- Historic Sites
Another Assassination, Another Widow, Another Embattled Book
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
“I come from Mrs. Lincoln. If you are Mrs. Keckley, come with me immediately to the White House.”
I hastily put on my shawl and bonnet, and was driven at a rapid rate to the White House. Everything about the building was sad and solemn. I was quickly shown to Mrs. Lincoln’s room, and on entering, saw Mrs. L. tossing uneasily about upon a bed. The room was darkened, and the only person in it besides the widow of the President was Mrs. Secretary Welles, who had spent the night with her.…
“Why did you not come to me last night, Elizabeth—I sent for you?” Mrs. Lincoln asked in a low whisper.
“I did try to come to you, but I could not find you,” I answered, as I laid my hand upon her hot brow. …
Shortly after entering the room on Saturday morning, Mrs. Welles excused herself, as she said she must go to her own family, and I was left alone with Mrs. Lincoln.
She was nearly exhausted with grief, and when she became a little quiet, I asked and received permission to go into the Guests’ Room, where the body of the President lay in state. When I crossed the threshold of the room, I could not help recalling the day on which I had seen little Willie lying in his coffin where the body of his father now lay. I remembered how the President had wept over the pale beautiful face of his gifted boy, and now the President himself was dead. The last time I saw him he spoke kindly to me, but alas! the lips would never move again. … The Moses of my people had fallen in the hour of his triumph. …
When I entered the room, the members of the Cabinet and many distinguished officers of the army were grouped around the body of their fallen chief. They made room for me, and, approaching the body, I lifted the white cloth from the white face of the man that I had worshipped as an idol—looked upon as a demi-god. Notwithstanding the violence of the death of the President, there was something beautiful as well as grandly solemn in the expression of the placid face. There lurked the sweetness and gentleness of childhood, and the stately grandeur of god-like intellect. I gazed long at the face, and turned away with tears in my eyes and a choking sensation in my throat. …
Returning to Mrs. Lincoln’s room, I found her in a new paroxysm of grief. Robert was bending over his mother with tender affection, and little Tad was crouched at the foot of the bed with a world of agony in his young face. I shall never forget the scene—the wails of a broken heart, the unearthly shrieks, the terrible convulsions, the wild, tempestuous outbursts of grief from the soul. I bathed Mrs. Lincoln’s head with cold water, and soothed the terrible tornado as best I could. Tad’s grief at his father’s death was as great as the grief of his mother, but her terrible outbursts awed the boy into silence. Sometimes he would throw his arms around her neck, and exclaim, between his broken sobs, “Don’t cry so. Mamma! don’t cry, or you will make me cry, too! You will break my heart.”
Mrs. Lincoln could not bear to hear Tad cry, and when he would plead to her not to break his heart, she would calm herself with a great effort, and clasp her child in her arms.
Every room in the White House was darkened, and every one spoke in subdued tones, and moved about with muffled tread. The very atmosphere breathed of the great sorrow which weighed heavily upon each heart. Mrs. Lincoln never left her room, and while the body of her husband was being borne in solemn state from the Atlantic to the broad prairies of the West, she was weeping with her fatherless children in her private chamber. She denied admittance to almost every one, and I was her only companion, except her children.…
After the President’s funeral Mrs. Lincoln rallied, and began to make preparations to leave the White House. One day she suddenly exclaimed: “God, Elizabeth, what a change! Did ever woman have to suffer so much and experience so great a change? I had an ambition to be Mrs. President; that ambition has been gratified, and now I must step down from the pedestal. My poor husband! had he never been President, he might be living to-day. Alas! all is over with me!”
Folding her arms for a few moments, she rocked back and forth, then commenced again, more vehemently than ever: “My God, Elizabeth, I can never go back to Springfield! no, never, until I go in my shroud to be laid by my dear husband’s side, and may Heaven speed that day! I should like to live for my sons, but life is so full of misery that I would rather die.” And then she would go off into a fit of hysterics.
* * *
There was much surmise, when Mrs. Lincoln left the White House, what her fifty or sixty boxes, not to count her score of trunks, could contain. … The boxes were loosely packed, and many of them with articles not worth carrying away. …
The bonnets that she brought with her from Springfield, in addition to every one purchased during her residence in Washington, were packed in the boxes, and transported to Chicago. She remarked that she might find use for the material some day, and it was prudent to look to the future. I am sorry to say that Mrs. Lincoln’s foresight in regard to the future was only confined to cast-off clothing, as she owed, at the time of the President’s death, different store bills amounting to seventy thousand dollars. Mr. Lincoln knew nothing of these bills, and the only happy feature of his assassination was that he died in ignorance of them. Had he known … [it] would have embittered the only pleasant moments of his life.