Death plagues us all: it is the only certainty in life and plays an integral role in the human experience. When a loved one perishes, it is their survivors who are left to pick up the pieces. In a time of mourning, grief-stricken loved ones turn to a plethora of coping mechanisms, and over time the way we mourn has evolved dramatically. Often times, people turn to organized religion or spirituality as a source of comfort and connection to those who were lost. Many White House ghost stories, most of which are centered on the Lincoln family, have roots in the nineteenth century when spiritualism and séances were rather common because the Civil War changed not only how Americans understood death but also how they mourned.
The bloodiest conflict in the nation's history was the American Civil War (1861-1865). Fought over the expansion of slavery, the Civil War resulted in approximately 750,000 American fatalities, nearly equal to the total number of American deaths in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. Never before had the nation experienced death like this. It is important that the survivor understands the meaning of their loved one's life and death in order to properly grieve. According to historian Drew Gilpin Faust:
The particular circumstances of the Civil War often inhibited mourning, rendering it difficult, if not impossible, for many bereaved Americans to move through the stages of grief. In an environment where information about deaths was often wrong or entirely unavailable, survivors found themselves both literally and figuratively unable to ‘see clearly what… has been lost.’
When these soldiers perished far away from home, observance of grief was impossible and the state of the soul of the deceased at the time of death was forever lost to the family. Bodies were left on the battlefield for a variety of reasons: lack of a structured, recovery system, attempts to disgrace the enemy and lower its morale, junctures of battle, and discrimination between officers and their subordinates.
|The White House during the Lincoln administration (1861-1865). Mathew Brady.|
Ordinary Americans were not the only ones to turn to spiritualism as a coping mechanism during the Civil War. In fact, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln, practiced spiritualism in the White House. Mrs. Lincoln was born into a wealthy, Protestant family from Kentucky in 1818. Throughout her life, she suffered an immense amount of loss including her mother at a young age, three out of four of her children, and the Brutal Assassination of her husband before her very eyes. She first turned to spiritualism as a tool for processing her grief after the death of her second youngest son, William, or "Willie", in February of 1862. According to a newspaper article published the day after Willie’s death, “His sickness, an intermittent fever assuming a typhoid character, has caused anxiety and alarm to his family and friends for a week past… The President has been by his side much of the time, scarcely taking rest for ten days past.” Willie was only eleven years old at the time of his passing, a victim of typhoid fever.
|Mary Todd Lincoln as the First Lady of the United States (1861-1865).|
|William (Willie) and Thomas (Tad) Lincoln pose with their cousin,|
Lockwood Todd, the nephew of Mary Todd Lincoln. This photograph
was taken in Mathew Brady's Washington, D.C. studio in 1861.
|William H. Mumler took this photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln around 1872 in Boston, Massachusetts. Mumler was a spiritual photographer, who claimed that his technique captured not only his subjects but also their departed loved ones.|
|The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C. on April 14, 1865. The president was carried across the street to the Petersen House, where he died the following morning. Currier & Ives|
By Alexandra Kommel
White House Historical Association
Edited by Neil Gale, Ph.D.