The House At Eighth And Jackson

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Lincoln could be solicitous, insisting that Mary not try to do everything herself, and genuinely concerned when she fell victim to one of her headaches: “he was never himself—when I was not perfectly well,” Mary remembered. But he was also laconic and undemonstrative; no one who knew him well ever slapped his back or called him Abe. At the best of times he spoke and thought and moved so slowly, a friend remembered, it seemed as if he needed oiling, and he dealt with Mary’s tantrums by stalking from the house until she calmed down, his forbearing silence only adding further to her frustration.

At his worst he was given to spells of severe and morbid depression, which must have frightened his wife and from which even she could sometimes not rouse him. The closing stanza of “Mortality,” his favorite poem, hints at the sort of lugubriousness that sometimes gripped him:

Tis the wink of an eye, ‘tis the draught of a breath, From the blossoms of health, to the paleness of death. From the gilded saloon, to the bier and the shroud. Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud!

The last letter fragments found in the kitchen wall came from a Whig editor to whom Lincoln had sent the poem in 1846; the newspaperman wanted to know whether Lincoln himself had written it. “Beyond all question, I am not the author,” he replied (the Scottish poet William Knox was). “I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is.”

Her husband’s frequent absences were difficult enough for Mary to bear, but even when at home, he often seemed to disappear within himself. She dealt with his strange, brooding withdrawals as lightly as she could when guests were present. Her half-sister Emilie Helm remembered an evening in the sitting room when Lincoln and Robert were playing checkers and someone asked her brother-in-law a question. There was no answer. “Your silence is remarkably soothing, Mr. Lincoln,” Mary finally said, “but we are not quite ready for sleep just yet.” Everyone, including Lincoln, laughed.

 

But when the Lincolns were alone together, Mary was evidently less forgiving. After suggesting three times that he poke up the dying fire without spurring him to the slightest action, she once went at him with a stick of wood. Another time a neighbor woman had just reached the back door when Lincoln burst through it with his wife close behind, hurling potatoes.

The Park Service has done its best to evoke the lively presence of the Lincoln sons throughout the restored house. Their original stereoscope rests on a table in the sitting room, and wooden hoops, alphabet blocks, and a little book called The Passionate Child lie scattered about the room the curators believe the two younger boys occupied just across the hall from their mother’s bedroom, where a child’s table and chairs are clustered at the end of the bed in which they often slept.

Inevitably, these period artifacts convey nothing of their individual personalities. Robert was high-spirited as a small boy but increasingly reserved as he got older, evidence perhaps of the impact of his younger brother’s death when he was only six and the responsibility he felt for keeping his anxious mother calm while his father was away. Willie and Tad were uniformly boisterous; even their mother called them her “noisy boys.” Willie was his father’s favorite, perhaps the brightest of his sons and fond of poetry as well as mischief. Tad suffered from a speech impediment so severe that outsiders found it hard to understand him, and he may also have suffered from what we now call hyperactivity, unable to sit still for long, unable to read until he was twelve.

The Lincoln literature is filled with stories of his sons’ wildness. One kicked over the chessboard while his father was trying to concentrate on his next move; Tad smeared black ink all over the white marble counter at the telegraph office and raced through a reception swinging a side of bacon to scatter the formally dressed guests.

Lincoln’s bedroom remains the place in the restored house most successfully evocative of its owner.

No one found the boys more tiresome than Herndon, who often had to clean up after them. “Sometimes,” he recalled, “Lincoln would, when his wife had gone to church, to show off her new bonnet, or when she had kicked him out of the house, bring to the office Willie and Tad— these little devils . . . would take down the books, empty ash buckets, coal ashes, inkstands, papers, gold pens, letters, etc., etc., in a pile and then dance on the pile. Lincoln would say nothing, so abstracted was he, and so blinded to his children’s faults. Had they s--t in Lincoln’s hat and rubbed it on his boots, he would have laughed and thought it smart.”