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From the Hyde Park Historical Society newsletter -- Spring, 1998 Vol. 20 NO. 1


Mary Todd Lincoln's Sad Summer in Hyde Park
by Jim Stronks, Iowa City, Iowa

Abraham Lincoln died April 15, 1865. When Mary Todd Lincoln had to vacate the White House she came to Hyde Park. She arrived in Chicago on May 24. With her on the exhausting 54-hour train trip from Washington came her sons Robert (22) and Tad (12), her dressmaker/confidante Elizabeth Keckley (born a slave), old friend Dr. Anson Henry, and two White House guards, Thomas Cross and William Crook.

The Lincoln party checked into the Tremont House on Lake Street at Dearborn. When Cross and Crook went back to the White House Mary Todd Lincoln's percs and power as First Lady were suddenly over. Lake Street was populous and loud; Mary Todd Lincoln needed peace and quiet. In her anguish as widow she felt she could not bear to return to her house on 8th Street in Springfield and its associations. Yet the Tremont House was too expensive for more than a week's stay.

Someone evidently gave the Lincolns a good tip, because four days later she wrote to a friend that "Robert went out yesterday to a place called 'Hyde Park,' a beautiful new Hotel, rooms exquisitely clean & even luxuriously fitted up, seven miles from the City-Cars passing every hour of the day...."

An advertisement in the Tribune on May 19 tells us more:

Kept by A.H. Dunton

This Hotel has been put in complete order, and is now open, and will be kept, in all respects, as a first-class Hotel.

Persons desirous of making arrangements for the summer months, will find this a very agreeable place. It has all the advantages of a Watering Place Hotel, with almost hourly communication with Chicago by rail, while the distance by the traveled road from the Court House is less than seven miles.

Mr. Dunton refers, by permission, to Gov. Gilmore of New Hampshire; Hon. T.F. Chandler, U.S. Navy Agent, Boston; Messrs. W.R. Doggett, S.F. Farrington, and Hon J.T. Scammon, Chicago.

No doubt Paul Cornell, who had built the hotel, was pleased that the First Family had come to live in his village, and conceivably he had something to do with it. A Chicago lawyer and suburban developer (for whom Abraham Lincoln had done some legal work), Cornell owned 300 lake shore acres which he had coolly advertised as "beautifully situated on high ground." In a deal which was all-important to Hyde Park, he gave the Illinois Central Railroad sixty acres for its right of way, and in return the ICRR began a commuter service in July 1856 by running the "Hyde Park Special" out to a little frame depot on the east side of the 53rd Street grade crossing. Here, in the summer of 1865, Robert Lincoln would catch the 8:52 mornings for the 30-minute ride in to Water Street and the offices of Scammon, McCagg & Fuller, where he would be reading law. "This quiet retreat," as Mary Lincoln soon called the hotel, stood near the lake shore at 53rd Street, about where the Hampton House stands today, except that the shore was closer in at that time. (It is not to be confused with the later Hyde Park Hotel standing on the south side of 51st between Harper and Lake Park from 1887 to 1963.)

"It almost appears to me that I am on the Sea Shore," wrote Mary Lincoln from the hotel; "land cannot be discerned across the Lake, some seventy-five miles in breadth. My friends thought I would be more quiet here during the summer months than in the City."

But in coming to Hyde Park she could not escape her sorrows. "Tell me, how can I live without my Husband any longer?" she cries in a letter at this time. "This is my first awakening thought each morning, & as I watch the waves of the turbulent lake under our windows I sometimes feel I should like to go under them."

At first she had the comfort of her friend Elizabeth Keckley beside her, but Lizzie had to return to Washington and her business of making dresses for wives of cabinet officers.

Soon Mary Lincoln was writing, "I still remain closeted in my rooms, take an occasional walk in the park & as usual see no one." It is not surprising that she adds later in the same letter, "I cannot express how lonely we are."

Without TV or rental movies, what did Mary Lincoln-intelligent, nervous, excitable-do with herself through her long weeks shut up in the Hyde Park Hotel? The answer is, she read the newspapers and wrote letters.

A political wife, she devoured the gossip from Capitol Hill in the half dozen New York and Chicago papers she regularly saw. By early June their front pages were black with "The Conspiracy Trial," and judging from the Chicago Tribune were full of lurid details about the conspirators' planning of her husband's murder-yet she mentions none of this in writing to friends. For four years Mary Lincoln had been veritably catnip to the gossip columnists, but Chicago papers seem to have ignored her during the summer of 1865, perhaps because she had buried herself out in Hyde Park. There was one unhappy exception on June 14 when she read a spiteful paragraph in the Chicago Journal which said she had threatened to whip little Tad for damaging his boots. It was untrue-and one more thing to resent in a letter to a friend the next day.

Her letters were many and long. They must have made fat envelopes. When they are printed in a book today, something she never expected, and God forgive us for reading her private mail, some letters fill two pages, and obviously account for hours daily at her desk. They are written, and well written, on black-bordered paper about the size of a postcard, showing excellent vocabulary and spelling, with tight, nervous punctuation (which is being edited here for the sake of clearness).

Mary Lincoln may have over-praised the Hyde Park Hotel to her correspondents. Lizzie Keckley claimed later that the Lincolns' rooms were "not first-class" but "small and plainly furnished," with meals sent up from the kitchen. It was far from the Executive Mansion. "I assure you," snaps the First Lady as early as June 27, "I am growing very weary of boarding. It is very unbecoming when it is remembered from whence we have just come."

She never once complains of summer heat. Hyde Park, at the lakeshore, can be degrees cooler than central Chicago-important in 1865, before electric fans. Already the village, numbering some 500 population, had become a summer escape for affluent Chicagoans. On July 11 Mary Lincoln writes, apparently with approval, that the hotel "has become crowded with some of the very best Chicago people, each family keeping their carriages; & I have, as you may suppose, indulged in my privilege of being very quiet & retired." Virtually a recluse, she did sometimes walk in "the beautiful park adjoining the place"-referring to that space now lying between Harold's Playlot and the boulder inscribed to Paul Cornell. She added that "persons drive out [from Chicago] every day to see me; I receive but very few; I am too miserable to pass through such an ordeal as yet. Day by day I miss my beloved husband more & more...."

Two weeks later, another mood: "This place has become a complete Babel & I grieve that necessity requires us to live in this way...." No doubt she shunned the hotel's social event of the season on August 11 when, said the Tribune the next day, "the musical elite of Chicago took turns performing."

It was fortunate for this Victorian widow of forty-seven in deep mourning that she had a grown son at her side. Robert Todd Lincoln had split no rails but instead attended Phillips Exeter, was a Harvard graduate, had been four months at Harvard Law, and briefly, for a few weeks near the end of the war, a captain on Ulysses S. Grant's staff. With the change in his family's fortunes, and in view of his unstable mother's need of him, he would have to forego a Harvard LL.D. He was the man in the house now, and since it was the impatient, high-tempered Mary Todd Lincoln's house it was certain to be difficult.

"Robert is so worried that I am sick so much that he has purchased a neat covered buggy," she writes on July 17. Perhaps Robert took her for soothing rides to see the fine homes in the village, or for a view of the mysterious white rollers off 49th Street. He would have sold his horse as an economy move, she writes, but "as it was his father's last gift, I would not consent to this, although I expect we shall hear remarks about our purchasing a buggy"-a reference to her (justified) reputation in eastern newspapers for mad extravagance.

On July 26 she writes of her other son, Tad, until recently the irrepressible imp of the White House. "Taddie has made many warm friends," but because there is Scarlet Fever in the hotel she has sent him to live with friends in the country. Not Scarlet Fever but TB would kill Tad only six years later, making him the third boy Mary Lincoln had lost.

By late summer 1865 the Hyde Park Hotel was no longer where the Lincolns wanted to be. Indeed Robert was said to have grumbled to Lizzie Keckley as early as his first week there that "I would almost as soon be dead as be compelled to remain three months in this dreary house." They actually stayed only 2 1/2 months.

In mid-August Mary Lincoln moved into the Clifton House at Wabash and Madison. The Palmer House it was not, but she felt poor. It had in fact become an obsession with her. At his death Abraham Lincoln left some $80,000 in cash and U.S. bonds, mainly salary from four years as President, but it was not in the widow's hands. Lawyer Lincoln had died without leaving a will, and his estate was being administered by his old Illinois friend Judge David Davis, against whom Mary Lincoln fumed because of his firm control of the money. Mary, Robert, and Tad were living on the interest, split equally among the three of them, and the widow was living on $1500 to $1800 annually at this time.

On August 17 she wrote angrily about a sense of injury which her letters show had become another mania. "I explain to you, exactly & truly, how we are circumstanced. A greater portion of our means is unavailable, consisting of a house in S. [Springfield] & some wild lands in Iowa. Notwithstanding my great & good husband's life was sacrificed for his country, we are left to struggle in a manner. . . of life undeserved. Roving Generals have elegant mansions showered upon them, and the American people leave the family of the Martyred President to struggle as best they may! Strange justice this." She refers to U.S. Grant, war hero, who was presented with homes in Galena, Philadelphia, and Washington.

So ended Mary Lincoln's sad summer on East 53rd Street in Hyde Park. A year later she would settle into a home of her own in Chicago, a row house on West Washington, between Ann and Elizabeth streets, no longer standing. Erratic, she did not stay there long. Scheming ceaselessly to raise cash to pay off $20,000 in shopping debts which she had concealed from her husband, who had been busy with the Civil War, she would later sell some of her Washington Street furniture to the Hyde Park Hotel for $2094.50. Mind the fifty cents. The furniture probably burned up with the hotel in the late 1870s.

Mary Todd Lincoln, dressed always in high-fashion black, lived seventeen unhappy, troubled years as a widow. A pathetic ruin by 1882, when she was 64, she died in Springfield in the home of her sister, who had urged her not to marry Abraham Lincoln in the first place.

© Jim Stronks

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