday, my grandmother Mimi made cherry tarts for my guests and me and we went to the movies to see Lucille Ball and Bob Hope in the comedy, “Fancy Pants.”

Back to the Lincoln penny, isn’t it ironic that a president who grew up “friendless, uneducated, penniless…” should find himself commemorated on a penny? Happy Early Birthday, Abe. You rock.

5-lincoln-m

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