Thursday, April 23, 2009

The 411 On The Lincolns

I've been reading about Abraham and Mary Lincoln since childhood. I do that with a lot of topics: submarines, Russian culture, those whackadoodle New England Transcendentalists, Hitler....

This winter, a ton of new books came out about the Lincolns, and I do believe I read all of them. Some I truly enjoyed, a biography by Robert C. White, Jr. Others, like the slender volume by George McGovern (part of the American Presidents series,) did nothing for me...or I learned nothing new. Lincoln achieved iconic status in our collective memory some time ago, and I started wondering, "What things are out there about the Lincolns left to be said where people would say, "I didn't know that.""

*Mary Lincoln lost her mother at age six. Lincoln lost his mother at age nine. While both fathers remarried rather quickly, Lincoln's stepmother totally understood him and gave him space to read and expand his intellect and protected him from a father who only saw value in his son's physical labor. Mary's stepmother actively worked on distancing the father from his children of the first marriage, so there was always contention and sadness in the break for the rest of her life.

*Mary Lincoln did not want to go to Ford’s Theatre the night of the assassination, wanting to stay at home with the hope she could offset a headache. She had a history of migraines. You have to wonder "what if" she had only stayed home that night in a darkened room with a compress on her head. Lincoln had many prophetic dreams: many involving ships, one tied to the end of the war, the other, to his death. He even dreamed his death, which he reported to his wife and to his law partner: "I retired late, for I had waited up for important dispatches, and I fell into a light slumber. I dreamed there was a death-like stillness about me, but I could still hear the subdued sobs of a number of people. I left my room and went all through the house in my dreams everywhere the same weeping and wailing, but I could see nobody. Finally I went into the East Room, there I saw a coffin with many soldiers as guard. "Who is dead in the White House?," I asked. "Why don't you know," said one of the soldiers, "the President has been assassinated." Then a loud burst of grief came from the crowd and with that I awoke."

*Mary had advanced education for a woman of her time. She spoke fluent French. She had shared the company of politicians from childhood. Both Lincolns were ambitious. Abraham for political advancement. Mary for the social cachet that would accompany his political rise. They both wanted success, and they both feared not achieving it. Lincoln had a habit of jotting down random thoughts and stuffing the bits of paper in a desk drawer....or his stovepipe hats. Many of those snippets expressed worry over his legacy, or sentences that lead to a legacy of speeches. History seems to have left Mary to be the driven shrew, yet her husband had the same desires.

*Lincoln had less than one year of schooling out of a dirt-floored schoolhouse. He explained his intellectual curiosity as, “I love to dig up the questions by the roots and hold it up and dry it before the fire of the mind.” And he never stopped digging. He loved going to the Library of Congress for books which he would tie up in a hankerchief and put on the end of his cane. He constantly challenged his thinking, trying to see both sides of the issue. Even during the Civil War, he saw the country as united. He viewed his work as ensuring it remained that way. I love that he wasn't complacent in his thinking and would play Devil's Advocate to himself. He also wrote poetry and invented things: patenting a device to lift boats over shoals. Patent: 6469.

*Lincoln broke off an understanding with a woman named Mary Owens because “she was a fair match for Falstaff, as well as weather-beaten and having missing teeth.” Mary Owens felt she had rejected Lincoln as “he would be deficient in those little links which make up the great chain of woman’s happiness.” One of those contentions just ripe for a D.C. blogger to give advice on.

*Lincoln didn’t visit his ailing, then dying, father, even though a request was made of him to travel the three miles to do so. He also didn’t attend his father’s funeral. One of those shrouded mysteries involving Lincoln with no answer and of interest to his historians. I do think his father, living the life of most frontier people, didn't understand a sensitive son who craved learning. A child's role was to help out and labor like an adult. His father ripped the family's roots up a lot too: many moves in childhood, each to a progressively more primitive place.

*Lincoln lacked formal education, yet he had legible penmanship, with very few quirks in spelling, even though the era was full of that habit. If you look at copies of his letters and speeches they are free of self-editing as if that process occurred earlier in his mind. There is an exhibition of his correspondence currently on display at Museum of American History and other Lincolnalia on exhibit all over town, including the Library of Congress.

*Lincoln shopped at Tiffany on his way to Washington. He purchased a six-piece seed-pearl parure (necklace, earrings, bracelets and brooch) that then cost $530. Mary wore these pieces to the Inaugural Ball on January 20, 1861.

*Mary Todd Lincoln discovered that there wasn't enough tableware available to host large State dinners. She had been left with the remains of china from the administration of President Pierce, known as the "Red Edge" set. She replaced them with plates showing the American eagle, pictured in the 1853 London, Crystal Palace Exhibition. After Lincoln's re-election she bought another set of the china with her own monogram. Two months later the President was assassinated and that set was never used.

Documents have shown that the Lincoln plates were made by Haviland and Co., Limoges, France, as were many of the sets for succeeding presidents. The "Solferino" or "Royal Purple" service,(as it became known,) was ordered by the First Lady from Messrs. E. V. Haughwout & Co. in May of 1861 during a shopping visit to New York City to purchase furnishings for the White House as well as a formal dinner service.

"Solferino," a rich fuschia color, had been made fashionable by the French in about 1859, and Mrs. Lincoln perpetuated the vogue by employing it liberally in the interior decoration of the Executive Mansion (then the name for the White House.) She had curtains made in that shade, as well as a ball gown. The china service was delivered to the White House on September 2, 1861, and numbered 658 pieces, including a dinner service of 190 pieces, a dessert service of 208 pieces, and a breafast and tea service of 260 pieces. The total cost was $3,195.00. You can still buy this design today.

*Lincoln was the total opposite of luxe. He liked to turn a chair upside down and lean against it’s back to read: a habit he acquired in youth and carried to the White House. His appearance could be sloppy and his casual indifference to wardrobe became notorious as cronies would report that they could tell when his wife was away by the “disorder of his apparel." He wore shawls. He wore slippers. He wore gray wool knit caps on his head. Lincoln was Aunt Blabby!

*In her widowhood, Mary wandered to Europe, settling for a while in Pau, France, (where she had a noted hatred of the French,) then back to the States; mainly in Chicago where the Lincolns had hoped to settle after his term of office. Hotels, relative’s homes, a stay in an asylum courtesy of her surviving son. She spent her days hidden away from people, pawing through stuffed trunks of things she had no need of: old ball gowns (she was wed to bombazine mourning for the rest of her life,) a collection of gloves that would rival Imelda Marcos in shoes. At one point she decided to hold a sale of some of her things, and there was such a scandal, she never attempted it again, other than having her seamstress make visits to New York to offer up items--under wraps. This trunk riffling went on until the end, and it's a sad image of a woman who lost so much: her husband, three of her four sons, and her place in society.

"Who In Da Back?"

*Lincoln’s “things” however became the relics of a saint. People went in and ripped the Executive Mansion (as the White House was then called) apart, just to have a piece of him. Blots of blood. A cane. There were attempts to steal his body on more than one occasion, until he was finally buried inside concrete and steel to prevent future grave robbing attempts.

I read something interesting in The Washington Post about the disinternment of Lincoln (to reenforce his grave once last time.) I’m going to quote from a portion of the article verbatim:

"On Sept. 26, 1901, a boy named Fleetwood Lindley was summoned from school by his father to see Lincoln. The President had been dead for three decades, but his coffin had been dug up and moved multiple times over the years, more times than any other President. In 1876, it had nearly been stolen by grave robbers who wanted to hold it for ransom. The crooks had sawed open the massive white marble sarcophagus and dragged the 500-pound cedar and lead coffin part way out before being foiled by authorities. The coffin was moved among several different hiding places around the tomb over succeeding years, at one point under a pile of lumber.

After a 14-month reconstruction of the tomb, it was moved one last time. At the behest of Lincoln's son, Robert, the President was going to be placed in a massive underground vault lined with a steel cage and encased in concrete so he could never be disturbed again. Before this happened, the officials hesitated. Partly haunted by the attempted grave-robbing and partly wanting a farewell look, the locals decided to see whether Lincoln was really in the coffin.

Joseph P. Lindley, one of the tomb's unofficial guardians, sent for his 13-year-old son, who hurried from school on his bicycle. Shortly before noon, according to an old account, two plumbers cut an oblong opening in the coffin, and Fleetwood Lindley and 22 others gazed on Abraham Lincoln's face. All said it was unmistakably him.

Mr. Lincoln's features were totally recognizable. His face had a melancholy expression, but his black chin whiskers hadn't changed at all. The wart on his cheek and the coarse black hair were obvious characteristics of Mr. Lincoln's. The biggest change was that the eyebrows had vanished. The president was wearing the same suit he wore at his second inauguration, but it was covered with yellow mold. Additionally there were some bits of red fabric (possibly the remnants of an American flag buried with Mr. Lincoln).

Three days before he died in 1963, Mr. Lindley was interviewed. He said, "Yes, his face was chalky white. His clothes were mildewed. And I was allowed to hold one of the leather straps as we lowered the casket for the concrete to be poured. I was not scared at the time, but I slept with Lincoln for the next six months." Mr. Lindley was 75 when he died (and 13 when he had viewed the body.) He had been the only child to do so. Mr. Lindley is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery not far from Lincoln's Tomb." I love how he says he slept with Lincoln for the next six months. I don't think he was haunted by what he had seen, just the iconic weight of the image, and I do believe there are times in our lives, when we see something of such strength, the imagery is imprinted forever, and I'm not talking Britney's va jay jay.

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Blogger AbbotOfUnreason said...

I'm glad that at least he felt that the crowd expressed grief. If I dreamed about my death, I'm not sure what I'd think the crowd would say.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

I've been waiting for this piece. Very well done.

I especially liked Lincoln's "diss" of Mary Owens, calling her butt-ass ugly, in 19th century terms....

3:35 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Abbot: Mainly when he dreamed of is death the imagery was of a boat leaving shore into the mists, never to return. He had that dream right before he the night before, but he had it a few times.

Phil: Thanks. The Mary Owens thing is interesting. Historians are torn how much "tongue in cheek" that letter was written. It's actually quite a long letter. I had a book last week of his correspondence, showing photos of the actual letters, and it's lengthy. Either way, it shows Lincoln's humor...or *snap* ohnohedidnnit.

Apparently she did change from the first meeting to the next..that part is agreed upon, and he did back out...that is agreed upon, but the "why" is questioned. He also stood up Mary Todd...JUST LIKE CARRIE IN SEX AND THE CITY! Joking...sorta.

I have always found Lincoln very appealing. I was thinking about him the other day: what gave him such universal ongoing appeal, and my first thought was "his sadness," which he seemed to carry with him at all times, masked or no.

3:58 PM  
Anonymous Twinkie said...

GREAT article. Wow. Very interesting tidbits about President Lincoln. I'll be reading this over and over.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

Dearest Mary Owens:

It is with great forethought that I must inform you that, bitch, you do not ride wit' ride what I assume is a lowly form of public transportation.

You haybag.

Sincerely yours,
A. Lincoln

5:19 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Twinkie: Thanks. I did try to use things I didn't think were more commonly known...and as I said, I've read a lot about the Lincolns.

Phil: Sigh. It's not bad enough you put Minnie Pearl in hell? Jeez Louise.

5:22 PM  
Blogger cs said...

Very enjoyable read. I never knew any of that body snatching stuff.

9:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

AND, he was a vampire slayer. A man of many parts.

-- grince

10:01 AM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Cuff: I think there were about eight attempts at body snatching overall.

K: Kill the brain. Kill the zombie.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

OMG Johnny Carson as Mary Lincoln. That's almost as funny as this (true) story.

A friend of ours is a producer for the History channel. When they were making a Lincoln documentary, one of our friends, a tall, thin gay man, expressed his deep identification with Mary Lincoln. So the producer went to the director of the documentary and said, "I have the perfect Mary Lincoln for the film."

Director: "Is she short?"
Producer: "Ummm ... no."
Director: "Kind of dumpy?"
Producer: "No, tall and handsome."
Director: "Handsome?"
Producer: "Yeah, he's a gay guy."

She's such a good producer she almost talked the director into it ... but the costume person put the kibosh on it when he figured out how hard it would be to find the right outfits.

True story.

As for Lincoln, he is beyond iconic. He is mythic.

This is an awesome Cube post, more than 140 words. Thank you!

7:37 PM  
Anonymous ma said...

You've outdone yourself. I always learn so much from you.

11:48 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Reya: Yeah. Tweetz that in 160.

MA: Tank oo.

12:22 AM  

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