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Sorrow and Pity

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Before opening the FedEx package in his hands, Kim Bauer prepared for the inevitable letdown. “Nine times out of 10,” says Bauer, a curator at the Illinois Historical Library in Springfield, “these things turn out to be facsimiles or reprints.” Not this time.

The overnight delivery contained five original letters by Abraham Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, and one by her only surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln. They were written in 1874, nearly a decade after the Civil War President had been assassinated and shortly before Robert had her declared a “lunatic” and committed to a private asylum. Most of the letters were about her various medical problems and were written to her personal physician, Dr. Willis Danforth. Filled with misspellings and crossed-out words, they reinforce the accepted historical portrait of Mrs. Lincoln, who then lived in a Chicago hotel room, as a desperately lonely and tormented widow. In one she wrote, “Dear Dr. Danforth, Please, oblige me by sending about 4 more powders. I had a miserable night last night and took the 5 you left—what is to become of this esccefsive [sic] wakefullnesfs [sic], it is impossible to divine.”

What seems almost impossible is that the letters survived at all. “Not much exists from that period,” says Bauer, 40, “because Robert Todd Lincoln had open contracts with several auction dealers, in which he would purchase and destroy his mother’s letters.” The newly discovered missives came to Bauer through descendants of Danforth who live in Wisconsin and wish to remain anonymous. The family parted with the letters for $34,250—half their appraised value. In the one Robert, the then-prominent Chicago attorney, writes to Danforth, he complains about press coverage leading up to his mother’s 1875 insanity trial. At that hearing, Mrs. Lincoln implored, “Oh, Robert, to think that my son would do this to me.”

Historians have long known that the wife of the 16th President was so mercurial, eccentric and tempestuous that Lincoln’s White House staff secretly called her Hell Cat. Historians also believe that Lincoln himself suffered from severe mood swings, making the marriage sometimes difficult.

In 1862, when the Lincolns’ 11-year-old son Willie died of scarlet fever, a grief-stricken Mrs. Lincoln began exhibiting alarming signs of emotional distress. She held seances to contact Willie—even dragging her husband to one. Three years later, Lincoln too was dead, followed in 1871 by their 18-year-old son Tad, who succumbed to tuberculosis. (Son Edward died of diphtheria in 1850 at age 3.) By the time she composed the letters, Mrs. Lincoln had become unmoored. She suffered from migraines, hallucinations and insomnia so persistent it is believed she had become dependent on narcotics. “People ask me, ‘Was she crazy?’ ” says Bauer. “My opinion is that in today’s society, we would be able to understand her mental state and treat her.”

To Illinois state historian Thomas F. Schwartz, the letters portray a survivor. In them, he says, Mrs. Lincoln gripes about guests who stayed too long, servants who worked too little and other day-to-day tidbits. “She is socializing and writing to Dr. Danforth and Rev. [David] Swing,” says Schwartz, “people in modern terms we would call part of our ‘support group.’ ”

Whether she was seriously disturbed or merely eccentric, historians agree that Mary Todd Lincoln’s final years—she died on July 16, 1882, at age 63—were anguished. Perhaps the most poignant letter was to her son, which dealt with funeral instructions: “I wish my remains to be clothed in the white silk dress which will be found in the lower drawer of the bureau in my room. I desire that my body shall remain for two days (48 hours) with the lid not screwed down and on the 3rd day, after my death, Professor Swing acceding, I wish the coffin taken to the latter’s church, he preaching the funeral sermon from the 23rd Psalm.”

Her instructions were followed, it seems, except that Reverend Swing chose instead to read from the 90th Psalm.

Christina Cheakalos

John Slania in Springfield