Posts Tagged ‘Robert Lincoln’

Lincoln is assassinated at Ford's Theatre by John Wilkes Booth, April 14, 1865

Lincoln is assassinated at Ford's Theatre by John Wilkes Booth, April 14, 1865

On the morning of April 15, 1865, the day Abraham Lincoln died, someone emptied his pockets. These contents were put in a box which was then wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string. The box was then handed to Abraham’s oldest son Robert Lincoln who was at his father’s deathbed. Robert Lincoln then passed the box on to his daughter, Mary Lincoln Isham, who donated the box to the Library of Congress in 1937. Labeled “Do Not Open,” the mystery box was tucked away in a vault in the Librarian’s office and forgotten for almost four decades.

Finally, in 1975, then Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin decided to open the box. With staff looking on in eager anticipation, Boorstin untied the string, tore off the brown paper, and opened the box.

Lincoln assassination artifacts: contents of Lincoln's pockets the night he was murdered (left) and copy of a newspaper announcing the assassination (right)

Lincoln assassination artifacts: contents of Lincoln's pockets the night he was murdered (left) and copy of a newspaper announcing the assassination (right)

The night Lincoln was murdered at Ford’s Theatre, he was carrying: 

  • a pair of small spectacles folded into a silver case,
  • a pair of reading glasses,
  • a small velvet eyeglass cleaner (I can’t find above),
  • an ivory pocketknife trimmed with silver,
  • a large linen handkerchief with “A. Lincoln” stitched in red,
  • a tiny pencil ( I can’t find above),
  • a brass sleeve button,
  • a fancy watch fob, and
  • a brown leather wallet lined with purple silk. It contained a Confederate five-dollar bill bearing the likeness of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and 8 newspaper clippings Lincoln had cut out and saved. All of the clippings praised him. (2)
  •  These artifacts were put on display at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C, in 1976, the year of our nation’s 200th birthday and are still on view today. Though only everyday items, the contents of Lincoln’s pockets are among the items visitors to the Library most often ask to see.

    Here’s a close-up of Lincoln’s reading glasses, broken at the left hinge and mended with a bit of string. Frugal Abe wore rickety reading glasses while, in contrast, extravagant Mary had a collection of 300 pairs of gloves.

    Abraham Lincoln's reading glasses

    Abraham Lincoln's reading glasses


    (1) Freedman, Russell. Lincoln: A Photobiography. (New York: Clarion Books, 1987)
    (2) Fleming, Candace. The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary.  (New York: Random House, Inc., 2008)

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    lincoln-drawingApril 14, 1865, was one of the happiest days of Abraham Lincoln’s life. It was Good Friday. General Robert E. Lee had surrendered five days earlier and the Civil War was over. The Union had been saved. Lincoln had a relaxing breakfast with his 21-year-old son Robert, whom he called “Bob,” who had just arrived for a visit. Robert Lincoln (1843-1926) had studied law at Harvard University until the closing weeks of the war when he joined the Union Army as part of General Ulysses Grant’s staff.

    “Well, my son, you have returned safely from the front,” President Lincoln said. “The war is now closed, and we soon will live in peace with the brave men that have been fighting against us.” (1) He was eager to see the country heal and wanted no persecutions for the Confederacy, no “bloody work.” (2) Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s personal assistant, said that Lincoln’s face “was more cheerful than [she] had seen it for a long while.” (1)

    At 11 a.m. he met with his regular cabinet and General Grant, who was concerned that not all of the Confederate forces under Johnston had surrendered to General Sherman. Lincoln told Grant not to worry, that good tidings were coming, “for he had last night the usual dream which he had preceding nearly every great and important event of the War.” He described the dream. He had seen himself on the water in some type of boat moving rapidly “towards an indefinite shore.” (1)

    That afternoon, he took his usual carriage ride with Mary. Mary had never seen her husband so “cheerful,” she told a friend, “his manner was even playful. At three o’clock, in the afternoon, he drove out with me in the open carriage….I said to him, laughingly, ‘Dear Husband, you almost startle me by your great cheerfulness.'”

    He replied, “And well I may feel so, Mary. I consider this day, the war, has come to a close….We must both, be more cheerful in the future – between the war and the loss of our darling Willie – we have both been very miserable.” As the carriage rolled toward the Navy Yard, Lincoln recalled happy memories of is old Springfield home and the adventures as a lawyer riding the circuit. He keenly felt the pressures of the presidency lifting and the future looking brighter.


    Once back at the White House, Lincoln sat down and began reading a book, something humorous by John Phoenix. Mary kept calling him to dinner but he wouldn’t put the book down; he was totally absorbed – as always. Finally, Mary insisted he come to the table at once. They had to eat early, she reminded him, as they had plans to see Laura Keene perform in the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre that evening. It had been announced in the papers; they had to go. Lincoln preferred to stay home. He had no need for the escape of the theatre that day; he was already jubilant. But go he must, as he didn’t want to disappoint the people.

    The morning edition of the National Republican had announced that Ulysses and Julia Grant would join the Lincolns in the president’s box for the play, but Julia didn’t want to go, saying she had her heart set on visiting their children in New Jersey. While that may have been true, it was more likely that it was an excuse to get out of an engagement with Mary Lincoln, whom she despised.

    The Lincolns had a hard time finding a replacement for the Grants. Secretary of War Stanton and Secretary of the Treasury Chase also declined. Stanton had been trying for months to keep the president from exposing himself to the danger of such public places and both men thought the theatre a frivolity. It was decided that Clara Harris and her fiance, Major Henry Rathbone, would substitute for the Grants.

    A little after eight o’clock, the carriage that would take Abraham and Mary to Ford’s Theatre rolled onto the front drive. Lincoln no doubt sighed. “I suppose it’s time to go,” he told Speaker Schuyler Colfax, “though I would rather stay.” He assisted Mary into the carriage and they took off.

    (1) Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005)
    (2) Freedman, Russell. Lincoln: A Photobiography. (New York: Scholastic Inc., 1987)

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    Regarding some of my recent posts on insane asylums (see sidebar, “Categories: The Insane Asylum”), my neighbor and friend, Karen O’Quin, wrote:

    I really liked your blog – thanks for sending!!  I see a theme there.  My experience with Austin State Hospital is that when I first started working at Travis State School in 1967, they only had men there – they called them “boys”.  Some had been there for years as they had been admitted to ASH long before because they were a little “weird” and then became too institutionalized to be let out.  They did not have IQs consistent with mental retardation.  Some were later placed in group homes.  I don’t know if you’ve read Mary, Mrs. A Lincoln, but it is her account of being committed to a lunatic asylum by her son, Robert.  Someone very recently found letters she had written to her attorneys from the asylum.  I think they were going to be a book, too. 

    Mary Lincoln (1818-1882)

    Mary Lincoln (1818-1882)

    When I was young, I remember my mother talking about Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, and her inappropriate and extravagant spending sprees during the depth of the Civil War. Above all I remember Mom mentioning that Mary had a collection of about 300 pairs of gloves. Thinking about it now, it reminds me of Imelda Marcos, wife of the president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, and her closet rack of 2700 pairs of shoes.

    Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln came together as husband and wife from two very different worlds. Mary was pampered and rich; Abraham was tested and wise. Both were prone to depression but it was Mary, with her fragile mind, perhaps schizophrenic or bipolar, who finally cratered under the constant barrage of grief and loss that became her sad lot in life.  Three of her sons died while her husband was president during a bloody and acrimonious civil war. The hate mail sent to her husband was unbelievable. Then her beloved Abraham, her anchor, was assassinated. It was more than Mary could bear. She descended into madness.

    She began to wander hotel corridors in her nightgown, was certain someone was trying to poison her, complained that an Indian spirit was removing wires from her eyes, and continued her frantic spending, purchasing yard after yard of elegant drapery when she had no windows in which to hang it. (PBS American Experience: “The Time of the Lincolns”)

    The doctors treated her with laudanum which gave her hallucinations, eye spasms, and headaches. She began to behave bizarrely, creating a public scandal. Her only surviving son Robert, a practicing attorney, arranged an insanity trial and had her committed to the asylum Bellevue Place just outside Chicago. Although Mary was only hospitalized for three months, she never forgave Robert for the humiliation and deprivation.

    A recently published book, The Madness of Mary Lincoln by Jason Emerson, awarded “Book of the Year” by the Illinois State Historical Society in 2007, examines Mary’s mental illness. The book is based on a rare find – a trunk of letters found in the attic of Robert Lincoln’s lawyer. They contain the lost letters written by Mary during her stay in the asylum. The book sheds light on the ongoing mystery of Mary’s mental illness, its nature, roots, and progression, and suggests that Abraham Lincoln had some understanding of it and provided stability.

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