Creating Context: A Glimpse Inside Mary Lincoln’s 40 Days and Nights

Editor’s Note: The Ford’s Theatre world premiere play, The Widow Lincoln, is an imagining of the 40-days First Lady Mary Lincoln spent in the White House following her husband’s assassination on April 14, 1865. Historian Catherine Clinton, biographer of Mary Lincoln, discusses what is known, and not known, about the events depicted in the play.

The 40 days were bad enough, but worse were the 40 nights, when Mary Lincoln was haunted by her fears, her regrets, her dashed hopes….

After the dreadful events at Ford’s Theatre and the impossible vigil at the Petersen House, she could not face her marital bedroom, instead sequestering herself in a small guest room within the White House. Convulsing in sobs when anyone entered the room, she dissolved particularly when her son Tad visited, begging his mother not to cry.

The distraught widow was attended by her confidante, Elizabeth Keckly. Mrs. Keckly had been prevented access to the home where the President lay dying, but became the familiar with whom Mary Lincoln felt most at ease during those lonely hours where she sought rest, but could not achieve peace with sleep. Her attempt at rest was disturbed by workmen building the President’s catafalque. Mary particularly complained the driving of a nail reminded her of the sound of a pistol shot.

There is no record that Mary ever viewed her husband’s body as she locked herself away, trying to shut out the world. Following Lincoln’s murder, 25,000 streamed through the East Room to pay their respects, with mirrors and chandeliers draped in black crepe, the room as gloomy as the national mood. Mary could not bear to attend the funeral on April 19. There were only seven women among the 600 mourners in attendance. Robert alone represented the family, as neither Mary nor Tad were fit to participate.

On Friday, April 21, the funeral train carrying more than 300 passengers began its 1,700-mile route to escort Lincoln’s corpse and the body of his son Willie back to  their home in Springfield, Illinois.

During this time, Mrs. Lincoln remained secluded at the White House, conferring with a select group—Tad, Robert and particularly Elizabeth Keckly. Mary also welcomed the Lincoln family physician, Dr. Robert Stone, as well as her good friend from Springfield, Dr. Anson Henry, for regular visits. A small handful of women were allowed access to the grief-stricken widow.

She continued to claim that she had no interest in life beyond her sons, especially 12-year-old Tad, who most keenly felt his fatherless state. Those granted an audience were alarmed that Mary seemed so unstable, preoccupied with her possessions. Those who knew her well understood that the task of sorting and packing provided moments of diversion.

Although perhaps seeming to want to hold onto everything while busying herself with filling and sorting roughly 50 trunks, Mary generously gave away objects of great sentimental value to those she deemed worthy. Mr. Lincoln’s canes went to Charles Sumner and Frederick Douglass, the gift to the latter pointedly demonstrating the crossing of the era’s racial divide.

Mrs. Lincoln spent much of the rest of her life burnishing her husband’s reputation, celebrating his role as “The Great Emancipator.” Elizabeth Keckly was given several important artifacts: In addition to the cloak Lincoln wore the night he died, Keckly was given the very comb she used to smooth his unruly hair. Shoes, glove and headgear were also part of her important collection of Presidential memorabilia. The White House’s African-American housekeeper, Mrs. Slade, received Mrs. Lincoln’s bloodstained dress from the night of the assassination—not as a castaway, but as a keepsake.

Even as she received expressions of sympathy from Queen Victoria (who seemed fluent in the language of mourning), Mrs. Lincoln was peppered with queries about how soon she planned to depart—for wherever. During the Lincoln presidency, the family took refuge at the Soldier’s Home on the outskirts of the District—now a wonderful historic site where the Lincolns’ wartime residence is preserved and open for visitors. But with the loss of her husband, she was forced to abandon the family’s White House quarters as well as this summer home where she and her husband had escaped the cares at the nerve center of wartime operations.

For the rest of her life, Mary considered herself to be the widow of “the Martyr President,” and she spent much of her remaining time and energy struggling to preserve his legacy. She would live until 1882, surviving her husband’s passing by over 17 years. More hardships would befall her—Tad’s death in 1871, her involuntary commitment to an asylum in 1875—but nothing could compare to the volcanic grief she suffered following her husband’s assassination and her exile from the White House.

Catherine Clinton is Denman Endowed Professor in American History at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of Mrs. Lincoln: A Life.