On that dreadful morning of April 15, 1865, when Mary Lincoln was finally led away from her dead husband’s bedside, she returned to the White House and could not find a bedroom. All the rooms of the White House were now repugnant with the memories of happier days. Finally her friends put her into a tiny spare room she had fixed up for Abraham Lincoln’s use during the summer. There she stayed for 40 days, mostly in bed, frequently moaning and filling the halls of the upstairs with her paroxysms of grief. Her friend, the dress maker Elizabeth Keckly, described these wails as the terrible convulsions of a broken heart. No matter the urgings of her son Robert Todd Lincoln or the pressure from the new President Andrew Johnson to move into his new home, she would not leave. To do so would be to surrender her ambitions and this took time. Now loveless, she was also homeless.
James Still’s engaging play The Widow Lincoln tells the absorbing tale of Mary Lincoln’s interior world as she lay in bed during this period. We have little direct historical evidence of what she thought, but Still has presented us with a believable, far more sympathetic figure than many depictions of Mary Lincoln. Perhaps we would admire her more if she had behaved like the stoic Jacqueline Kennedy, who in similar circumstances left the White House in 10 days. In any case Still has left us with a compelling portrait of a grief-stricken widow.
As he suggests, there was some comfort from her memories of the past. The most important one, in my judgment as her biographer, was spiritualism, the belief that her departed husband could return to her. Mary Lincoln had been attracted to spiritualism for years, and in the White House after her son Willie’s death in 1862 she had discovered a replacement for her vanishing family. She had visited mediums in Washington and even held several séances in the White House. She had written a friend of her conviction that “only a slight veil separates us from the loved and lost. To me there is comfort in the thought that although unseen by us they are very near.” And she could have added that under the proper conditions they return to us. She had informed her half-sister that Willie lived and came to her. In this belief she was not alone. Millions of Americans, especially during the Civil War, held similar ideas.
Now in the days after her husband’s assassination, Mary Lincoln found comfort in the idea that her husband was not far away and that he could return and be with her. I believe this conviction sustained her when she finally left the White House. For the rest of her life, the Widow Lincoln—as the press dubbed her—continued to find solace by consulting mediums and even having her picture taken by a spiritualist who had somehow transposed the image of Lincoln with his hands on her shoulders into a photograph.
Today many Americans remember Mary Lincoln as our most detested First Lady, a president’s wife who demonstrates her husband’s humanity through his ability to live with such a flawed spouse. Instead, remembering this period that Still evokes so well, let us think of her on her own terms and remember a life that illuminated the human conditions of family love and loss.
Dr. Jean H. Baker is Professor of History at Goucher College and sits on Ford’s Theatre Society’s Advisory Council. She is the author of the definitive Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography. Her most recent book is Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion.