“as Bad As She Could Be”

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Of all the hundreds of personal letters Abraham Lincoln sent during his lifetime, none of the recipients remains more deeply shrouded in mystery than Lydia Bixby of Boston.

Was she the prototype for the Gold Star Mother, the first “Mrs. Ryan.” (One recalls Gen. George Marshall reading the Bixby letter aloud to his staff in Steven Spielberg’s movie Saving Private Ryan to justify excusing the surviving Ryan brother from further military service.) Spielberg’s cinematic validation notwithstanding, did the original Mrs. Bixby legitimately earn President Lincoln’s pity by sacrificing five sons killed “gloriously on the field of battle,” as Lincoln wrote in his famous condolence letter.

Or was she a charlatan, a Confederate sympathizer, and perhaps even a professional madam—a charge unearthed by the historian Michael Burlingame in 1995—who somehow tricked the President into so memorably wasting his sympathy? According to the historian George C. Shattuck, one of Mrs. Bixby’s contemporaries remembered the “stout . . . motherly-looking” widow as a shifty-eyed schemer, “perfectly untrustworthy and as bad as she could be.” In the end, few of the stubbornly lingering questions about Lincoln’s letter or its controversial recipient were definitively answered by F. Lauriston Bullard’s charming 1946 book Abraham Lincoln & the Widow Bixby or by scholars trying to unravel the truth in the six decades since.

One thing is certain. If Mrs. Bixby was a fake, she certainly managed to convince a number of high-ranking public officials otherwise. Her documentation proved more than sufficient to persuade the adjutant general of Massachusetts, William Schouler, of her legitimacy. To Schouler, Mrs. Bixby was “the best specimen of a true-hearted Union woman” he had ever met, and he brought her case to the attention of the state’s governor, John A. Andrew. Equally impressed, the governor sent the War Department a request for a personal acknowledgment from no less than the President of the United States “taking notice of a noble mother of five dead heroes so well deserves.” Andrew was a loyal Lincoln ally. He had been a Lincoln delegate at the 1860 Republican National Convention and later became the first Union governor to respond to the new President’s call for troops after the firing on Fort Sumter. It is no surprise that Lincoln responded immediately to the governor’s request.

Lincoln’s condolence note was carried to “Mother Bixby” a few days later by Schouler himself, who evidently first made a wise detour to a Boston newspaper to make sure the letter would be set in type so it could be shared with the public that evening. Such a perfectly expressed credit to Yankee motherhood and Massachusetts patriotism promised a public relations coup. In the following days the letter was widely republished. But the original letter, and Mrs. Bixby too, promptly vanished from history.

We know now that the Widow Bixby either calculatingly exaggerated her claims of loss—seeking government remuneration to which she was not entitled—or simply did not know the true fate of her boys. In fact, of the five young Bixbys Lincoln was led to believe had been killed in the war, only two, it turned out, had actually died in battle (a grievous enough loss, to be sure). The third had received an honorable discharge (and may have been hiding at home), the fourth had deserted, and the fifth either had been captured and died as a prisoner of war or had deserted.

According to a faded 1949 clipping from the New York Sun now in the files of the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Lincoln’s masterpiece did little to “assuage” the allegedly grieving widow. Apparently Mrs. Bixby had migrated to Boston from Richmond, bringing with her a stubborn loyalty to the Old South, cherishing anti-Union sentiments she somehow managed to conceal from the pro-Union adjutant general, governor, and President. Her own granddaughter recalled that the widow, who died in 1878, was “secretly in sympathy with the Southern cause” and had “little good to say” about Lincoln. She apparently so “resented” the President’s condolence message that she “destroyed it shortly after receipt without realizing its value.”

If true, here was the final irony in the life of Lydia Bixby. Whether she was a grieving Union mother or a wily Rebel sympathizer, a proper old widow or the owner of a house of ill repute, she failed to preserve and profit from the one item that would have brought her fame and fortune, not to mention a hearty last laugh on the Union: the priceless original copy in Lincoln’s hand of the most famous condolence letter of the nineteenth century. From the thousands of alleged “facsimiles” sold over the years, the still mysterious Widow Bixby received not a penny.