Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Three Lincoln Mothers.

There were three mothers who greatly influenced Abraham Lincoln: his own mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln; his stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln; and the mother of his children, Mary Todd Lincoln.

All three women spent their girlhood days in Kentucky. When Abraham was but nine years old he saw his mother for the last time. Just before leaving for the Inauguration at Washington in February 1861, he made a special trip to Coles County, Illinois, to bid his stepmother good-bye. On that fateful night in Ford's Theatre, he sat beside the mother of his children. Nancy lies buried close by her Indiana home in a beautiful state park, Sarah rests not far from her Illinois home which has also become a state park, and Mary lies beside her husband in the mausoleum at Springfield, Illinois.

Nancy Hanks

Lincoln's own mother was once despised and censured by most of those who wrote about her. She has now emerged from the purely traditional and misty background which made her a waif and an irresponsible wanderer, to an honorable place in the family history of her noble son. This has come about only by the untiring efforts of several historians who were not willing to allow her place in history to become established by the gossip about her collected by William Herndon. 

This mother had the privilege of tutoring her son, Abraham, but nine short years before she was snatched away. She was a young mother just in her early twenties when her first child, Sarah, was born. Two years later Abraham came, and then after another two years a child named Thomas for his father. The youngest boy died when about two years old so there were but two children left for the mother to care for, an easy task compared with the lot of so many pioneer mothers with large families.

When Nancy Hanks Lincoln moved with her husband to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, immediately after her wedding, there is every reason to believe that she found a close friend in a young lady of the town, Sarah Bush Johnston, who had been married but a few weeks before. Nancy Lincoln's first child and Sarah Johnston's first child were born about the same time. In the rearing of these infants, the young mothers would have much in common to discuss. Little did Nancy Lincoln dream at this time that her friend Sarah Johnston would become the stepmother of her children. She died in 1818.

Sarah Bush Johnston

The brother of Sarah Bush, Elijah, and Thomas Lincoln were very close friends in the early Kentucky days and they made a trip to New Orleans together in 1806. While they were away on the trip Sarah, but eighteen years old, married Daniel Johnston. When Thomas and Elijah returned, both purchased gifts for Sarah at the Bleakley and Montgomery Store. 

Thomas Lincoln as a young man had received the appointment as a patroller for Hardin County as early as 1803, and Sarah's father, Christopher Bush, was captain of the patrol. Thomas must have met Sarah who was then but fifteen years old, and he had probably known her as a growing child, as she was but nine years of age when he first went to Elizabethtown to work.

Nancy, Thomas Lincoln's first wife, died in 1818, and in the following year, he went back to Elizabethtown to marry a second wife. He chose the woman whom he had known from his childhood, Sarah Bush Johnston, then a widow. Abraham Lincoln's second mother or stepmother was even younger than his own mother. 

After the marriage, Sarah immediately became the mother of three orphaned groups: her own three children, Thomas Lincoln's two children, and a boy by the name of Dennis Hanks whose foster parents were dead and who therefore found lodging in the Lincoln home. It was no small task to mother three groups of children, yet she played no favorites in this Southern Indiana orphanage. 

No stepmother could have shown more kindness in bringing up a child than Sarah displayed in her rearing of Abraham Lincoln. She was richly rewarded for her motherly attention to the needs of this boy, as in her last years he was to establish her in a home which he had provided for her. She died in 1851.

Mary Todd

The name Mary has often been associated with motherhood because of the Nativity scene at Bethlehem. There is no evidence that Mary Lincoln was other than a good mother for Abraham Lincoln's four boys. She brought them all through the difficult years of early infancy and three of them passed from the period of childhood to youth.

When Mary Todd married Abraham Lincoln she was but twenty-four years of age while her husband was nine years her senior. No one in Springfield has even ventured the suggestion that she was not a capable mother in every respect. She was the intellectual superior to most of the mothers of the prairie country. She had always lived in a home of culture. There had always been new babies coming into the Todd home in Lexington during all the years she was growing up, and she must have known more than the average woman about rearing children.

Mary Todd was a good mother, in that she kept her own mind alert and was of tremendous help in bringing at least one of her sons to occupy a prominent place in government affairs, and the possibilities are that if Robert Lincoln had permitted his name to be used as a Presidential nominee, she might have reared a president as well as married one.

Mary Lincoln of course never knew her husband's own mother because she died the very year Mary was born. She did know Lincoln's stepmother, and a letter which she wrote to her, a copy of which was discovered in Charleston, Illinois, several years ago, might suggest the attitude towards the good woman who took care of Lincoln as a youth by the good wife who mothered his children when he became a man. She died in 1865.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

Booth Saved Lincoln's Life.

Booth saved Lincoln’s life. The statement is true, but the incident to which it refers did not involve President Abraham Lincoln and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Instead, it refers to Edwin Booth (1833-1893), John Wilkes’ older brother, and Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s only child to reach adulthood. 

As a general rule, historical anecdotes that seem a little “too perfect,” like “John Wilkes Booth’s brother saved the life of Abraham Lincoln’s son shortly before Lincoln was assassinated,” but, when researched thoroughly almost never turn out to be true. This, however, is one of the exceptions to that rule and it was no less than Robert Todd Lincoln himself who, in a letter to the editor of Century Magazine, Richard Gilder, in 1909 recounted the story of how Edwin Booth had saved his life.
Robert Todd Lincoln, Circa 1865.

The exact date of the event isn’t known, but it apparently took place sometime in late 1863 at the Jersey City railroad station, shortly before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. Robert Lincoln recounted the tale as follows:
"The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name."
John Wilkes Booth (left), as Marc Antony; Junius Brutus Booth Jr. (center) as Cassius; and Edwin Booth (right), as Brutus, all critically acclaimed actors of their day, only once all three appeared in the same play together, in “Julius Caesar, performed in New York in 1864.

Edwin Booth, a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln and a Unionist, was a point of contention between him and his brother’s relationships. Edwin did not know the identity of the man whose life he had saved until some months later in 1865 when Edwin received a letter from his friend, Colonel Adam Badeau, an officer on the staff of General Ulysses S. Grant. Badeau had heard the story from Robert Lincoln, who, at the time, was serving in the Union Army and was also on Grant's staff. In the letter, Badeau gave his compliments to Booth for his heroic deed.
Edwin Booth, Actor

Gen. Grant, who heard the life-saving story from Col. Badeau, wrote to Booth to congratulate him on his heroism. Grant not only praised Booth’s quick actions but also said that if he could ever serve Edwin, he would gladly do so. Edwin reportedly replied that when Grant was in Richmond, Virginia, the actor would like to perform for him.

While the rescue was clearly a significant event in Robert's life, there is no existing evidence that he ever told his parents about it. This may not be too surprising, given that he and his father were not particularly close and he thought that the President already had enough to worry about. Robert probably feared his mother’s reaction to the story. Mary still seemed fragile after the death of the Lincolns’ third son, Willie, in 1862.

After the assassination, Edwin Booth saw his famed family name ruined; lost his brother; lost his President, whom he staunchly supported; and nearly lost his career, due to his association with his brother—all in one day, and with none of it due to anything he had done.  It was reported by his friends that he was brought stricken to the ground and only with time and the aid of his friends taking turns keeping a close watch on him in the coming months did he begin to make a recovery. He eventually made a successful return to the stage in January of 1866, about 8 months after the assassination. It was acknowledged that the knowledge that Edwin had saved the President’s eldest son’s life gave him some comfort going forward with his life.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Mrs. Lincoln Surprised Abe with a Home Remodeling Project.

In 1856, Mary Todd Lincoln pulled off the greatest surprise on Abe. Mrs. Lincoln apparently was no exception to the rule of women being admittedly the prime movers in home improvement. In fact, she had the Lincoln home in Springfield, Illinois, completely remodeled from a story and a half to a big two-story house while Circuit Lawyer Abe was out of town. She wanted to surprise her husband when he came home, and she certainly did. She had spent $1,300 ($375,000 today) on her modernization project. That was a lot of money in those days. It was about as much as Lincoln had originally paid for the house. 

According to the story, Lincoln came striding up to his property at the corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets (413 South 8th Street, Springfield), carrying a beefsteak under his arm, and he didn't know his own house. But he got to like it all right. The family sitting room, which measured 16 by 20 feet, and adjoining formal parlor that opened through a large double door, soon became a frequent meeting place for Abe's political associates.
Mary Todd Lincoln had that house remodeled because she didn't like it. You've probably heard that reason in connection with modern remodeling jobs. And she seemed to be a woman who could get what she wanted. She always said Lincoln would land in the White House. 

But Mrs. Lincoln had been very disappointed when Abe bought the house in 1844 from the Rev. Charles  Dresser. Even though her husband would show her the solidity of its hand-hewn oak construction, wooden pegs, walnut clapboards, and shingles, she thought the house was ugly and wanted a bigger house.

However, the house had seven rooms, several fireplaces and occupied a lot 50 by 152 feet, which also contained a woodshed, privy and carriage shed. In order to save up enough money to buy the place, Lincoln spent virtually nothing on himself, even giving up his handball games which had cost him 10¢ per game. 

One drawback to the house was that the two bedrooms upstairs had such low ceilings where Lincoln could stand erect only in the center under the ridge of the roof. Mrs. Lincoln fixed that. She raised the roof 12 feet, added several bedrooms upstairs, installed new wood stoves in place of fireplaces, and had bookshelves built for Abraham's law library. 

The exact amount that Lincoln had paid for the house is not entirely clear. Carl Sandburg in "The Prairie Years" says the deal involved $750 in cash, plus a lot Lincoln owned which was valued at $300. However, Sandburg notes there was a mortgage for $900 on the 'property which was not mentioned in the deed, Lincoln apparently trusting the Rev. Mr. Dresser to get rid of it.

A contract in Lincoln's handwriting mentions $1,200 as the price, but some historians say the final price was actually $1,500. 

We asked Myron Matthews of the Dow Service Building Reports to give us an estimate of what it would cost to build that house today. He figured that $20,000 might do it, with $5,000 added for the lot. In some ways, this puts a pretty low value on the 1850s dollar.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.