By David J. Kent
Wednesday, May 26, 2021
Opinions of Mary Lincoln run to extremes. While most of her biographers have been sympathetic, most of her husband's biographers have painted her as a disturbed, perhaps even mentally ill, woman who made Lincoln's life miserable. Her own son had her institutionalized as unstable.
A current exhibit at President Lincoln's Cottage explores the idea that Mary Lincoln may simply have been experiencing profound grief. Mary lost her own mother when she was six years old, then was treated poorly and often ignored by her stepmother. After starting her own family with Lincoln, her son Eddie died when only four. Sons Willie and Tad died at 12 and 18 years old. Only her oldest son Robert survived to adulthood, and she had a difficult relationship with him and his family. And then of course is the fact that Mary's own husband was violently assassinated as they sat together watching a comedy in Ford's Theatre. It's no wonder she was grief-stricken.
The Cottage delves into this grief to help explain Mary's behavior. They describe the exhibit as such:
Reflections on Grief and Child Loss is a first of its kind exhibit that bridges the Lincolns’ experience of the death of their children with modern families whose children have died inexplicably or from illness, disease, physical and gun violence and identify themes and ideas to bring light to the experience of child loss across time and experience.
The exhibit goes beyond Mary's own grief to those of others. Callie Hawkins, Interim Executive Director at President Lincoln’s Cottage, says the exhibit “bridges the Lincolns’ experience of the death of their children with modern families whose children have died” and brings “light to the experience of child loss across time and experience.”
The exhibit opened last November and is expected to remain open for at least two years. it was featured in a recent Smithsonian magazine blog, which can be read here. More details on the Cottage and its exhibits can be seen here.