The House At Eighth And Jackson

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Making that home pleasant was a demanding task, especially for a woman who came to her marriage speaking fluent French but unable to prepare the simplest dish. But the newly restored house barely hints at the difficulties she faced every morning. The Lincolns’ backyard today is as well groomed as a putting green; the freshly painted back porch is kept bare of everything but an empty woodbox whose purpose has to be explained to visitors, most of whom have never seen one. But a photograph of the same scene, made while the Lincolns’ wartime tenants still occupied the house, suggests something of the shabbier reality of daily life in their time: the grass is ragged; the paint is peeling; logs overflow the woodbox, and bark litters the porch, which is crowded with fire-blackened pots and battered washtubs. And even the old photograph cannot convey the perpetual buzz of flies in summer or the reek produced by the milk cow kept tethered behind the house, the two horses in the barn, the privy at the back of the garden, the hogs rooting along the unplanked streets just beyond the fence.

The Park Service has done its best to evoke the lively presence of the Lincoln sons throughout the house.

Mary Lincoln had a string of hired girls to help her, but her relations with them were frequently turbulent and she complained because the “wild Irish” whom she often had to employ were not as admirably submissive as the slaves who had served her family in Kentucky.

Her problems may have rested less with her servants’ temperaments than with her own. Mary Todd’s wit and coquettish vivacity had made her a great prize when Lincoln began to court her but beneath that surface she was insecure, quick-tempered, sharp-tongued, seeing slights where none were intended, suffering from migraine headaches that frequently drove her to bed in her darkened room, living in daily dread that those she loved most would be taken from her—as her mother had been by death at six, as her beloved father had been by his remarriage to a stranger who bore him eight children and had little time for a stepdaughter.

In 1849 and 1850 her worst fears seemed confirmed as first her father died, then the grandmother who had done all she could to fill in for her dead mother, then her own Eddie, not yet four, who succumbed to diphtheria despite his parents’ desperate nursing. She was inconsolable for months and increasingly fearful thereafter, especially when her husband was away, certain one of the other boys would fall ill and die, that the house would catch fire or be hit by lightning. When a bearded umbrella mender knocked unexpectedly at the front door one day, she screamed, “Murder! Murder!” so loudly that a neighbor ran over and escorted the astonished man away.

Mary herself once called Lincoln “my Sainted Idol. . . . A sainted man who had a holy smile.” Her own tumultuous personality had a good deal to do with the myth of his saintliness, for if, as some of her husband’s closest associates said, she was a “she-devil” and “Hell-Catical,” was Lincoln not all the more wonderful for having put up with her for so long?

In fact, his home was not a “hell on earth,” as William Herndon claimed, and many of the stories that seem to suggest it was and that Lincoln was “woman-whipped and woman-carved” were amassed by his junior partner, whose loathing for Mary Lincoln was surpassed only by hers for him. Although a photograph of the two partners hung on her parlor wall, she would not have Herndon in her home. “Mr. Herndon had always been an utter stranger to me,” Mary wrote many years later; “he was not considered an habitué, at our house. The office was more, in his line.”

There is no reason to suppose that Lincoln ever regretted having had “Love Is Eternal” engraved on Mary’s wedding ring. Mary Todd Lincoln may not have been easy to live with, but neither was her husband, and some of his wife’s eccentricities were certainly exacerbated by his own. Mary Owens, to whom Lincoln had once been engaged, gently recalled that he had been “deficient in those little links which make up the chain of a woman’s happiness,” and even Herndon believed he “ought never to have married anyone. He had no quality of a husband.”

Despite Mary’s best efforts, an early writer said, Lincoln was inherently “unparlorable.” His company manners had improved a good deal since he first moved to Springfield, when he was still capable of stalking into a fashionable ball with friends wearing muddy boots and shouting, “Oh, boys—how clean those girls look!” But despite her exhortations to “dress up and look like somebody,” his clothes remained rumpled, his hair unbrushed; the stovepipe hat he hung on the arched hat tree in the front hall every evening usually looked “as if a calf had licked it.” He was perpetually—and unapologetically—late for meals, used the wrong knife to spread his butter, and persisted in answering the door himself instead of allowing the serving girl to do it, sometimes in his shirt sleeves and without his boots. Once, to Mary’s acute embarrassment, he told some visiting ladies his wife would be down “as soon as she gets her trotting harness on.”