On this day (Feb. 20) in 1862, President Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln, died after a two-week battle with what appeared to have been typhoid fever.
His illness probably was caused by the drinking of contaminated water from a polluted canal just south of the White House. In mid-January, both Willie and his younger brother Thomas “Tad” (1853-1871) contracted the disease, but happily the younger boy recovered a few weeks after Willie’s death.
Although both parents, but especially the father, doted sometimes excessively over all of their sons, Willie seemed to have been a particular favorite of his dad, who spent many hours playing with his “sweet-tempered and gentle-mannered” third son.
Willie was described as “a noble, beautiful boy ... of great mental activity, unusual intelligence, wonderful memory, methodical, frank and loving, a counterpart of his father, save that he was handsome.”
Named for his mother’s brother-in-law, Dr. William Wallace, Willie was born Dec. 21, 1850, in the Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Ill., at Eighth and Jackson.
Dr. Wallace had treated the Lincolns’ second son, Edward Baker “Eddie” (1846-1850), who died just 10 months before Willie’s birth. This prompted the Lincolns to name their newly born after Eddie’s care-taker.
Willie, like his older brother Robert (1843-1926), attended a private school in Springfield, where he showed great promise, especially in mathematics. As his father’s apparent favorite, Willie often would accompany his father on business trips to Chicago and to various county seats in central Illinois, where the “prairie lawyer” father practiced law.
Considered the most precocious of the Lincoln boys, Willie’s untimely death was traumatic for the entire family. Willie” was, of course, the second Lincoln son to die prematurely.
The Lincolns’ second son, Eddie, had been fatally afflicted with what was described as “chronic consumption” in 1850.
Younger brother Tad, who was particularly close to Willie, was especially hit hard by Willie’s death; he was reported to have cried constantly for a month.
As for the mother, Mary Todd was inconsolable. She became so prostrate from grief that she was unable to even attend Willie’s funeral service. Abraham also was devastated by the loss of his gifted son. According to Attorney General Edward Bates, the president had spent many hours at Willie’s bedside in the days prior to his son’s death, and was “nearly worn out, with grief and watching.”
Shortly after Willie drew his last, labored breath on that February Thursday, Lincoln was heard to have cried out: “My poor boy. He was too good for this earth ... but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die.”
The formal funeral was conducted in the Green Room in the White House by the pastor of the nearby New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, who gave a moving eulogy in which he declared: “The eye of the nation is moistened with tears, as it turns today to the Presidential Mansion; the heart of the nation sympathizes with its chief magistrate while to the unprecedented weight of civil care which presses upon him is added the burden of this great sorrow.”
Willie initially was buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. In 1865, after Lincoln’s assassination, Willie’s body accompanied that of his father’s back to Springfield, and was re-interred in the Oak Ridge Cemetery.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787”. He is available for tutoring, talks, and workshops on American History. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.