By Feather Schwartz Foster, 12-26-16
In late 1880, Mary Lincoln, no longer able to live on her own, left Europe and returned to live with her sister in Springfield, Illinois. She was sixty-one.
The Widow Lincoln in Exile
When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April, 1865, the effects on the country would be far-reaching. So would the effects on his widow, who was 46 at the time. Her emotional health had always been fragile. She frightened easily, had submerged herself into the Victorian mode of perpetual mourning, and could barely cope with the realities of her situation.
At the time of Lincoln’s death, Mary Lincoln had already lost two sons; one at three years, the other at eleven. She would lose another son at eighteen, and her sole surviving son would be lost to her by estrangement. Despite coming from a large family, she was, for all intents and purposes, alone in the world.
She had gone to Europe in 1868 to escape the humiliation and scandal from her aborted financial scheme to sell her clothing. Returning to America in 1871, she lost her last son, and saw her relationship with her eldest son Robert deteriorate along with her emotional health. By 1875, her condition had worsened to a point that Robert felt compelled to have his mother tried for insanity and placed in a sanitarium. Recovering from her “insanity” (which many historians believe may have been drug interaction from her various physical and psychosomatic ills), she lived for a time with her sister Elizabeth Edwards in Springfield, Illinois, in the very house where she met and later married Abraham Lincoln.
Unable to face the second humiliation and scandal of her troubled widowhood, she once again departed for Europe. This time she went to Pau, France.
Pau, in the south of France, was specifically chosen by Mary Lincoln, since it was said to have the best climate in Europe, and she was always prone to chills and fevers. Good weather was a necessity for her refuge and the solitude she claimed to want.
She lived in a residence-hotel, one of many she had lived in during those years of her widowhood. Unable and unwilling to move back to the Lincoln house in Springfield, with its sad memories, she became virtually homeless. Residence hotels were common in those times. People who were alone in the world favored them for providing the amenities they needed while relieving them of the responsibilities of home-ownership they could neither afford or maintain.
For the better part of three years, she remained in general seclusion, making a few superficial acquaintances, and indulging in her preoccupation with shopping. Then her physical health began to fail. She was losing her eyesight, likely due to cataracts (and possibly an undiagnosed diabetes some historians suspect). In addition, she suffered a severe back injury from a fall. X-rays would not be invented for more than another decade, but it is not unlikely that a bone or two may have been broken. The chronic pain would plague her for the rest of her life.
It was time to go home. The only place she could call “home” was her sister Elizabeth’s house in Springfield. She booked passage.
Mary Lincoln’s Belongings
One of the very few people who the Widow Lincoln cared for and trusted was young Lewis Baker, her sister’s grandson, now a young man around twenty. He was sent to New York to meet Mary’s ship, and escort her back to Springfield. He was also tasked with helping to ship her belongings to the Edwards’ house.
Despite Mary’s homelessness, she had a huge amount of possessions trailing after her wherever she went – like the scattered debris tail of a comet. More than sixty crates and trunks and boxes were filled with the stuff of her life. Clothing and jewelry and household goods she hadn’t used in years and never would, Lincoln memorabilia, mementos from her White House years, artwork and decorative items she had purchased. Some things had never been taken out of their original boxes.
Elizabeth and Ninian Edwards had agreed to have her come. She was family, and they knew she had nowhere else to go. But they were unprepared for the general disturbance Mary-in-residence would cause them. They knew she was demanding and difficult, but they were overwhelmed at the wagonloads of her baggage.
In those days, an upstairs room was usually assigned to store a family’s empty luggage. Trips usually lasted for several weeks; clothing and accessories required a great deal of care and room in packing. Families could easily have more than a dozen large trunks.
With Mary’s arrival, sufficient room needed to be found in the Edwards’ house to store her filled crates and trunks. Within days of Mrs. Lincoln’s arrival, the Edwards’ long-time housemaid resigned. It seems her bedroom was directly below one of the rooms containing Mary’s heavy trunks, and the ceiling was buckling. The maid had a legitimate fear that the ceiling would collapse from the weight, and fall on her when she was asleep.
Mary Lincoln seldom (if ever) left the house, and usually kept to herself and her room. Instead, she “visited” her trunks and belongings. Despite her bad back, she climbed the stairs and remained on her knees for hours, bending over various cases, examining their contents, unfolding and refolding, and thinking whatever private thoughts came to her mind.
Springfield children, too young to remember the First Lady of two decades earlier, regarded her as a peculiar old woman who sat alone in a darkened room upstairs, never lifting the shades. They were not completely wrong.
Baker, Jean – Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography – W.W.Norton & Co. 1999
Clinton, Catherine – Mrs. Lincoln: A Life – HarperCollins, 2009
Turner, Justin G. & Turner, Linda Levitt (eds.) – Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters – Knopf, New York, 1972
Image 1: A “doctored” photograph of Mary, said to be the last ever taken.
Image 2: The home of Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards in Springfield, IL. Mary was married in that house, and died in that house.