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:
HYDE PARK HOTEL
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
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
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