Newly revealed letters shed light on Lincoln widow

SPRINGFIELD – Newly revealed letters written by Abraham Lincoln’s widow in the months after the president’s assassination show her frantic mindset as she grappled with enormous debts that left her feeling humiliated and fearful of prolonged homelessness.

Three letters written by Mary Lincoln and her son Robert were donated Saturday to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield and will go on display after cleaning and other preparations. The museum is a center for Lincoln research, drawing scholars and even a visit by actor Daniel Day-Lewis as he studied for his portrayal of the 16th president in Steven Spielberg’s historical epic “Lincoln,” which opens nationwide next week.

Only an incomplete portion of one of the letters had ever been published. The rest is new to historians.

The letters were donated by descendants of Wall Street banker Benjamin Sherman, who helped raise around $11,000 to support the Lincoln family after the president’s death. The descendants also donated a ledger from Sherman showing contributions from hundreds of people nationwide, which researchers will scour to learn more about the donors listed.

In one letter, Mary Lincoln tells Sherman of the emotional toll the financial struggles are taking on her as she and her youngest son, Tad, moved every few months between hotels before they were able to buy a house in Chicago.

“We are homeless, and in return for the sacrifices, my great & noble Husband made, both, in his life & death, the paltry, first year’s salary is offered us,” she wrote in the letter, dated Dec. 2, 1865. “... I am humiliated, when I think, that we are destined, to be forever, homeless. I can write no more.”

Mary Lincoln had what should have been a comfortable level of income from interest on Sherman’s fund and on her share of Lincoln’s estate, as well as Congress’ gift of the slain president’s 1865 salary. But she was beset by an estimated $26,000 in debts from the White House years, many of them to clothiers and jewelers, and merchants were pressing her to pay.

In one of the letters to Sherman, Mary Lincoln mentions two of those merchants.

“May I ask you, as a last favor, to see Mr Moser & Godfrey, when you receive this, and have the fur bill cut down considerably. Your influence can accomplish this,” she said in the Jan. 13, 1866, letter.

One of three siblings donating the documents, Peter Thompson Jr., said they were happy to share them after their family had held onto them for 150 years.

“The letters and the cash book offer revealing insights into the mindsets and feelings of the Lincoln family in the aftermath of the assassination of President Lincoln,” Thompson said.

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