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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Mrs. Lincoln Grieves in Waukesha

"I am trying as you will perceive, to make the most of this fearfully wearisome summer. . . I live in a retired manner in a private house on the outskirts of the town where there are no other boarders and have all the advantages of the country. . . . I am so miserable over my great sorrows, that at times I feel it is impossible to see a strange face."

So wrote Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) from the newly fashionable health spa of Waukesha, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1872.

In 1868, a Colonel Richard Dunbar discovered supposed medicinal benefits in the water from Bethesda Spring and, seeing both health and economic possibilities, he invited patients suffering from urinary tract disorders, diabetes, indigestion, chronic diarrhea, dropsy, and "female weakness" to come to Waukesha and be healed. By 1872, so many came that hundreds had to be turned away. The most talked-about guest that summer was the widow of Abraham Lincoln.

Arrival in Waukesha

It was no wonder that she was miserable. One of her sons had died in childhood, she had been abused by the press for her Southern family connections during the Civil War, a second son had died while she lived in the White House, her husband had been assassinated at her side, and a third son had recently died. She spent much of her 50s traveling from place to place, trying to heal her emotional wounds, restore her family finances, and escape from a prying media.

Mrs. Lincoln arrived in Waukesha on July 6, 1872, staying at the boardinghouse of Mr. and Mrs. O. M. Hubbard. One celebrated spring was on the property and Col Dunbar's Bethesda Spring was nearby, as was Hygenia Spring.

The press reported at the time that "Poor Mrs. Lincoln carries a heavy heart, and she is much of the time in tears." Many years later she was remembered in Waukesha as a tragic figure. "I remember seeing Mrs. Lincoln strolling slowly along the shady sidewalks," H. M. Youmans recalled. "She was always by herself. She looked frail and worn, as one who had been buffeted by many sorrows. She went to the springs occasionally, but otherwise kept to her room. She did not want to meet people or talk with them."

Consults a Psychic

One person she did speak with was a psychic in Milwaukee. Mrs. Lincoln believed that mediums might be able to communicate with the dead, and in 1861, soon after arriving in Washington, she had attended seances and grown close to well-known psychics. On August 13th, the Waukesha Plaindealer reported that "Mrs. Lincoln, relic of the 'late lamented,' who is spending a few weeks in this village, recently visited Milwaukee to have an interview with a spiritual medium there, which is reported to have been very satisfactory. During the last few weeks she has been holding spiritualistic communion through the most celebrated mediums of the east, and has now opened communication through the operator at Milwaukee. The particulars of this spiritual interview are not made public."

Many Americans believed that mediums could contact the dead, and a photo of Mary Todd Lincoln with the supposed ghost of her husband hovering behind her was popular with the public. Photograph were widely circulated that superimposed a portrait of the president on one of his widow to make it appear that his spirit was present with her.

Wisconsin Side Trips

Mary Todd Lincoln left Waukesha briefly in mid-August, traveling to Madison, Baraboo, and "up to a wild part of the country." She departed Wisconsin at the end of the month, and spent much of the remainder of her life fruitlessly wandering from place to place. She died in 1882 in the Springfield, Ill., home where she'd been married 40 years before.

[Sources: Most of the facts, and the unlinked quotations from the press, in this article were first brought together by Kristine Adams Wendt in her article, "Mary Todd Lincoln: 'Great Sorrows' and the Healing Waters of Waukesha" published in the spring 1992 issue of the Wisconsin Academy Review. Other details are available in the Wisconsin Magazine of History Volume 24, number 4 (June 1941): 416-419.]

:: Posted in Odd Lives on March 13, 2014

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