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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Quick Points to Ponder

• Have you been watching the new “Murphy Brown?” It’s excellent, even better than it was back in the 1980s. The point I want to ponder, though, is that last week’s version included the fact that our war in Afghanistan has gone on for seventeen years. That’s far, far longer than any war in American history. We still risk soldiers’ lives there despite having achieved our ostensible objective of capturing Osama bin Laden. That happened under President Obama, however, so it doesn’t count.

• Did you notice that for a while, gas prices dropped to as low as $2.01? I’ve stopped trying to figure out who manipulates this market and why, but it was interesting that it happened while the Saudis were trying to distract us from the murder of a journalist. It made me ponder anew the thinking of Middle Eastern patriarchs, and I’ve decide that they no longer are much motivated by money: they have more than enough. Instead, I think, their biggest goal is to slow the spread of democracy, both there and here. I suspect that the lower prices were because they are trying to help the Trump administration. They strongly identify with his fascism, racism, and misogyny.

• And did you notice that Republican Rick Scott failed to give himself (and thus, Florida) a step up with seniority in the US Senate? He could have resigned the governorship and entered the Senate sooner, but instead he is hanging out in Tallahassee until his term ends. I can only deduce that he didn’t want to let his lieutenant governor have this bit of glory for a few weeks. You remember our lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera? Scott appointed him after forcing Jennifer Carroll, an African American, to resign. In both cases, it seems he put a racial minority on his ticket to help him win an election, but he never let them get anywhere near actually governing. Not even for a few ceremonial days.
• Finally, the Republicans who still are running Congress are keeping it in session as long as possible, thus demonstrating the true family values that we know they all have. Happy holidays, you Ebenezer Scrooges! And their leader – from the comfort of a 16-day vacation in Palm Beach -- threatens a government shutdown. That’s the real “War on Christmas.”

The Last of the Civil War Women

If you have been reading this space, you know that I’ve recently written about the memoirs of the wives of Union Generals Ulysses S. Grant and John Logan, and today, I’ll add the last, Mary Todd Lincoln. All three of these women were born to slave owners, yet their husbands led the war that ended slavery. All three grew up in the intersection of Kentucky, Missouri, and southern Illinois, and except for Illinois, slavery remained legal there throughout the Civil War. All three lived in Washington for a part of their lives, when their husbands were elected officials.

Mary Todd Lincoln was the first of these women to die, and she also differs from Julia Grant and Mary Logan in that she did not write her memoirs: instead, the book I’m going to discuss is a collection of annotated letters. They are from the worst period of her life, during her widowhood and what she perceived as persecution from her only living child. She died in 1882, but the book that contains these letters wasn’t published until 2011. To understand all this, we first need a bit of background on another Illinois woman.

Myra Bradwell worked in Union hospitals during the war, and at its end, joined her attorney husband in publishing a nationally syndicated periodical, The Chicago Legal News. She passed the Illinois bar exam with a superior rating in 1869, but that state’s highest court refused to admit a woman. Both Iowa and Missouri were doing so during the same time period, and the nation also had adopted the 14th Amendment with its “equal projection” clause that should have assured gender equality. But in 1873, the US Supreme Court ruled in Bradwell vs. Illinois that discrimination against women was fine. The written opinion said, in effect, that the Constitution was overruled by the “law of the Creator.” Given the “natural timidity and delicacy” of women, states could and probably should keep them out of courtrooms.

Chicago lawyers were more liberal: they not only offered Bradwell honorary membership, but even elected her vice-president four times. In 1890, when many women were practicing law in many states, the Illinois Supreme Court reconsidered her 1869 application and admitted Bradwell to the bar. The US Supreme Court soon followed, admitting her two years prior to her 1894 death. The Bradwells’ daughter carried on The Chicago Legal News and became a lawyer without the struggle her mother had endured.

So it came as a happy surprise to me to discover the connection between Myra Bradwell and Mary Todd Lincoln. It turned out that among her many progressive projects, Bradwell had taken on Lincoln’s insanity case. The two exchanged many letters, which Bradwell’s granddaughter inherited. They only recently have come to the attention of historians, and are published as The Dark Days of Abraham Lincoln’s Widow, As Revealed by Her Own Letters.

Crazy or Not? Mary Todd Lincoln

Even though he once jilted her during their courtship, Abraham Lincoln was extremely fortunate that Mary Todd fell in love with him. His childhood poverty is well known, but she came from an illustrious family, with men who were governors of Michigan and Pennsylvania. She grew up in the southern Illinois town of Springfield, which also is the state capital, and had many ardent suitors, including Abe’s political opponent, Senator Stephen Douglas. A male contemporary said “she is the very creature of excitement,” while another commented that “she could make a bishop forget his prayers.”

Had she married one of the capital city’s affluent bachelors, she might have had the luxurious life she craved and never have been accused of insanity. A relative lack of money, however, was not the only source of her mental fragility. She understandably was haunted by the fear of death: her mother died when she was six, and during the winter of 1849-50, she lost her father, grandmother, and a four-year-old son.

A decade later, her husband won the 1860 presidential election, and Southern states began to secede. Like Julia Grant and Mary Logan, Mary Lincoln had family members on both sides of the conflict – something that encouraged abolitionists to suspect that she was capable of treason. Newspapers also accused her of selling an advance copy of her husband’s inaugural speech to pay her clothing bills. The personal was worse than the political, however, as tragedy continued to stalk her in the White House and beyond. Her son Willie, age eleven, died in 1862, and her husband was assassinated in 1865. Five years later, her youngest child, called Tad, died at seventeen.

It was enough to push many people over the edge, and what made it worse was the strained relationship that she had with her only surviving child, Robert, who was the oldest. This had begun during the Civil War when he wanted to join other young men – and his father – in dangerous situations. Her protectiveness was understandable from her point of view, but he resented it. The emotional distance between them lengthened after he married Mary Harlan, the daughter of a US senator, and had a family of his own. Although Mary Todd Lincoln loved to buy presents for her granddaughter, Robert would continue to regularly chastise her for “useless” spending.

After Tad died in 1871, Robert was increasingly convinced that she showed signs of insanity. Along with her purchases of lace curtains and similar luxuries, among the evidence cited for her lack of mental ability was that she refused to adopt the era’s gas lamps, preferring candles. A maid reported that Mrs. Lincoln believed that a man was following her, and Robert testified that he had seen his mother listen and talk to voices in the walls. In June 1875, an all-male jury in Chicago adjudicated the former first lady insane. Robert was made conservator of her estate, and she was placed in a mental hospital in Batavia, Illinois.

That was when Myra Bradwell came into the story. Mary Lincoln wrote the Bradwells soon after her confinement, and they visited her. Both Judge James Bradwell and his wife spent the next months trying to free her, and the letters focus on those details. Perhaps the saddest was written in August, when Mary Lincoln said: “It does not appear that God is good, to have placed me here. I endeavor to read my Bible and offer up my petitions three times a day. But my afflicted heart fails me…” Robert Lincoln’s response was to call Myra Bradwell “a pest and a nuisance,” adding, “I understand she is a high priestess in a gang of Spiritualists.”

The Bradwells were accustomed to such calumnies, though, and continued their editorial and legal crusade -- and just four months later, she was released from Batavia. The next year, on June 15, 1876, a Cook County court declared her sane. No happy family reconciliation followed, however, even though Robert ultimately revealed that her sense of being followed was factual: he had hired a detective to prevent the presumably mad woman from doing God-knows-what. He presents a strong case for his feelings of protectiveness, but it doesn’t ring true to me. I think that he – and most men of his time and later – simply didn’t think that a woman was capable of managing her own life.

The fun aspect of such books for me is running into mutual acquaintances. This one includes mentions of “my” women: Jane Swisshelm, a Minnesota abolitionist newspaper publisher whose press was destroyed by pro-slavery men; Elizabeth Keckley, an African American who was seamstress to both Mary Todd Lincoln and Confederate First Lady Varina Howell Davis; as well as nationally known journalists Mary Clemmer Ames and Ida M. Tarbell. I also was pleased to see that Lincoln spent a winter in the Jacksonville/St. Augustine area. She wrote of “the most charming scenery on the celebrated Ocklawaha river,” adding that “words fail in description going from the broad St. John’s into the narrow streams.”

Not nuts, I’d say.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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