Tag Archives: Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln without the caricature

We ended up having a little extra wall space in our new exhibit, so we’ve decided to get with our designer to create a new panel on Lincoln’s family life.  I’ve spent the past few days working on the text.

Writing exhibit copy is always hard—much more difficult, in my experience, than any other type of writing.  Your audience is necessarily broad and you don’t have much space.  The pressure to be clear and concise can be downright crushing.  And since museums speak with an authoritative voice, you have to be as even-handed as possible.  Covering the Lincolns’ marriage within these guidelines has been especially difficult, mostly because of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division via Wikimedia Commons

She was undeniably volatile.  She shouted.  She screamed.  She chased Lincoln out of the house with a broom, clocked him on the nose with a chunk of firewood, and chewed him out in front of friends and neighbors.  She pestered him over his informal manners and his unfashionable, ill-fitting clothes.  She bullied the maids and haggled unbecomingly with salesmen.

Lincoln’s friends and neighbors described her as “a hellion — a she devil — vexed — & harrowed the soul out of that good man — wouldn’t Cook for him — drove him from home &c — often & Often.”  His law partner William Herndon, one of her more strident detractors, claimed that she made Lincoln’s life “a domestic hell.”

But the stories of Mary’s theatrics (plentiful though they are) don’t tell the whole story of the Lincolns’ marriage.  Her niece remembered, “Mr. Lincoln enjoyed his home and he and Mary idolized their children. So far as I could see there was complete and loving kindness between Mary and her husband, consideration for each other’s wishes and a taste for the same books. They seemed congenial in all things.”  Another neighbor reported, “Mary was a little high strung. She came of blue blood, blue grass Kentucky stock; and her tastes were somewhat different from Abe’s, but, law, they got along well together.”

And it must be said in all fairness that her husband was a difficult man to be married to.  He was gone for weeks or months at a time, traveling the Eighth Judicial Circuit or conducting political business, leaving Mary to raise the children alone.  (In 1850, Lincoln was away from Springfield more days than he was home.)

Even when he was home, some of Lincoln’s eccentricities must have compounded her stress.  He answered the door in his shirtsleeves, sat down to dinner without his coat, and stretched out on the floor to read.  He became so absorbed in thought that he didn’t notice her speaking to him, or failed to see that one of the boys had fallen out of the wagon in which he was pulling them.  When she launched into one of her tirades, one neighbor recalled, he would ignore her—or worse, laugh at her.

If we’re going to give our visitors a sense of what Lincoln’s domestic life was like, Mary’s tantrums have to be a part of the story.  They’re too prominent in the record to dismiss (although I suspect Herndon pressed the issue in his interviews with Lincoln’s acquaintances, given his evident dislike for the woman).

At the same time, though, our handling of the Lincolns’ marriage needs to be well-rounded.  As tempting as it is to devote all our space to colorful anecdotes about Mary’s histrionics, those incidents don’t tell the whole story.  We don’t want to reduce her to a crude caricature.  Some depictions have stooped to this level.  In D.W. Griffith’s 1930 film Abraham Lincoln, Mary is an unbearable shrew, played almost strictly for laughs.

What our exhibit needs, in other words, is detail and nuance.  That’s not easy to pull off in the tightly confined space of a single panel.  A biographer could take an entire chapter to develop a balanced appraisal of Mary.  We have to do it in a few sentences. And those sentences have to be accessible and engaging to everybody from elementary school students to members of our institution’s faculty.

Sometimes people think public history is easier than academic history.  The truth is, public history only looks easy because part of the job is making it look easy.  And that’s usually the hardest part of the gig.

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Yes, the Lincolns had servants…but not slaves

You hate to generalize about people, but modern apologists for the Confederacy tend to be really, really bad at using primary sources.  As Andy Hall once said while discussing a particularly hilarious example, “Forget interpretation. Forget analysis. Forget trying to understand the document within the context of the time and place it was written; these people don’t even seem capable of reading the documents they cite.”

Now Brooks Simpson has drawn our attention to the latest instance of a neo-Confederate trying to make sense of a document and failing spectacularly.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a doozy.

Over at Cold Southern Steel, a diligent researcher and defender of Southron Heritage presented what he believed to be evidence that Lincoln had a slave.  This supposed evidence had been hiding in plain sight in the 1860 U.S. census, but had apparently gone unnoticed for lo these 150 years.

Here’s a close-up of the census list which was posted to Cold Southern Steel.  As you can see, it indeed names one Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, IL, occupation “Lawyer,” along with the members of his household.

Lincoln Household

Included in the list is “M. Johnson,” an eighteen-year-old female.  Her occupation?

“Servant.”

So right there it is, proof that Abraham Lincoln had a “servant” in 1860.  Ergo Lincoln was a slaveowner.  Right?

Well, no.  “M. Johnson” was not a slave.  She was Mary Johnson, a free white girl employed by the Lincolns.

In this context, “servant” doesn’t mean an enslaved person.  It’s a job description.  In the nineteenth century, many middle-class families employed young women and girls as house servants, often on a live-in basis.  A lot of these women were immigrants from Ireland or Germany.  In Springfield, about one-fourth of the homes had hired help of this kind around the time Lincoln lived there.

As a prospering family headed by a respectable lawyer, the Lincolns employed several women over the years, some of them as live-in servants.  For example, eighteen-year-old Catharine Gordon was working and living with the Lincolns in 1850, and appears in the census for that year.  In 1860, the same year that Mary Johnson turned up in the census, Mary Todd Lincoln employed a Portuguese teenager named Charlotte Rodruiguis as a seamstress.  A woman named Margaret Ryan claimed that she witnessed some of Mary Todd Lincoln’s worst behavior during her employment in the house, although the chronology behind her claims is iffy.  (Richard Lawrence Miller discusses the Ryan evidence in the third volume of Lincoln and His World.)  These women and girls were not slaves bound to work for life.  They were not the property of the people in whose homes they worked.

Now, here’s the really funny part.  The proof that Mary Johnson was a free woman is right there in the 1860 census, the very source being offered as evidence that she was a slave.  In other words, the problem here is that the blogger in question simply doesn’t know how to read the document.

Here’s the page in question.

1860 Census Lincoln

 

See the very top, where it says “SCHEDULE 1.—Free Inhabitants”?

Free Inhabitants

That’s sort of an indicator that all the folks in that list were, you know, free inhabitants of Springfield.  The 1860 census counted slaves separately.  You’re not going to find any slaves officially listed in a census list of free inhabitants.

Of course, you’re not likely to find many slaves documented in the census lists for Illinois at all, since Illinois was a free state.  (Funny thing you’ll notice about slave states and free states: the slave states tended to be the ones with slaves.  An interesting coincidence, that.  You know how Peanut M&M’s are the ones with peanuts, whereas the plain M&M’s are the ones without them?  It runs somewhat along those same lines.)

Now, check out the very bottom of the list, where all the individuals are tallied up by race and gender.

Race Inhabitants

Twenty-six white males, fourteen white females.  All forty people on the page present and accounted for, and each one of them white.  This list does not include any African-American residents of Springfield, let alone enslaved ones.  Incidentally, the Lincolns did employ a free black woman named Mariah Vance as a cook and laundress a couple of days a week for ten years.

Now, just because these women and girls were free doesn’t mean their lives were all beer and skittles.  By many accounts, Mary Todd Lincoln was an absolute Gorgon as a boss, difficult to please and tight-fisted.  She was particularly critical of Irish girls—the “wild Irish,” as she referred to them in a letter to a relative.  According to the NPS, Mary Johnson was of Irish background herself, so she was probably on the receiving end of Mrs. Lincoln’s temper at one time or another.  (For information on Mary Todd Lincoln’s domestic help, check out Jean Baker’s fine biography, pp. 105-08).

But the women and girls who worked for the Lincolns were not chattel slaves, and were not the family’s property, despite the fact that they worked in the home and sometimes lived there.

There’s a lot of neat information to unpack in that list of names.  It shows us a time when middle-class Americans were very conscious of their status, when hired help was an indicator of that status, and when working in someone else’s home was the fate of many a young European-born immigrant girl.  It tells us a lot about the Lincoln family’s economic and social circumstances, about how they saw themselves and wanted to be seen by others.  It offers us a glimpse of a world somewhat similar to our own, but also strikingly different in terms of the way people conceived of their ranks and roles.

But it doesn’t show us evidence of slavery, and it takes a spectacularly negligent misreading to make it say otherwise.  Primary sources are wonderful things, but only if you know how to make sense of them.

UPDATE: Now the guy is claiming that he never said the Lincolns had slaves, despite the fact that he titled his post “Lincoln and his slave.”

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead on Mary Todd Lincoln

You can read her remarks about playing Lincoln’s wife here.  She seems to have done more historical research than you’d expect for a vampire movie.  This is going to be a strange film.

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Not even on her best day

…did Mary Todd Lincoln look half as attractive as actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead.  And yet Winstead will play that role in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Here’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead:

Here’s Mary Todd Lincoln:

And that’s a young Mary Todd Lincoln.

Of course, it doesn’t take a hideous actress to play a convincing MTL; Marjorie Weaver was a hottie, but still managed to make a convincing Mary Todd in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln back in 1939.  Mary Tyler Moore played an older Mary opposite Sam Waterston’s Lincoln, and she was quite the looker, too.

But this new one is a stretch.  There isn’t enough latex in Hollywood to make Winstead as visually unappealing as MTL was by the 1860’s.  My suggestion would be to cast a separate Mary to play her in the later stages of life. 

I suggest Wayne Knight in drag.  He could don a hoop skirt and then have a re-match with a venomous dinosaur on the White House grounds.  That’s a movie I’d pay to see.

(The pics of both Marys are from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Inexorable laws at work

During the time I spent doing curatorial work at a Lincoln museum, I dealt with a lot of people who contacted us regarding items in their possession they wanted identified or verified.  They ran the gamut from old lithographs to leg irons supposedly used at Andersonville, from countless printed facsimiles of the Gettysburg Address to a petrified tree trunk.

One class of item stood out, because of how difficult it always was to convince the owner that they didn’t have what they thought they had, and that was historic photographs.  My experiences led me to formulate what I call “Lynch’s Inexorable Law of Amateur Photograph Collecting.”  It goes like this:

Any inexperienced person who comes into possession of an antique photograph of a tall or lanky man will be convinced that he or she has an image of Abraham Lincoln, and no amount of effort will persuade him or her otherwise.

The Abraham Lincoln Observer has just noted an example of Lynch’s Inexorable Law in action.  It’s an old photo, the guy is really skinny, ergo it’s Abe Lincoln, despite the fact that he’s wearing what looks like 1880’s apparel and looks more like Paul from The Wonder Years.

As an aside, I once got a call from a lady who’d bought what she believed was a photo of Mary Todd Lincoln at a flea market.  She told me that she was positive it was her because the woman in the photo had “sad eyes.”  She e-mailed me a copy of it, and as you might imagine, there wasn’t even the slightest resemblance.  When I informed her that she almost certainly didn’t have a picture of Mary Todd Lincoln, she insisted that she was correct.  I referred her on to someone else, who no doubt told her the same thing.  I would imagine that this cycle continued to repeat itself, and that today she’s still as convinced as ever.

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