This year brings all things Frederick Douglass to O.P., in celebration of the bicentennial of the great human rights activist’s birth, one especially dear to my mind and heart. So here I share my favorite episode of Drunk History, in which comedian and screenwriter Jen Kirkman drinks two bottles of wine before she tells Douglass’ story. It also stars Don Cheadle as Frederick Douglass, Will Farrell as Abraham Lincoln, and Zooey Deschanel as Mary Todd Lincoln. Directed by Jeremy Konner. Prepare for some aching ribs…
New Salem, Sunday, July 31st, 2017
From the Michael J. Howlett building in downtown Springfield (part of which stands on the site of the Ninian Edwards house where Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were married and where Mary died), I head northwest on highway 97 to New Salem Historic Park. This is the site of New Salem, the small frontier commercial village which played no small role in Lincoln’s life as a young man striking out on his own. It’s a pleasant drive through farmland with homes and farm buildings and gas stations and tiny general stores scattered here and there. In a little under half an hour, I reach a wooded area, and soon after that, take the turnout to my left to New Salem. I stop for a snack at the little cafe offering a modest selection of hot dogs, nachos, sandwiches, and other things that take the edge off but don’t suffice as a meal. The park’s visitor center buildings are all closed because the air conditioning system isn’t working. I don’t blame them at all for not opening up: it feels very much like a summer day in the Midwest, hot and humid, and I imagine a full day indoors would get stuffy and miserable. But the park itself is open to roam, so I do… Read the written version here
Springfield, Illinois, Saturday, July 30th, 2017
I sleep in then linger over a continental breakfast-of-sorts in my rented room as I catch up on some rest, writing, and research. When I finally bestir myself in earnest, I head over to D’arcy’s Pint to enjoy a local delicacy for lunch. My brother John lived in Springfield for a time some years ago and told me I must eat a horseshoe while I’m in town. The internet tells me that this gastropub is the best place to enjoy this decadent regional take on the open-face sandwich, so here I am. I order a full-size one with the works, spicy, and a pint to wash it down with. They bring me a small mountain on a plate composed of Texas toast, french fries, ground meats, chopped tomatoes and other veggies, and cheese sauce, the spiciness added at the discretion of the diner from the little cup of (mildly) hot sauce on the side. It’s tasty enough, I can’t deny, and the cheese sauce is very good and appears to be homemade, not at all like the waxy bright yellow kind that comes from a can or jar. But it’s not the tastiest thing I’ve ever eaten: it’s really starchy. Potatoes and bread in one dish? Hmmm. Still, it’s plenty good enough to pack up the other half to eat later. The physically-demanding, hiking-heavy portion of my journey is far enough behind me now that I just can’t digest a heavy meal of this size all at once… Read the written version here
New Salem, Sunday, July 31st, 2017
From the Michael J. Howlett building in downtown Springfield (part of which stands on the site of the Ninian Edwards house where Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were married and where Mary died), I head northwest on highway 97 to New Salem Historic Park. This is the site of New Salem, the small frontier commercial village which played no small role in Lincoln’s life as a young man striking out on his own. It’s a pleasant drive through farmland with homes and farm buildings and gas stations and tiny general stores scattered here and there. In a little under half an hour, I reach a wooded area, and soon after that, take the turnout to my left to New Salem. I stop for a snack at the little cafe offering a modest selection of hot dogs, nachos, sandwiches, and other things that take the edge off but don’t suffice as a meal. The park’s visitor center buildings are all closed because the air conditioning system isn’t working. I don’t blame them at all for not opening up: it feels very much like a summer day in the Midwest, hot and humid, and I imagine a full day indoors would get stuffy and miserable. But the park itself is open to roam, so I do.
I find that some of the volunteer interpreters are not deterred today by the heat or the lack of an air-conditioned space to retreat to. Two men in early-to-mid 19th-century costume roam the park under shady, battered straw hats, recounting the history of New Salem and anecdotes from Lincoln’s life here. Some kind soul(s) placed large coolers here and there filled with ice water as well. It’s a lovely place to wander, and I take my time exploring. Though I visit all of them, there are so many structures that I’ll just show and tell of the ones that have some connection to Lincoln. The park contains 22 reconstructed and one original building from the New Salem of Lincoln’s time. The reconstructions are based on the findings from archaeological digs, on descriptions of the town from former residents, and on other representations of buildings, furniture, and tools from the same time period. Most of the buildings, as far as could be determined, are built on or near the original foundations. Many of the furnishings, equipment, dishes, and more are from that time period, too, collected locally.
Lincoln’s first sight of New Salem was from the Sangamon River, which powered the little town’s gristmill and sawmill. On that day in April 1831, to be more precise, he was in the river: barefoot, hatless, and soaked to the skin, working frantically to dislodge Denton Offutt’s flatboat from where it had gotten stuck going over the dam. Lincoln had helped build the flatboat whose cargo of bacon and grain, en route to New Orleans, was in danger of going overboard. His efforts to save the boat and cargo succeeded, and Offutt, impressed and relieved, offered Lincoln the management of the new general store he planned to build for New Salem. It took Offutt longer the get the store up and running than he planned, but eventually, it did open in September of that same year, and Lincoln did run it after all.
Henry Onstot, whose house is the first I visit, was the area cooper, maker of barrels and other implements that required the same wood-steaming and bending techniques. His cooper’s shop next door is the only original building that still stands in New Salem. After the village was abandoned in 1840, Onstat moved his business, building and all, to nearby Petersburg. The building was returned to New Salem in 1922, not long after the park was opened to the public by the State of Illinois. Sixteen years earlier, in 1906, William Randolph Hearst purchased the site and surrounding lands and donated it to the Old Salem Chautauqua Association, who had invited him to speak and had sparked his interest in the site and its history. (Chautauqua is an adult education movement founded in the 1870’s, named for the New York lake near which the first meeting was held.) The Association, in turn, donated it to the state. This building is the only thing on this site that Lincoln was sure to have touched. William Herndon, Lincoln’s future law partner and biographer, tells us that Lincoln frequently would retreat to the cooper shop to read by the light of the fire he’d build using the leftover barrel-making materials.
I visit the Trent brothers’ house next, then the Kelso-Miller house. The Kelso-Miller house is a sort of duplex sometimes called a ‘dogtrot house’. The front doors face one another across an unwalled roofed and floored passage between the two halves. Jack Kelso, who New Salem historian Benjamin Platt Thomas describes as ‘a lazy dreamer’ and ‘the village philosopher,’ was a hunter, trapper, fisher, and odd-jobber. He loved Shakespeare and Robert Burns and could recite from them at length, to the surprise and delight of many. Lincoln became a lifelong fan of both.
Especially during his early years here, Lincoln, who never owned a house in New Salem, would board with them. It amazes me that Kelso and his wife could host Lincoln: the tiny size of this place makes it difficult to imagine that it could hold three cooking, eating, sleeping people, especially given the girth of Kelso and the height of Lincoln.
Joshua Miller was the village blacksmith and wagon-builder. His wife and Kelso’s were sisters. Unlike Kelso, Miller was not a bit lazy. His skills were in high demand in the growing village so he was kept constantly busy. Now that Miller was here, the villages’ horses could remain properly shod; the doors and windows could have metal fittings instead of wood ones; plenty of wagons would have been needed to carry grain to and from the gristmill, and would require regular maintenance and repair as well.
Nxt, I visit the schoolhouse. Mentor Graham, the schoolmaster, was among those impressed by Lincoln’s ability, attentiveness to detail, and friendly concern for his neighbors and customers. According to New Salem historian Thomas, Graham assisted him in his continuing self-education, finding him a ready, apt, and diligent student. He helped Lincoln learn surveying as well, often working with Lincoln late into the night doing and checking calculations. Yet another biographer, Michael Burlingame, disputes the story that Graham was much of a help to Lincoln educationally, despite Graham’s and Lincoln’s friend Robert Rutledge’s claims. According to many of his former pupils, Graham had very poor math skills and was, in fact, a poor teacher overall. He had barely passed his teaching certification exams. Lincoln and Graham must have gotten along well enough, in any case: Lincoln boarded with his family for six months. If Graham’s former pupils spoke the truth, however, Lincoln likely mastered the skill of surveying on his own.
Next, I stop by the house of Isaac Guliher or Golliher, variously spelled in my sources. His only significance in this account is that he also served with Lincoln in the Black Hawk War, one of the little troop that’s described in Thomas’ history of New Salem as “…a hard-looking set of men, unkempt and unshaved” who “made war on the pigs and chickens,” and one of whom replied “go to the devil” when Lincoln gave his first command. Though Lincoln was very proud of being elected their captain, it sounds as if would have been a tough job.
Two buildings past the house of Isaac Guliher stands a little pointy-roofed shop. The Berry-Lincoln store building, the first of its two locations, looks very like most of the other buildings here, sturdy but modest, strictly utilitarian with its rough-hewn log structure, pointed shake roof, and small door and windows. In 1832, Lincoln entered into partnership with William Berry, buying out James and J. Rowan Herndon’s share of the general store. Lincoln, as usual, was broke. The modest compensation he received for his service in the Black Hawk War that spring and early summer wouldn’t go far. He paid his share with a promissory note, as he did for his share of the stock he and Berry purchased from a defunct local store. The store was never very busy so Lincoln read quite a bit. In his New Salem years, he mostly read Shakespeare, Burns, and the Bible, as well as law books, Kirkham’s Grammar, and other practical books. Other than poetry and Shakespeare, he didn’t read much literature, in which he had little interest.
The store limped along and, to save it, Berry decided to apply for a license to sell liquor in small quantities, which made it effectively a tavern as well. This didn’t suit Lincoln, who didn’t drink and saw the ill effects on those who did. He released his interest in the store in April of 1833. Once again, Lincoln was broke, and this time, in debt. He became an odd-jobber again like his friend Kelso, but not a lazy one. He split rails, worked on the farms, in the mill, and tended Sam Hill’s store, and when he got the chance, took any jobs he could get relating to voting, politics, and the law. In May, thanks to one of his very numerous friends, he was appointed to the job of village postmaster. It paid poorly but it was a social job, suitable for this friendly and often gregarious young man, and it gave him access to all the newspapers coming through the post. Since it was only a part-time job, this again gave him some time to read and study, though his odd-jobbing continued. A friend had recommended he try for the job of assistant to the newly appointed county surveyor John Calhoun. That job, coupled with his postmaster’s salary, should give him enough to live on. So he borrowed Calhoun’s books and learned surveying, took the job, and from January 1834 to late 1836, he made a success of it. But when his debts began to come due from the failed partnership with Berry and other speculations, what he was earning turned out, yet again, not to be nearly enough.
When it the time to elect state legislators began to come around in 1834, Lincoln’s friends encouraged him to run again. He first ran for that office in 1832, and his platform had included state investment in making the Sangamon River more navigable instead of putting in a much more expensive railroad line. He knew the river well, having been a flatboat pilot on it, and he knew just where it needed to be straightened, cleared, and dammed to get the goods flowing cheaply and easily to market. He also promoted public education, the lack thereof which had caused him so much frustration, and limits on predatory lending practices. Lincoln didn’t win the race, but made a respectable showing for a very young man of no means who had only been there about a year. In 1834, however, things were different. He had been a local businessman and postmaster, and his education and circle of friends had both increased. Among those who most encouraged Lincoln to run again was the justice of the peace Bowling Green.
So run he did, and he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives on August 4th, 1834. Lincoln would be reelected to that office four times, serving as state legislator from 1834-1842.
During his 1834 run for office, Lincoln would develop his interest and education in the law. John Todd Stuart, who served with Lincoln in the Black Hawk War, also ran for state legislature in 1832 and won. He would eventually become Lincoln’s first law partner, took an active interest in his prospects and loaned him his law books. Lincoln’s friend and mentor Bowling Green (what a name!) also recognized that Lincoln’s sharp mind took right to his legal studies. As justice of the peace, Green allowed Lincoln to comment on his court cases, which in turn led to many turning to Lincoln for advice and assistance drafting legal documents.
Almost three-quarters of the way down the main street, I take the right turn to that leads to the Rutledge Tavern. Its proprietor, James Rutledge, was one of the founders of New Salem in 1828. Rutledge was one of those who encouraged Lincoln to run for state legislator. This one and a half-story structure first served as the Rutledges’ home, but when the town began to grow, it was converted into a tavern or inn, with a low sleeping area overhead and a public dining room. This was one of the places where Lincoln regularly lodged and ate his meals.
In his biography of Lincoln, Herndon made much of a story that Ann Rutledge, James Rutledge’s daughter, was not only the first, but also the true love of Lincoln’s life. They certainly would have seen each other frequently, and as a petite, pretty, and plump young woman, she likely would have caught his eye (all of the women Lincoln is known to have courted or loved were curvy). Ann died in 1835, probably of typhoid, when she was only 22 years old; Abraham was 26. There are many stories of a courtship between Ann and Abraham, and of a tentative engagement contingent on an earlier beau’s reneging on his own promise. Some of the stories of their love affair claim that Lincoln wept by her deathbed, others that Lincoln was so distraught after her death that his friends kept suicide watch over him. Yet these stories are fragmentary, hearsay, and recalled many years or decades after the fact. It’s a sweet story, but we may never know how much of it is true. We must keep in mind that Herndon pushed the story within a larger narrative of Lincoln as a man who had lost in love, ending up with a difficult woman unworthy of him. As I have written previously, it appears to me that his portrayal of Mary Todd and her relationship with Lincoln is slanted based on Herndon’s personal dislike of her, and is not a balanced assessment. In any case, Ann and Abraham almost certainly shared an attraction and possibly love, and Abraham was certainly grieved by the early death of the sweet and pretty innkeeper’s daughter.
I return to the main road and straight ahead of me, across the street, I find a large milled limber structure with a nice shady porch. This is the second location of Berry and Lincoln’s general store.
Next, I spot a large sign in a grassy area followed by a series of smaller signs in a row leading toward the Sangamon River below the bluff. I read the sign and find that this is an archaeological site that has not be reconstructed.
It reminds me that there are many inhabitants of New Salem who Lincoln befriended, did business with, and lived with whose homes have not been reconstructed. For example, Lincoln lived with his friend Bowling Green’s neighbors Bennett and Elizabeth Abell for a time. Lincoln would regularly borrow books from them and Elizabeth, especially, thought he showed promise. She took such a liking to him that she introduced him to her sister, Mary Owens, in 1833, as a potential beau. They courted briefly a time but, despite Elizabeth’s eagerness that they marry, their relationship didn’t work out. Years later, she wrote to Lincoln’s law partner and biographer William Herndon that though she thought Lincoln a good man, nevertheless, he was ‘deficient in those little links which make up the chain of a woman’s happiness.’ She broke off the relationship; Lincoln, apparently, regretted ever getting involved and had written her letters hinting that they’d be better off without each other
I continue east along the main road, and to my right, I see the Herndon brothers’ house. One of them, J. Rowan Herndon, was married to Mentor Graham’s sister Elizabeth, and Lincoln lived with them for a time. Herndon was Berry’s original partner in the general store but since they didn’t get along, Herndon sold his share to Lincoln on credit. In 1833, Herndon accidentally shot and killed his wide when he was preparing to go out hunting. He left town to escape the rumors that he killed his wife on purpose, but it was no good: the rumors followed him for the rest of his life. Lincoln moved to Graham’s house when Rowan left.
Continuing onto the last little road which veers off to the left from the main road, I find the first store Lincoln worked in when he moved to New Salem. It was from Offutt’s flatboat that Lincoln first saw New Salem, and it was Offutt’s promise of a job managing his new store that caused Lincoln to move here in 1831. So this humble little store is the one that brought Lincoln to this place so formative to his life and education. It’s not much to look at, but it brings home to me anew how amazing Lincoln’s story really is.
Perhaps it was the fact that New Salem was both a tiny frontier village and a commercial community reaching hard beyond itself, seeking to become a hub of skilled trade and interstate commerce, that Lincoln found it such an effective springboard. From 1831 – 1837, this close-knit and ambitious village nurtured an uneducated, awkward, poor farm-boy into a canny lawyer, a political powerhouse, and a great moral leader, perhaps the greatest President the United States will ever see.
Sources and inspiration:
Burlingame, Michael. Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume 1. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012
Carwardine, Richard. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Random House, 2003
‘The Chautauqua Movement‘, Chautauqua Trail website
‘Denton Offutt.’ from Kentucky’s Abraham Lincoln by the Kentucky Historical Society
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995
Gannett, Lewis. ‘”Overwhelming Evidence” of a Lincoln-Ann Rutledge Romance?: Reexamining Rutledge Family Reminiscences.’ Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 26, Issue 1, Winter 2005, pp. 28-41.
Herndon, William H. and Jesse W. Weik. Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. 1889
Lehrman, Lewis E. Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.
‘Lincoln’s New Salem‘, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency website
‘Lincoln’s New Salem.’ In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
‘Lincoln’s New Salem 1830-1837‘, National Park Service website
New Salem: Virtual Tour, Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site website
Nicolay, John George. An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006
Shenk, Joshua Wolf. ‘The Suicide Poem‘, The New Yorker, June 14, 2004
Simon, John Y. ‘Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge,‘ Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association,
Volume 11, Issue 1, 1990, pp. 13-33
Thomas, Benjamin Platt. Lincoln’s New Salem. Springfield, Ill.: The Abraham Lincoln Association, 1934; republished Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Library, 2006.
Trenholm, Sandra. ‘Abraham Lincoln, Mary Owens, and the Accidental Engagement.’ The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website
Springfield, Illinois, Saturday, July 30th, 2017
I sleep in then linger over a continental breakfast-of-sorts in my rented room as I catch up on some rest, writing, and research. When I finally bestir myself in earnest, I head over to D’arcy’s Pint to enjoy a local delicacy for lunch. My brother John lived in Springfield for a time some years ago and told me I must eat a horseshoe while I’m in town. The internet tells me that this gastropub is the best place to enjoy this decadent regional take on the open-face sandwich, so here I am. I order a full-size one with the works, spicy, and a pint to wash it down with. They bring me a small mountain on a plate composed of Texas toast, french fries, ground meats, chopped tomatoes and other veggies, and cheese sauce, the spiciness added at the discretion of the diner from the little cup of (mildly) hot sauce on the side. It’s tasty enough, I can’t deny, and the cheese sauce is very good and appears to be homemade, not at all like the waxy bright yellow kind that comes from a can or jar. But it’s not the tastiest thing I’ve ever eaten: it’s really starchy. Potatoes and bread in one dish? Hmmm. Still, it’s plenty good enough to pack up the other half to eat later. The physically-demanding, hiking-heavy portion of my journey is far enough behind me now that I just can’t digest a heavy meal of this size all at once.
Feeling pleasantly languorous, I return to the Lincoln Home Historic Site. The house where Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, and their children lived from 1844 to 1861 stands at 413 S 8th St. It’s the only house where Lincoln lived that’s still standing except for the White House. I park in front of the Visitor Center at 426 S 7th Street and buy my ticket for the next available tour. In the intervening forty-five minutes or so before my tour starts, I wander through the exhibits in the small museum/bookshop of the visitor center and obtain a little more information for the rest of my Illinois trip. There’s lots of great stuff here.
A few minutes before our scheduled time, I meet the little tour group outside on a bench on the grass-edged wide walkway leading from the Visitor Center to the Lincoln Home. It sits among a very tidy little neighborhood of historic homes from around the Lincolns’ time here. Houses from later periods were not preserved, and a few stand empty and neatly painted, but not yet restored. Since the only activity at the streets and houses here are visitors strolling and gazing, guided and informed by the signs erected in front of some of the homes and other points of interest, it feels more like a nice outdoor museum or park than a neighborhood.
The Lincoln Home is a two-story house and, with the additions that the Lincolns added over the years, a decent size for a household of two adults and three children. Mary bore four sons; as you may remember, Robert was born the year before they moved here. Sadly, little Eddie died just short of four years old in 1850. He was the Lincolns’ second child and the first to be born in this house. Almost ten months after Eddie’s death, William was born, followed by Thomas, called Tad, in 1853.
The house originally consisted of just the front two-story section, tall but narrow, and this part feels as small today as I’m sure it did for the growing Lincoln family. It may seem roomier if I was here without my fellow visitors all herded together to one side of each room by the guardrail. Still, everything seems just a few steps away. The relatively small rooms would be practical for the time: they were easier and cheaper to keep warm in winter, hard to do since double-pane windows weren’t a thing yet. And since they had no modern appliances, the smaller rooms would have made cleaning the house more manageable as well.
We wind our way upstairs to the bedrooms. Each has its own wallpaper pattern, which modern tastes would generally find too ‘busy’, but these patterns were very French and therefore, very fashionable. It was very important to Mary that her homes be stylish enough to welcome and impress visitors even from the highest and wealthiest social classes. She continued this practice of elaborate home decorating at the White House, and she was reviled by many, and still is, for being an irresponsible, image-obsessed spendthrift.
But I don’t believe that Mary Todd’s insistence on style and elegance was the simple result of vanity or thirst for luxury. One of the things that originally drew Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln to one another was their love of politics, and Mary, like Abraham, was ambitious; he on his own behalf, she mostly on his, since he was the only one who could engage actively in politics. She, like Abraham, was practical, and a woman’s sphere of influence then was in the home and in the entertainment of guests. She knew that her husband was more likely to be respected and admired as a political leader if he lived in homes that displayed taste, culture, and yes, money, since that was emblematic of responsibility, ability, and power. She was only one of the many First Ladies who recognized this and who likewise put a lot of energy and money into making the White House a symbol of national pride and success. But she, I believe, has been the most reviled for it.
After viewing the upper floor and its bedrooms, we return to the ground floor and pass through the little kitchen. I think I would find it inconveniently small, but Mary was a petite woman, so perhaps that helped. At least everything was in easy reach! She did most of the household cooking, a new feature of her life once she married Abraham.
Many considered their courtship and marriage a poor fit: Mary had grown up with all of the advantages of wealth while Abraham very much did not. But she, like many others once they got to know him, was impressed enough with his intelligence and character that his long background of debt and poverty didn’t seem to deter her much. But married life with Abraham was not always so easy for Mary. It wasn’t just that she had to learn to cook and to perform many of the household duties that the team of domestics at her parents’ house used to take care of. Over time, as Abraham became a more financially successful lawyer and then politician, they enjoyed a much more comfortable middle-class lifestyle and Mary had money to spend on her household and personal effects again. But Abraham was notoriously ‘deficient in those little links which make up the chain of a woman’s happiness,’ as one of his prior sweethearts observed, and often much less demonstrative of his feelings than Mary would wish.
Yet especially during the early and middle years of their marriage, despite Lincoln’s law partner and eventual biographer William H. Herndon‘s many negative portrayals, the couple were very loving, respectful, and supportive of one another. Yes, they quarreled at times; both of them were moody, willful people. When angered, Mary would vent her frustrations but Abraham would bottle his up and withdraw, which, no doubt, sometimes made matters worse. Abraham may have had to put up with a lot sometimes, but at least for much of their marriage, Mary had to put up with more. She had a lot more character and a lot less selfishness and vanity than Herndon and many others later gave her credit for. After all, this was a woman who gave up a life of ease and wealth to marry an awkward-with-women, undemonstrative, unromantic, funny-looking guy of little means and few signs of promise besides his intelligence and charisma. She ended up with a faithful and hardworking but often absentee husband and father as he went out on the law circuit sometimes for weeks at a time, laying most of the household burdens on her shoulders. Their children were hard to deal with too: Mary and Abraham could not agree on a consistent method of discipline so they mostly gave it up, to the dismay of Lincoln’s colleagues at his law office and the White House since he’d sometimes bring his rambunctious kids to work.
Later on, the heartbreak of losing two of her children by the time she left the White House and the strain of public life took their toll on Mary. Mary was outspoken and decisive, and Victorian America was not yet accepting of such overt displays of will and opinion by women, especially by the First Lady, expected to be a model of decorum, of womanly modesty and restraint. But Mary would have none of it, and she made many enemies with her cutting wit, sarcasm, and displays of temper. She stood up for herself, not always gracefully, and this did not make her popular. Mary’s emotions, her depressions and passionate outbursts, became more volatile and frequent over time, and the Lincolns’ relationship was often more severely strained than ever. But although they had very different ways of expressing themselves, Mary and Abraham shared the sources of their pain and remained as supportive of one another as they knew how to be, and loyal to one another, for the rest of their lives.
We complete the tour of the house and I zigzag north and west, returning to central downtown Springfield. I had confirmed the location of a few more sites in my research this morning, and in books and maps I found at the Lincoln Home Visitor Center while I was waiting for the tour to begin. The next site I visit is on 4th St, just north of Adams St, on the east side. There’s only a parking lot here now, where used to stand a modest three-room frame house. Search as I may, there seems to be no photo of the house, or, as the historical plaque at the site describes it, cottage. The Lincolns and their infant son Robert moved here in the fall of 1843. They didn’t want to raise their children in a bustling hotel, though the Globe Tavern was a nice enough place for a young couple, so they moved into the best home they could afford until Lincoln’s practice began bringing in enough money again for something better. They were here only about a year before they moved into their permanent home on 8th St.
Lincoln was still paying off old debts, and as you may remember from the last installment of my Lincoln story, his law partner at the time, Stephen T. Logan, was a little tightfisted with the practice’s money. But as Lincoln became better known and more in demand; with a little help from Mary’s father, who liked Abraham despite the fact that he couldn’t yet provide his daughter a more comfortable lifestyle; and with Lincoln’s new senior partnership with Herndon in late 1844, they felt able to afford the 8th St house that same winter.
Then I return to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. On my first day here, I missed the sign that indicated that the Library stands on the house site of Eliza and Simeon Francis; the sign is across the street on the sidewalk next to the business building and PNC bank parking lot. Simeon Francis was the editor of Sangamo Journal and had become close friends with Lincoln in this capacity. Lincoln was a regular contributor to the editorial page through much of the 1830’s. After Mary Todd moved to town in 1839, she and Eliza Francis became close friends as well. Within the first year of their courtship, Lincoln panicked and broke off his engagement with Mary Todd on New Year’s Day, 1841 (what a day to choose, Lincoln!), and they didn’t speak much for a while.
But they shared so many acquaintances, friends, and interests that they were inevitably brought together again, especially by their friend Eliza. They were reconciled in the house that once stood here the next year and met regularly here to renew their courtship in secret. They didn’t want their relationship to be the subject of gossip and public speculation as to the reasons for the breakup and the renewal of their relationship. I’m guessing this may have been caution especially on Mary’s part: she was pretty head over heels for this guy; her family didn’t approve of him as a match for her however much they may have liked him personally; and she had observed how the normally gregarious and social Lincoln became awkward, shy, and skittish in the presence of most women. But when they were alone, Abraham and Mary got along excellently and had much to talk about. It all went so well this time around that Abraham and Mary Todd were married on November 4th, 1842.
I continue two blocks south and one block east to the northwest corner of 7th and Adams Sts. There’s a ‘Looking for Lincoln’ sign here on E Adams which points out the site across the street.
The Young Men’s Lyceum used to meet here at the old Baptist Church from 1838-1840. Early on during their tenure here, on January 27th, 1938, Lincoln addressed the young men with a speech titled The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions. Now known as the Lyceum Address, Lincoln spoke against the ‘mobocracy’ which he feared was becoming too common a substitution for reasoned debate and institutional reform in American life. The rancor between abolitionist and pro-slavery sympathizers was growing, breaking out in increasing numbers of violent episodes. The Lyceum Address revolves around the lynching of Francis McIntosh, a young freeman of mixed-African and European descent, who was lynched in St. Louis less than two years before Lincoln’s address here.
McIntosh was working on a steamboat that docked in St Louis, and on his way to visit his girlfriend, he stumbled upon two policemen pursuing another man who had been in a drunken brawl. McIntosh did not obey the policeman’s shouted orders for his to help them catch the man. Like the average American of African descent, free or enslaved, McIntosh was very likely not in the habit of mixing himself up in any circumstance that involved police or government officials, for the simple reason that very few of them had any interest in dispensing justice to people like himself, especially in slave states like Missouri. The drunk man got away and McIntosh was arrested instead. When the police officers threatened him with five years in jail, in a slave state, remember, McIntosh panicked. He grabbed a knife and fled, killing one officer and wounding the other. He was caught and jailed again. A mob gathered, broke him out, chained him to a tree, and burned him alive. At first McIntosh begged for someone from the crowd, anyone, to shoot him and release him from his torture; when no one was willing to show even this level of mercy, he prayed and sang hymns until the pain and the flames silenced him for good.
Abolitionist minister and editor of The Observer Elijah Lovejoy picked up the story and, contrary to most of the press, condemned this episode as an episode of wickedness and lawlessness. Proslavery sympathizers ran a sabotage campaign against his St Louis press until he was forced to move across the Missouri River to Alton. But he was not safe there, either, and on November 7, 1837, a mob attacked the warehouse where he had hidden his press in a vain attempt at safety. They shot into the warehouse while Lovejoy and his supporters were inside. Forced to defend themselves, they shot back, wounding some members of the mob and killing one. In revenge, the mob tried to burn down the warehouse with the men still inside it, and Lovejoy was shot to death when he emerged to stop them. As was the case with McIntosh, the judge voiced his support for the mob and no-one was convicted of the murder.
Lincoln feared that his beloved country would devolve from an enlightened union of states founded on principles of reason and reverence for the rule of law into an association weakened and fractured by the same ideological intolerance and strife which marked old Europe. He did not fear that any European, or Asian, or African nation, or any other foreign power, could destroy the United States: he recognized that in this, the only thing Americans had to fear was themselves. Lincoln’s fear was prescient: Bleeding Kansas was still twenty-six years away, the Civil War thirty-three. When he delivered this speech, Lincoln was just short of 29 years old. He had been first elected a state legislator less than four years before and had been a practicing lawyer for less than a year. While ambitious for high office, I doubt that even Lincoln’s prophetic skills could help him foresee that he would be leading his nation to the ‘new birth of freedom’ he spoke of in his even more famous 1863 Gettysburg Address, with strengthened political institutions that could, it was hoped, better serve a government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ – but all the people this time around. We’re still working on it.
It’s early evening, and those leftovers are sounding pretty good right now. The last places I’d like to follow Lincoln here in Springfield will be open tomorrow, so I return to my lodging.
Springfield, Illinois, Sunday, July 31st, 2017
I begin my day at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and get a little writing done. I would love to dig into the archives here, which now include the Robert Ingersoll Papers, but I’m itching to get back on the road. I have this big comfy rental car (a free upgrade since the first one broke down) and only a certain number of road trip days left before I leave the U.S. for a while. But I’ll certainly be back here again.
A five minute’s drive north from the Library takes me to the Edwards Place Historic Home, now owned and operated by the Springfield Art Association. I enter the visitor center to the right of the house, and though I don’t have anything scheduled, a woman on staff there was kind enough to take me on a one-on-one tour. My timing is lucky: before long it will be closed to the public for restoration, at least until May 2018. As it is, I get to see some of the rooms decorated and ready for the public complete with nice carpet, wallpaper, artifacts original to the family and to the time period, as well as other rooms and passageways in various stages of disrepair, construction, and deconstruction. I see layers of plaster, wood, wallpaper, and paint peeled and cut away, little doorways into its history. Particularly revealing to me, familiar with vintage and antique textiles, I recognize various attempts at recreating the house’s antebellum history more or less successfully in the wallpapers, with 1990’s, 1960’s-1970’s, 1920’s, and other eras’ ideas of what wallpaper from the time would look like. None of it looks at all like the Edwards’ own wallpaper peeking out from where bits of it had escaped the remodelers’ scrapers.
The house was originally built in 1833 and expanded to its current grand dimensions after Benjamin and Helen Dodge Edwards bought the house in 1843. Benjamin Edwards was the brother of Mary Todd’s sister Elizabeth’s husband Ninian, named for the Edward brothers’ father. When Mary Todd moved to town in 1840 and settled in with her older sister Elizabeth, Mary and Helen became good friends. When Helen and her husband moved to this house three years later, Mary and her new husband Abraham were regular guests.
As Springfield Art Association says on their website, the
‘Edwards Place was a center for social activity in Springfield. Prominent citizens and politicians such as Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, David Davis, and numerous governors, judges, lawyers, and politicians were entertained at lavish dinner parties and the grounds played host to many summer picnics and political rallies…. Although the Lincolns did not court or marry here, Edwards Place is currently home to the “courting couch” on which Lincoln and Mary Todd sat during the early days of their romance, originally the property of Ninian Edwards.’
The website’s article points out that I made the same mistake many people do: I mixed up the Edwards houses. This Edwards house, which currently houses the famous black horsehair couch where Abraham and Mary courted, is not the same house where that couch originally was, where the Lincolns originally courted and were married. These Edwards moved into this house the year after the Lincolns were married. The other Edwards house site, where Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards welcomed Elizabeth’s younger sister Mary into their home in 1840, is where the Michael J. Howlett building now stands. That’s downtown near where I just came from. Well, no matter. It’s only a five-minute or so backtrack.
I find a parking spot near the Michael J. Howlett building–not easy to do since its a workday–and look for a plaque or marker. There’s sure to be one since it’s the site of such significance in Lincoln’s life. I don’t see one at first, so I visit the Illinois State Archive, the next building to the west of the Howlett building. The man at the front desk there doesn’t know of such a thing but hazards a few guesses. However, before I go on that little goose chase, the man looking after the state employee parking lot passes by. I tell him what I’m looking for, and he knows right off. Of course! He spends his days out here where it’s likely to be found. I follow his directions: if you start from the Howlett building sign on E Edwards St, head north on the driveway towards the Illinois State Capitol Building following the west side of the Howlett building. Turn right at the corner of the building, then look low on the outer wall of the accessible ramp. That’s why I missed it: it’s well below eye level, and not on a structure, or rather, the part of the structure, that I expected it to be on.
Mary Todd Lincoln returned to this house many years after her years in Springfield as a vivacious debutante, fiancée, wife of a lawyer and congressman, mother of a brood of wild young boys, and new First Lady. Her sister Elizabeth discovered that her oldest son Robert had her committed to an insane asylum in 1875 and was dismayed. Mary had lost her husband and three of her sons and had increasingly had a terrible time after each one. She may have struggled with what today we might call a mental illness, but since emotional issues were so poorly understood by the medical establishment at the time (as they are, in many ways, in our time) and there was no one to give a qualified assessment at the time, I won’t repeat modern diagnostic speculations here. Robert and Mary had not gotten along for a long time, and we can’t know for sure if he thought she really needed to be committed or if he was just wanted to get her out of the way and out of the bank accounts. She had adopted many unsettling habits, such as consulting spiritualists and alternating heavy spending on trifles she never used with eccentric miserly behavior, fearing poverty despite her generous government pension. Mary was able to get herself released from the asylum into the care of Elizabeth. She lived here for a time then moved to France for awhile until her health significantly declined, then returned to live with Elizabeth. She died here on July 16th, 1882.
Having visited all the sites on my list as well as a few I discovered during this journey, I continue on from Springfield to one more very important place associated with Lincoln’s life and ideas, and then arrive at another amazing place this evening. Stay tuned!
Sources and inspiration:
Andreasen, Bryon C. Looking for Lincoln in Illinois: Lincoln’s Springfield. Southern Illinois University Press, 2015
Baker, Jean H. ‘Mary Todd Lincoln: Managing Home, Husband, and Children.‘ Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 11, Issue 1, 1990, pp. 1-12
Carwardine, Richard. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Random House, 2003
‘Central Springfield Historic District‘ National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Prepared by Nicholas P. Kalogeresis for the National Park Service.
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995
Gourevitch, Philip. ‘Abraham Lincoln Warned Us About Donald Trump‘. The New Yorker, March 15, 2016
Herndon, William H. and Jesse W. Weik. Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. 1889
Lehrman, Lewis E. Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.
Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Illinois, website by the National Park Service
Looking for Lincoln: various historical/informational placards throughout the Springfield, Illinois and surrounding areas about the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln at their associated sites
MacLean, Maggie. ‘Elizabeth Todd Edwards: Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln.’ Civil War Women blog, Jul 28, 2013
Nicolay, John George. An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006
Simon, Paul. Freedom’s Champion-Elijah Lovejoy. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2004
Wright, John Aaron. Discovering African American St. Louis: A Guide to Historic Sites. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2002
Thirteenth Day, Friday April 1st
I begin at Cedar Hill in Anacostia, Frederick Douglass’ handsome, gabled house on a hill overlooking Washington DC. He moved here with Anna and the kids in September of 1878, having lived in the capital city of Washington for a little over six years. In a sense, the Douglasses didn’t really move out of Washington when they moved into their new suburban home east of the Anacostia River. Anacostia, called Uniontown in the mid-1800’s then switched back again, was part of the District of Columbia, which in turn was larger than Washington and encompassed it. When the boundaries of Washington and the District of Columbia became one and the same in 1878, the Douglasses’ Anacostia home became a Washington city home then too.
It’s another lovely day, again the sky is partly cloudy, the air soft and warm and a little breezy, freshly washed by the morning’s rain. The cold weather I had shivered in for much of the first half of my trip is nearly forgotten.
The National Park Service now owns and runs the house, the grounds, and the visitor center and museum, collectively called The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. I take a brief look at the outside of the house, then stop at the visitor center and sign up for the guided tour which will start shortly. I take another brief look around while I wait, and note the displays and artifacts I want to examine more closely when I return to the visitor center museum.
Then I join the tour group on the steps leading up the hill to the house. Let me express my gratitude and give credit at the outset to the very knowledgeable and helpful Nate Johnson who leads the tour. Much of the information I share with you here about the house and the Douglass family’s life together he provides in whole, or he confirms and fleshes out the stories.
In the entrance hall, I spot a miniature portrait of Helen Pitts Douglass, who Frederick married about 17 months after Anna’s death. Frederick and Helen met as neighbors soon after the Douglasses moved to Cedar Hill, and Helen came to work in Douglass’ office on Capitol Hill alongside his daughter Rosetta. Helen was a suffragist and abolitionist, like her father and Douglass’ long time acquaintance Gideon Pitts, and she and Douglass bonded over their shared social and political beliefs. As you may remember from the Boston and Honeoye accounts, their marriage was very controversial: many black people thought that Douglass was betraying Anna and his race by marrying a white woman, and many white people objected for obvious (purely racist!) reasons, even their fellow abolitionists. While Douglass brushed it off by saying that when he married Anna, he married a woman the color of his mother, and when he married Helen, he married a woman the color of his father, he had more explaining to do when it came to his family. Not because of the racial difference so much: though his children were sensitive on that issue on behalf of their mother, they knew his views on the color line and that it should be erased. It seems the trouble was mostly that he didn’t tell them that he was going to get married. We’ll return to that family drama soon…
The door on the right from the entrance hall leads to the West Parlor, or sitting room, where the family would gather to play music, sing, and generally just hang out after dinner. As discussed in my account of my first day in Rochester, the Douglasses were a musical family, His daughter Rosetta and his second wife Helen played the piano, he and his son Charles played the violin, and possibly Anna did as well. Douglass was a very talented player, would play often, and sometimes dance. His grandson Joseph, son of Lewis, also adopted the violin and played with such great skill that it became his profession. Joseph’s first major performance was at the Columbia Exposition, which his grandfather helped organize, on August 25th, 1893, at age 22. He was the first violinist to be recorded, taught at Howard University and various schools, and toured the world as a concert violinist. (I subsequently had the pleasure of interviewing one of Frederick and Joseph’s descendants for my podcast!)
The grandkids, frequent visitors and sometimes residents of the big house, would join in the fun of the sitting room family gatherings. Some would sing along with the music, and other times were devoted to games and general romping, here and throughout the house, wherever they could get away with it. In public, Douglass presented himself in a very serious and dignified way, but at home he was very playful, romping with the grandkids and joking a lot. He’d allow his granddaughters to braid his flowing hair and tie ribbons in it, only to have to rush off sometimes and put it back in order for the sake of the frequent guests who visited the house.
Anna’s portrait presides over the formal East Parlor, dedicated to greeting and entertaining guests. Her picture, directly across from the big bookshelf, occupies the central place of honor between the two tall windows at the front of the house. Unfortunately, the way the light is streaming brightly in the windows just after midday makes the portrait, easy to see in person, impossible for my camera to pick up amid the strong backlight. In fact, the way the sun is creating such high contrasts in the room, most of my photos of this room don’t end up turning out.
Anna lived here at Cedar Hill for just under four years, presiding over this stately but lively home bustling with children, grandchildren, extended family, and frequent and numerous houseguests. While she had some health troubles, she remained pretty active until she suffered a stroke on July 9th, 1884, and lingered almost a month. After she died, at about age 69, Douglass fell into a deep and at times almost debilitating depression for well over a year. He thought about selling his house and traveling, perhaps moving to Europe for awhile. But his family needed him here, and besides, his neighbor and clerk Helen Pitts had become a close friend and ally.
Then we stop at the library, south of the East Parlor, accessible through a connecting door. Many of the things in this room actually belonged to Douglass, such as the top hat to the right of the desk. According to the National Park service, ‘Douglass’s extensive library contained more than 1000 volumes that included books on history, science, government, law, religion and literature. ‘ I don’t, unfortunately, get the opportunity to take a close look at the contents of that nice big bookshelf.
We stop next at the dining room at the end of the entrance hall and to the right, with a big door leading onto the hallway, through which we look at the room, but also connected to the sitting room through another connecting door. On February 20th, 1895, Douglass and Helen were at this table discussing the women’s rights convention he had just attended that day. His old friend (or perhaps more accurately expressed in modern slang as ‘frenemy’) Susan B. Anthony had escorted him to the front of the room to speak. Always a talented mimic, he was repeating another’s speech he had heard there at the convention, probably sitting, then rising, from his big dining room chair. All of a sudden, he sank to his knees, suffering a massive heart attack. He could not be revived.
I linger here behind the tour group for a few moments.
Then I rejoin the group and we go around to the kitchen, which is beyond the dining room, through the pantry. Anna was an excellent cook, and she would make Maryland beaten biscuits for Douglass. They were made from dough that was beaten to trap air in the dough, an alternate to leavening. The resulting biscuits are small, round, and rather hard but Douglass loved them, having grown up on them in the Chesapeake.
Then we go upstairs. Anna’s and Helen’s bedrooms are across Douglass’, which is on your right if you’ve just come up the stairs. Looking across the hall from Douglass’ room, Anna’s is on the left with the ruffled pillowcases and golden flower pattern wallpaper, Helen’s on the right with the dress form and green striped wallpaper. After Anna’s death, Douglass sealed her room off and no one stayed in there again.
Douglass had the big bedroom, with a desk where he may have worked sometimes. Note the weights on the floor by the big leather armchair: he was a large, powerfully built man, over six feet tall and two hundred thirty pounds, with a strong voice. He would often work out with free weights out on the lawn, and would also often walk the five miles to work each way between Capitol Hill and Cedar Hill. He wrote that he felt stronger at this time in his life than he had in years. You can see Capitol Hill and the Washington Monument looking out of the bay window above the front door off to the left, and the view from the lawn in front of the house is fantastic, with the city laid out before you in a panorama across the Anacostia River.
During the years Douglass lived at Cedar Hill, he was once again a well-to-do man after the debacle of the failed Freedman’s Bank, a subject I mentioned in an earlier account and to which I’ll return soon. To rebuild his finances, he went out on tour again, and he had been able to command very large speaking fees throughout the North and earned a good salary as Recorder of Deeds in Washington D.C., and with the help of a loan from a well-to-do friend, he was once again able to afford a grand house.
By the time Douglass moved to Cedar Hill, he had moved into the role of a senior statesman and had a lot of social and political influence. Yet while Douglass retains his reputation to this day as a fiery champion of black rights, he was perceived by many in those later years to have lost sight of the true plight of most black Americans, especially in the South. He still supported the Republican Party even as it was abandoning Reconstruction, leaving the southern states free to flout the 14th and 15th Amendments. By the time Douglass moved to Anacostia and his grand home on Cedar Hill, his days as a slave, a laborer, and a working abolitionist suffering the everyday oppressions and indignities of Jim Crow were far behind him. His biographers Philip Foner and William McFeely both describe and critique his seeming lack of full awareness and concern for how bad it really was at this time for ordinary black working Americans. To many, it was clear that Douglass’ pragmatism had overshadowed his fiery spirit as a champion of human rights.
In 1876, Douglass was so eager that Rutherford B. Hayes become President, in a heavily contested, extremely close election, that he failed to criticize the Republican Party’s policies in any serious way. To be fair to Douglass, it was still the only major party that at least nominally supported black rights, and if Hayes lost to Tilden, even the appearance of national concern over the rights of black Americans would be lost. But really, his critics said, he should have advocated the complete abandonment of the Republican Party since it had in practice largely abandoned the cause of actual emancipation. After all, the existence of the 14th and 15th Amendments meant nothing to the lives of black Americans if their politicians and fellow citizens routinely blocked access to the polls, to good jobs, to elected office, and to all the other rights and privileges of citizens of a free nation.
The Republican Party had a powerful contingent who had come to prioritize economic progress over human rights reform, and thought that keeping federal troops stationed in the South to protect black rights only served to delay national reconciliation and economic recovery. So Republicans routinely struck deals with southern leaders eager to return to old social practices and had often come to be no better than Democrats at protecting black rights. President Hayes, for so long an ardent supporter of strong federal enforcement of civil rights laws, shifted his focus to economic recovery and civil service reform. To be fair to Hayes, ‘Republican Party’ had become almost synonymous with ‘political corruption’, and the new president, famed for his integrity throughout his political career, was determined to fix that. And Hayes was far from the only one who thought that economic recovery would bring about gradual black rights reform through the value of their work in a revitalized economy.
So the Democrats had their way, and black citizens lost many of the political gains they had made. They lost their hard-won representation in government and had even become even worse off in many parts of the South than they had been under slavery, with endemic Klu Klux Klan and White League terrorism, lynching, black codes, debt peonage, convict leasing, and sharecropping, which systematically cheated black people out of the earnings from their labor. And as history reveals, the Douglass of 1857 who had said in Canandaigua ‘If there is no struggle, there is no progress’, was right, and Hayes and the gradualist reformers were wrong. The South continued its oppression of black people nearly unchecked for another hundred years, and their rights were only reclaimed through their protest and struggle, assisted by the intervention of the federal government.
But by the 1888 election, Douglass was no longer so ready to remain silent in the face of Republican Party’s failures to protect human rights. It was no longer good enough that the Republican Party had been the party of Lincoln and of the Union. His rhetoric took on a more fiery tone once again, and he said that if the Republican Party wouldn’t live up to their promises to protect black rights, he now looked forward to their defeat. And defeated they were: Democrat Grover Cleveland had already taken the White House in 1884. Douglass attributed this to the Republican Party’s abandonment of the human rights platform, which had made it the champion of goodhearted people, in favor of a profit-first agenda.
As we leave the house, in response to my inquiry, Johnson points me in the direction of the site of Helen Pitts’ uncle Hiram’s house, right beside Cedar Hill where the tall red building stands directly to the right if you’re looking toward D.C. from the front porch (or to your left if you’re looking at the front of the house). Helen lived here with her uncle for a time, and the Pittses and Douglasses were friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Hiram, like his brother and Helen’s father Gideon in Honeoye, refused to speak to the couple or allow them the house after Helen married Douglass. There was a path that led from Hiram’s house up to Cedar Hill, but after the marriage presumably, sadly, it saw much less use.
I return to the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site museum, tucked into the east foot of the hill, and the treasures therein. Among them, there’s the hymnal which Douglass had with him when he escaped from slavery. It seems quite incredible that it survived, especially given the fire at his Rochester home. I wonder if the family took special pains to make sure that this one book, at least, escaped the flames. There’s also a copy (but not his copy) of the Columbian Orator, the first book Douglass ever bought, which, as you may remember, he purchased from Knight’s shop on Thames St in Fell’s Point, Baltimore, when he was only about 12 years old. It was among the most influential books of his life.
Douglass’ death mask, cast in plaster, is also here. His strong brow is relaxed, the deep furrow over the nose smoothed out a bit. His wide-set eyes look peacefully closed but the lips, usually set straight in a dignified manner in portraits, are here drawn tightly together, even pursed, but I’m guessing this is due to the castmaker’s efforts to keep plaster out of the mouth. His characteristically leonine hair is plastered (no pun intended) to his well-formed head. In death, as in life, he’s strikingly handsome.
Here, too, I find Abraham Lincoln’s walking stick, gifted to Douglass by Mary Todd Lincoln in thanks for his service recruiting for the Civil War.
After a rather lengthy visit closely examining all the displays and chatting with the docent, I cross the Anacostia again as I head north to 913 E St NE, where according to Douglass’ biographer McFeely, Helen Pitts was living when Douglass came to pick her up on January 24th, 1884, on their way to be married.
When I arrive, I find it’s a little hard to be sure that the 913 I find is an E Street address, a Maryland Ave, or both: these streets intersect at an odd angle here just east of 9th St. Google Maps seems to say it’s 913 E, but the door plaque says it’s 913 Maryland Ave. I find Baist’s city atlas from the turn of the century on the Library of Congress website, the earliest I can find online, and it shows that the numbers here have apparently not changed, since 1909 at least. In 1884, Helen lived here or near here, again, if the 1909 atlas is right. She had moved here from her uncle Hiram’s house to be closer to Capitol Hill, where she worked as Douglass’ clerk, though that meant she and Douglass were no longer neighbors. Perhaps they wanted to keep their deepening relationship less evident to the public eye. Again, more on their marriage soon to come.
I decide to break up the account up here of this day’s adventures into two accounts since it’s such a full day and I learn so much. To be continued!
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Sources and Inspiration:
‘About Us: Living History‘. Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives website (family tree, photos).
Baist’s Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia: Volume 2, Plate 21. By Baist, George William, William Edward, and Harry Valentine Baist, 1909. Via Library of Congress website
‘Benjamin Harrison: Campaigns and Elections,’ from Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia website
Blight, David W. ‘“Your Late Lamented Husband”: A Letter from Frederick Douglass to Mary Todd Lincoln‘. In The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website
Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Re-published 1993, Avenal, New York: Gramercy Books, Library of Freedom series.
Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.
Fought, Leigh. ‘On Trusting Secondary Sources‘. From Frederick Douglass’s Women: In Progress blog
Holt, Michael F. ‘The Contentious Election of 1876‘, in History Now: The Journal of the Gilder Lehrman Institute
‘Joseph Douglass‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.
‘Maryland Beaten Biscuits‘, in Guest Recipe Book. Diana’s Desserts website
Muller, John. Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia. Charleston: The History Press, 2012.
‘Rutherford B. Hayes: Life in Brief‘, from Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia website.
Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. W. W. Norton & Company, 1997