Route 66 Series: The Lincoln Home and Mary’s Ghost
It’s that time of year again! If you’ve followed this blog awhile, you’re probably familiar with my fascination with the other worldly, especially when it comes to ghosts. It’s a theme I’ve explored often with some of Gettysburg’s most famous haunts (view them by clicking here, here, and here). And while the Civil War is a great place to go looking for ghosts, this year, I’m taking you down a different road (highway puns).
Of all our stops on Route 66, the Lincoln home was one of our favorites. It is wonderfully preserved, furnished just like it was then, right down to perfect re-creations of bed spreads and wallpapers. The doorway to the Lincoln home is a true doorway through time, as well as an entrance into the personal lives of two of America’s most famous figures.
And while there’s no better candidate for ghost stories than tragic Abraham Lincoln, he isn’t the one who haunts this place. At least not according to some former employees of the charming historical residence in Springfield, Illinois. People who tell of phantom taps on the shoulders while cleaning certain rooms. A chair that creaks and rocks despite no one sitting in it. And misty apparitions, not of a forlorn President, but of a stern and troubled Mary Todd.
And really, it’s not hard to understand why her troubled soul might linger. Of all the first ladies, Mary Lincoln bore a considerable brunt of the public abuse. Her Southern roots provided ample fodder on their own. Born to a slave-holding family in Kentucky, Mary had her own brothers serving in gray while she resided in the Union capitol, on the arm of the most important figure in the country. Newspapers and politicians across the Union accused her of being a Southern sympathizer, a snobby Southern Bell, and even a Southern spy.
And she wasn’t known to have the smoothest personality either. Many of her contemporaries described Mary Todd as a selfish woman, a spoiled girl who put her own wants and needs above everyone else’s. As a wife, she suffered severe mood swings that ruffled even Abe’s seemingly unflappable tail feathers. As for life in the White House, frequent temper tantrums from Mary Lincoln’s quarters, over trivial things such as a misfit dress or furniture out of place, put the entire staff on edge. Some White House aides even referred to her as “the Hell Cat” behind her back.
Then there was the ambition. From an early age, Mary was obsessed with having a prominent place in society and cultivating an image to support that. A lot of fingers point at Mary when people ask who really pushed Lincoln into seeking political office. Some of her peers even said that she insisted, early on in her marriage, that she would be a President’s wife.
As for donning the right image, even during her belle years, Mary Todd sprung for fancy gowns, fancier parties, and the most upscale living accommodations. The spending habit only intensified as she grew older, and as her once lowly husband made a name for himself. Mary had accounts with all the local shops and several in the big cities, and she rarely considered the financial ramifications of her frequent sprees. More than once, she put her husband in grave financial peril when she was unable to pay off the credit she had accumulated at home and abroad.
Her shopping habit put her in a sticky spot nationally too – when she took on a lavish refurbish of the White House in the middle of the country’s most horrific conflict. I believe tone deaf is what people might say today when thinking about a pampered first lady, with the country falling to ruin and countless soldiers dying horrible deaths, blowing through thousands of dollars on new furniture and carpets for the executive mansion. As if the project wasn’t questionable enough, she went way over budget, making quite the fool of her husband in the process.
Yes, on the outside, Mary Todd Lincoln is an easy target – well worthy of all the criticism that history has slung at her. But when I visited the Springfield home, I felt an overwhelming sense of grief. It sank down to my shoes and made me clutch my stomach at times. And as much as I wanted to blame Lincoln for it, Mary’s face kept appearing in my head. As I walked through the rooms she once decorated with care, the furniture she once placed with determined precision, the wallpapers she picked out herself (although the current ones are reproductions) – it was almost like being inside Mary’s mind. Experiencing her as a normal human woman instead of a historical laughing stock.
That feeling only grew stronger when we visited the Lincoln Museum, where the Lincoln lives are re-created with wax statues and historical scenery. One particular exhibit showed Mary towards the end of her White House years – after many, heart-wrenching losses which I will soon recount for you. Fake Mary sat in a rocking chair, staring listlessly out the window, while rain poured down and thunder rumbled above her. A stormy period in her life, illustrated beautifully by the silhouetted woman in that pitifully creaky chair. The whole thing felt… well… ghostly.
And maybe I got haunted on some level, because I really started thinking about Mary Todd. As if her spirit stood right next to me and begged me to look at her. Not the household name history loves to swipe at, but the woman who struggled to cope with so many bumps and bruises. We live in a world that seems increasingly polarized and unwilling to see the gray layers between the black and white. But the reality is that things aren’t so simple. Mary Lincoln was a turbulent, unstable woman. Sometimes even outright hostile. But why? Perhaps that’s the most important question, and one we need to ask more often.
We can start right now with Mary, and we’ll go way back to her early life, when she lost her mother at age six. As most widowers did in those days, her father quickly remarried. A charmed life turned to volatile ground for Mary, who clashed with her step-mother on many different levels.
As for her courtship with Lincoln, that wasn’t exactly a bed of roses either. Mary’s family sneered at tall, gangly Lincoln from a humble one-room cabin as a serious husband prospect. So much so that Mary eventually resorted to secret rendezvous with her tall, lawyer lover in the house of a friend (carefully supervised, of course). For reasons not exactly clear, Lincoln and Mary also broke up for a spell, reuniting over a year later, rekindling their romance, and getting married in a small, very hasty ceremony.
But forget about happily ever after. Mary spent the early years of her marriage mostly on her own, caring for rambunctious boys Robert and Edward Lincoln, while Abe Lincoln traveled about the country to keep his law practice afloat. As someone whose husband also travels for work, usually for months at a time, I can attest to the extreme challenges these long separations present – both emotionally and practically. I imagine the difficulties only amplify when raising children is involved.
And all this among at least one pretty nasty case of post-partum depression, which added significantly to Mary’s already perilous mood swings. Her temperament became so bad that Lincoln seemed grateful for extra work on the circuit, so he could escape the landmines at home. Which probably worked out fine for him, but didn’t add to the already lack of comforts for struggling Mrs. Lincoln.
But compared to what was to come, these were happy times, passed mostly in that quiet home in Springfield. The only home the Lincolns actually owned themselves, which Mary took great pleasure in fitting out however their income would allow. She was happiest when entertaining people – friends, political allies, family, and neighbors. Many of these friends say that Mary bore her challenges with extreme fortitude during these years. Doing quite well with raising her children and keeping the home despite a smaller income and rarely having Lincoln’s help. She also showed some incredible political prowess when it came to advising her husband and talking with his cohorts.
Unfortunately, the good times wouldn’t last. In 1850, their son Edward died from tuberculosis. A tragedy that socked both the Lincolns right in the gut – throwing a shroud of grief over their once happy home. And while they eventually recovered from their grief, enough to go on and have more children, it was only the first in a long, perilous line of tragedies.
The next one came hard and swift in February of 1862. Mary had recently finished her infamous White House refurbish, one that earned her the scorn of an entire nation. And maybe she deserved it for the ill timing, but it’s worth pointing out the White House’s condition when Mary got her ambitious little hands on it. Mouse-eaten curtains. Rugs shredded from decades of foot traffic and souvenir scraping. Broken cabinets. Rodent droppings everywhere. It’s the side of the story we don’t often hear when it comes to Mary’s expensive project. We also don’t hear that many of her sweeping changes crafted the executive mansion into the glowing estate it is today. Could it have waited a year or two? Maybe. But it absolutely needed done at some point, and we can’t really argue with the lasting results.
Quite proud of her achievement (and really, she should have been on some level), Mary decided to host a grand ball at the White House, with a guest list totaling five hundred. Excluded society members and Lincoln rivals were quick to condemn the ball, especially with a war ripping apart the country. But those lucky enough to attend described it as absolutely enchanting, like something out of a fairy tale. Mary herself looked like a princess, in a stunner white gown decorated top to bottom with perfectly elegant, hand-crafted, and countless individual black blossoms.
But it was the décor and food spread, all personally overseen by Mary, that snagged the most attention. She hired one of the most famous (and expensive) caterers in Washington, which resulted in a jaw-dropping spread of multiple courses – beef, ham, and pheasant, roasted side courses, delicately wrapped hors d’oeuvres, and the dessert table – an array of sugary, confectionary versions of things like the State House, a bee’s hive, and the Union Flag, all carved to perfect precision. The party boosted everyone’s war-weary spirits and carried on into the dawn hours.
Things weren’t as charming behind the closed doors of the Lincoln family rooms. While party guests laughed and carried on downstairs, Willie, Abe and Mary’s eleven-year-old son, lay gravely ill. They both frequently stepped away from the party to check in on their ailing child. And despite the best medical care, Willie, the undisputed doll of the White House, the apple of his famous father’s eye, and the charming boy who often played soldier with the chuckling White House guards, died.
It was a staggering blow to both parents. Abe was too despondent for words, choking up in the presence of his cabinet during critical meetings. Mary was so devastated she couldn’t leave her bed, not even for the funeral. When she did finally recover enough to get up, she couldn’t go near the room where her son passed his final days. She draped herself in layers of black. She burst into wild sobs at the mere mention of her departed boy. She was unalterably and irreversibly broken.
Only to break even harder in 1865. After everything Mary had weathered with her husband, after a Civil War, relentless politics, two dead children, and a nation who spurned her every move, Mary lost Abe too. Not to some unexpected illness or natural cause, which would have been bad enough. But to an assassin’s bullet – a blood-spattered, grizzly murder that took place right in front of her.
Is it any wonder the following years were incredibly rough ones for Mary Lincoln’s mental stability? And indeed, her life after the White House was an inevitable slew of mental snaps, spending sprees, debilitating depression, and grim ravings about ghosts. She began hosting seances with several odd (and sometimes unscrupulous) sorts to reach her departed husband and her two sons.
Two dead sons which, unfortunately for a woman already teetering precariously on the edge of her sanity, would soon become three. In 1871, Tad Lincoln succumbed at age 18 to a chest illness, most likely Tuberculosis or Pneumonia.
If Mary had any chance at recovering her mental faculties, this third child’s death most definitely pounded them into the dust. She became so wildly ill that her only surviving son, Robert Lincoln, had her briefly committed to an insane asylum. A commitment Mary fought through the courts. She was eventually freed and sent to live with her sisters – a severe fall from grace for a lady who once roamed the halls of the Nation’s most famous residence.
And perhaps a good reason why she chose to linger at that house in Springfield after her death. Because while no part of Mary’s life seemed easy, this period at least had her troubles contained to the privacy of her home, instead of splashed all over the newspapers in every corner of the country. And she probably had a lot more friends back then than she does now.
As for me, I didn’t see any chairs rocking by themselves or misty apparitions when I toured that home. I felt no taps on the shoulder. But I did hear some ghostly whispers inside my own head. I felt that very sad energy, begging me to take my own advice and look at the other side of the coin. To learn about the troubled, tragic human behind the mythical figure.
Sometimes, it’s easy to join the mob when it comes to casting stones. When we see a name dragged through the internet mud, when we read about someone making a terrible, sometimes unforgivable mistake. Pointing the fingers comes a lot easier than trying to empathize or understand. And it especially comes easier than realizing we are all vulnerable to making the same mistakes. We all go through pain or highly stressful circumstances that sometimes affect our actions, our minds. We all mess up sometimes. Most of us just have the luxury of doing so outside the public eye.
And I think Mary’s spirit reminded me we would do well to remember that before we cast the first stone – whether at Mary Todd Lincoln, or anyone else.
Route 66 Travel – Visit to Lincoln Home
Lincoln Museum: Springfield, Illinois
“Haunted Highway: The Spirits of Route 66” – E. Robson & D. Freeman
“Lincoln” – David H. Donald
“A. Lincoln” – Ronald C. White
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more from our Route 66 adventure, click here.
Need more Halloween? Learn all about spooky season’s favorite candy by clicking here
ALL THE LIGHTS ABOVE US – MAY, 2022
Don’t forget to check out my debut novel, a story of five women and their struggle to survive D-Day, coming in spring to a bookstore near you! Click here to learn more!