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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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SOURCES

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 

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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! 

70 Comments on “Route 66 Series: The Lincoln Home and Mary’s Ghost

  1. A tremendous retelling of Mary Lincoln. You also raise many valuable points that are unfortunately least likely to be read by the people that need them most. Everyone else may realize that someone may need to realizethese points but unless that person realizes it, then it probably may not happen.

    • You are probably right – but I will keep trying 🙂 I’m very, very glad you enjoyed the post and took a lot from it. <3

    • I’m afraid not – and her face more appeared in my mind than in front of my eyes – I think it was more of an inner haunting for me 🙂

  2. What a wonderful thumbnail of Mary Todd Lincoln’s life! She was indeed a troubled woman. You have to wonder if she would have been more stable today with a therapist and medications to help her with her mental illnesses.

    • I can’t help but ask that very same question. I’m very glad you enjoyed this post. I hope Mary Lincoln is at least at peace now, wherever she is!

  3. Very engrossing and empathetic post, MB.

    I toured Mary Todd’s childhood home in Lexington, Kentucky, about 15 years ago — a place that also has a strong effect on a visitor.

    • I would imagine so! There’s so many places like that I want to visit, I’m hoping next year we can go out and do some real traveling again. Thanks as always for reading Dave, I always enjoy hearing from you!

  4. I have seen the results of the loss of a child in many women up close and personal, and I really think there could be nothing worse.
    Poor Mary.
    The Lincoln home was a wonderful visit for Pretty and me, however…whether we believed in ghosts or not.
    Best wishes for your new book!

    • I too have seen what losing a child does to parents and I don’t know how they get through it. And to lose three… I can’t even imagine. Poor Mary, indeed! I’m glad you enjoyed the post and your visit to the Lincoln home! 🙂 I certainly have never seen a ghost, but I do truly believe people leave energy behind that we can feel.

  5. M.B., your writing is spectacular! You captured the haunting sorrow of Mary soaked in that beautiful house. M.B., as you know, I’ve spent most of my life reading and learning of the Lincoln’s. My office decor was Abraham Lincoln (many ladies found this odd–oh well!). I have visited the Springfield, IL home, museum, and to the reconstructed New Salem village. With all of that said, I share the exact sentiments about Mary Todd Lincoln. The tragedies. The loss. The suffering. In our current life mental health has taken the forefront of focus. Labeling someone insane is much easier than understanding and providing empathy, love, care, and concern. I can’t imagine the loss and heartache. How would I handle those situations? Through my own personal losses, tragedies, and up and down emotions, I have learned to have that much empathy and kindness to others; not judgement or critcism. She lived in turbulent times. She handled the hand dealt to her the best she could. What an honor you have given her through your beautiful words. I hope you are doing well my friend. It’s so good to “see” you! 🤍

    • Wow this comment absolutely blew me away, thank you very much for sharing these thoughts. I’m glad I got to know Mary a little better when visiting her home, because I definitely was a bit hard on her before then. And if it helps – I have a portrait of Lincoln hanging in my office, so you’re not alone! 🙂 I’m so very glad, as always, that you came by for a read. I know it’s been awhile since my last post, I’ve been really busy with my book – I’m sure you know what that’s like! 🙂

      • I wish I could write as you! I’m trying to guide my thoughts into a devotional type read. It’s just a WIP that has been in my background for quite a while. I’m so glad to know are offices have similar decor! I have found my soul sister! 😄 Keep in writing. I’m so proud of you for your book!

      • Soul sisters indeed, I don’t know too many others that have Lincoln in their office. I also have a painting of Frank Luke taking down a balloon in my office. If you have one of those as well, that would really settle it! 🙂

  6. As always, M.B, your research and story is outstanding. Enjoyed it. Wish I could write as well as you.

  7. This is an incredible post, MB. I really never studied much about Mrs. Lincoln, dismissing her as spoiled and out of touch. Thanks for this in depth piece. 🙂

  8. A great story that sheds explicative light on an historical figure few of us know much about. And so well crafted, as we have come to expect.

  9. What an engaging and empathetic telling of Mary Todd Lincoln’s life. You do so well at tying historical events to modern-day traumas, providing lessons for us all. I aspire to do this as well as you, someday.

    • That means a lot to me to hear that! 🙂 Thank you so much. I’m very glad you enjoyed the post.

  10. MB, I loved this post lady! Yes, two sides to every story. That poor woman. 😢. On another note, pretty sure I stayed in a haunted cabin in crested Butte…I SWEAR the doorknob on the door to my room turned every night – slowly back and forth. I didn’t sleep so good for a week 😂😂

    • GAH!! That would freak me out too!!! As much as I love to read and write about ghosts, I haven’t had an experience like that one (yet!) 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post!

    • Thank you so much – I’m very glad you liked the post. Hope you are well!

  11. What an interesting and quite wonderful synopsis on Mary Todd Lincoln! Your writing is fabulous!
    Sending well wishes for your book!

  12. Another fascinating post. It’s been many years since we visited the house and at the time we were probably more focused on Lincoln himself, so it was good to see things from Mary Todd Lincoln’s perspective. Thank you.

    • So glad you enjoyed it! I’d love to go back to that house again sometime, we didn’t have a ton of time there since we were on a bit of a schedule.

  13. Such a beautiful thoughtful write-up. You painted Mary Todd’s humanity so well, my eyes mist up reading about her. What people may see as follies of Mary Todd might have been plain coping mechanisms (though I do not wish to discount the fact that she, like everyone of us human beings, had her own set of follies and peculiarities).

    • Yes, you said it beautifully – we all have our own flaws and brokenness. Usually carved out from our circumstances, whatever those may be. Thanks so much for reading and understanding <3

  14. What a sympathetic post, MB! I knew nothing about Mary and am fascinated. It sounds as though she may have suffered from a psychosis, bipolar perhaps? Her life was full of sadness but with astonishing success. One, if not many of my ancestors, was a slave owner from Kentucky. I feel Mary’s pain.

    • I’m sure she had some emotional disorders at the very least. It’s too bad they knew so little of illnesses like that back then 🙁

  15. What a beautiful yet sad story of a famous First Lady. Once again, I learned more from you about her life than in any history book. She was definitely a troubled soul. The hauntings are interesting!

  16. This was a fascinating read, MB. There were so many details about her life that I didn’t know. I was aware that she had mental/emotional turmoil as a companion for many years, but I was especially intrigued by her love of entertaining, spendthrift habits, and so on. The house itself has been beautifully restored: so beautifully that I have a sudden urge to visit there, even though they’ve never interested me in the past.

    One of the most interesting details — one that had escaped me in the past — is that she came from a slave-holding family. Given the sorts of divisions abroad in the land today, her story may have as much to say to us as that of The Great Emancipator’s. Beyond that, the loss of so many children would have affected even the most stable parent among us — and she clearly wasn’t that. Again, this was a great post. Thanks for all the work you put into it!

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it and took a lot from it. I think it goes to show how much people need our compassion, just as much today if not more so! Everyone’s fighting their own battles and some of them are quite extreme.

  17. A very good and timely reminder to not be so quick to judge, or to fall in with mob mentality. Your thoughtful and insightful look at Mary Todd is the breath of fresh air we need today.

    • We’re all fighting our own battles, especially in such turbulent times! <3 Glad you enjoyed this and I hope you are doing well!

  18. That’s a wonderful recounting of Mary’s story. Such an interesting read. I could really feel her grief through your words MB. Nowadays she would have been easily treated. But to lose all those children, heart breaking.

    • Yes, I can’t even imagine losing all those children plus her husband. Heart-breaking indeed. I’m very glad you enjoyed the post.

  19. Excellent writing. M.B. Thank you for reminding us that Mary Todd Lincoln was one lone human being with the weight of her and the wider world on her shoulders, and who suffered one blow of fate after another.

    • <3 Yes, she had a life packed with tragedy! I'm very glad you enjoyed the post.

  20. Thanks for filling in some of the details of her life, M.B. All I knew was that she suffered from mental illness. After all her losses, it’s no wonder it affected her mental health.

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