Lincoln in love

Stumbling to the altar with Abraham and Mary

click to enlarge Visitors to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum see Abraham and Mary during their courtship. The original “courting couch” is now on display at Edwards Place. - PHOTO COURTESY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRESIDENTIAL MUSEUM
Visitors to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum see Abraham and Mary during their courtship. The original “courting couch” is now on display at Edwards Place.
“Up flew windows, out popped heads
To see this Lady gay
In silken cloak and feather white
Ariding on the dray.
At length arrived at Edward’s gate
Hart backed the usual way
And taking out the iron pin
He rolled her off the dray.”
So wrote Dr. Elias Merryman in 1840, and he was referring to none other than Mary Todd. The poem was the result of one of Mary’s exploits with her best friend, Mercy Levering, when they wanted to go shopping in downtown Springfield on a rainy day. Dirt streets became muddy lanes when it rained very hard, but this did not deter the young and frivolous girls. Even the knowledge that they’d ruin their long dresses didn’t stop them. They concocted a plan. They found shingles in the barn, and dropping them in front of their feet, step by step, they made it downtown.

After shopping, the idea of repeating the walk back home seemed too tiresome to Mary so she merely hired Springfield’s dray driver, Elias Hart, to take her home. Mercy refused to accompany her, saying she didn’t want to make herself so conspicuous by riding in a dray known only for hauling barrels around town. The barrels could be unloaded by removing the iron pin and rolling them off the back end. Merryman’s poem alludes to Mary’s plumpness by saying she, too, was rolled off the dray.

This was only one of many of the escapades Mary got herself into between the time she arrived in Springfield in 1837 and her marriage in 1842. Mary was a fun-loving, sometimes flirtatious, young lady who loved a good time.

The Coterie

Mary Todd was a member of the Springfield’s social clique during the 1830s and 1840s. Her easy acceptance into the group was due to her association with its most prominent member, State Representative Ninian Wirt Edwards, who was married to Mary’s sister, Elizabeth. Edwards had served as attorney general from 1834-1835 before Mary arrived in Springfield. In 1837 he was elected to the state legislature. Ninian’s father had been governor of Illinois. And Ninian’s brother, Benjamin, would later move into the home now known as Edwards Place, headquarters of the Springfield Art Association.

Springfield’s social group was called “Edwards’ clique,” with its younger set called the “Coterie.”

Built in 1836, the Ninian W. Edwards home stood at 441 S. Second St., on a slight rise sitting back from the street. Today, we know the location as the parking lot between the Illinois State Museum and the Centennial Building, better known today as the Howlett Building.

The home later became the St. Agatha’s School of Young Women in 1889, remodeled as rental property in 1905 and torn down in 1917 to make room for the Centennial Building. A replica of the Edwards’ home stands at Eighth and Capitol, a few doors from Lincoln’s Home.

The Edwards home was furnished in the fashionable styles of the 1830s, and young lawyers and legislators who came to Springfield during the legislative session attended parties there. Mrs. Edwards was known for her congeniality, polish and brilliance in conversation. Isaac Arnold, of Chicago, wrote 40 years later, “We read much of Merrie England, but I doubt there was anything more ‘Merrie’ than Springfield in those days.”

This was the life Mary encountered when she first came to Springfield in 1837 at the age of 18. She only stayed three months, but the short visit whetted her appetite for more of the social flair. In 1839 she came back and moved in with the Edwards family. Next door lived Mercy Levering who became Mary’s dear friend.

Mary fit in well with the group. She had studied French, English literature and etiquette at Madame Mentelle’s Ladies Academy in Lexington, and she knew all the fashionable dances of the day. She was also politically astute. Her father had allowed her to sit at the table with the men during dessert when she was a child. She had listened to politicians like Henry Clay. From the time Elizabeth had married Edwards in 1832, when Mary was 13, until Mary came to visit, she had been well-apprised of the Springfield social scene from her sister’s letters. In addition, sister Fanny married William S. Wallace, a Springfield druggist, in 1839. (Later another sister, Ann, arrived in Springfield and married Clark M. Smith, a prosperous merchant who owned several stores including Smith Shoe Store. They lived on Fifth Street in the house now remembered as poet Vachel Lindsay’s home.) Mary also had an uncle and three cousins living in Springfield, so it was quite easy for Mary to become part of the “Coterie” with all of her connections.

Her personality helped also. She was smart and witty and candid. Her talent at mimicking others in speech and actions and her love of exaggerating stories to make them better made her an amusing participant and the center of attention. Ninian Wirt Edwards once commented, “Mary could make a bishop forget his prayers.”

One member of the “Coterie,” James Conkling, who later married Mary’s friend, Mercy, wrote of Mary’s popularity, “Miss Todd … seemed to form the grand centre of attraction. Swarms of strangers who had little else to engage their attention hovered around to catch a passing smile.”

Large Springfield social balls, which members of “Edwards’ clique” and the “Coterie” attended were held at the American House, Springfield’s main hotel on the southeast corner of Sixth and Adams.

Women dressed in low-cut, short-sleeved dresses, came with their babies and nursemaids and stayed all evening. One Springfield journalist reported about the 1842 ball, “There were 300 or 400 gents, and not more than 40 or 50 ladies, half of them married or engaged.”

Some of the members of the “Coterie” who attended, these balls included Stephen A. Douglass (then using the double “s” spelling), Joshua Speed, mercantile businessman and Lincoln’s roommate, James Shields, senator and later U.S. Supreme Court Judge, Edward D. Baker, editor of the Journal, Lyman Trumbull, Illinois secretary of state from 1841 to 1843 and later, U.S. senator. And, of course, Abraham Lincoln

Mary meets Abraham

In late 1839 or early 1840, when Mary was attending balls, dances, sleigh rides, picnics and receptions, and accepting attention from several men, that she met Abraham Lincoln. Supposedly at one of the dances he approached her and said, “I want to dance with you in the worst way.” It has been reported that Mary later said, “And he surely did.”

Lincoln began calling on Mary, but he wasn’t alone. Mary received visits from Stephen A. Douglas, James Shields and a lawyer named Edwin Webb who was 18 years older than Mary. Although some took Webb and Mary seriously, she never did, finding Lincoln the one who interested her the most.

During the summer and fall of 1840, Lincoln and Mary took more interest in each other. Mrs. Benjamin Edwards, as reported to her daughter, Mary Edwards Raymond, explained the courtship, “…our house seemed the favorite rendezvous for all the young girls who tried to tease Mary about her ‘tall beau.’ She bore their jokes and teasings good-naturedly, but would give them no satisfaction, neither affirming nor denying the report of her engagement to Mr. Lincoln.”

The marriage of Mary and Abraham Lincoln may never have happened if her sister Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s husband, Ninian, had their say. They opposed Mary seeing Lincoln and felt he was not equal to their social status; his lack of money, they cautioned, would force Mary to change her lifestyle. After several months, in early 1841, Mary and Lincoln stopped seeing each other. Some accounts say Lincoln called it off; others claim it was mutual.

Over the next year Lincoln avoided Mary. Then, in the autumn of 1842, Mrs. Simeon Francis, wife of the editor of the Sangamo Journal, the daily Springfield newspaper, decided to play matchmaker. She invited Mary and Lincoln to a dinner party and purposely forgot to tell each that the other had been invited. Lincoln and Mary rekindled their relationship, and the Francis home became their secret rendezvous site. Mary, knowing her sister’s feelings, didn’t want to tell the Edwards that she was once again seeing Lincoln.

The duel

The marriage may also have never happened due to another one of Mary’s escapades. Mary entangled herself in her most impulsive caper. She was known for exaggerating stories and making spur-of-the-moment decisions, but this one led to her betrothed being challenged to a duel.

A letter signed “Rebecca” appeared in the Sangamo Journal on Sept. 2, 1842. It denounced James Shields’ Democratic views on taxation and banking. Then three more letters appeared, each signed “Rebecca,” and each becoming more derogatory towards Shields. One alluded to Shields’ well-known arrogance and excessive chivalry. To make matters worse, a poem then appeared, this one printed anonymously, which ridiculed Shields. Mary had written all of these.

Shields was provoked beyond mere words and demanded the name of the author from the paper’s editor, Simeon Francis. Francis came to Lincoln for advice, and Lincoln took the blame. Shields followed Lincoln, who was attending court over a hundred miles away, and challenged him to a duel. Lincoln, although opposed to dueling, was concerned that the “d—d fellow” might “kill me.” He, then, chose broadswords and spacing that would have made it impossible for the shorter man, Shields, to hurt him. Lincoln said in a letter to a friend later that he “…had about a month to learn the broadsword exercise.”

The duelers and their seconds actually met on “Bloody Island” near Alton, armed with their weapons. But at the last minute reconciliation was made. Years later, Mary wrote to a friend about Lincoln: “I doubtless trespassed, many times and oft, upon his great tenderness and amiability of character.”

The wedding

On the morning of Nov. 4, 1842, the plans were revealed. Lincoln met Ninian in the street and informed him that he and Mary would be getting married that night at the home of Reverend Charles Dresser. Ninian objected, insisting that if the young lovers were determined to marry, propriety demanded that they do so from his home. He then went home to tell Elizabeth, then seven months pregnant, that she had mere hours to prepare a wedding supper. (Some accounts claim Mary announced her plans to Elizabeth on the morning of the wedding day.) During the day, Mary’s sisters arrived, baked the wedding cake, invited over 30 guests, secured the minister, and prepared the home. Mrs. Benjamin Edwards’ later account includes the wedding story:

“Ninian Edwards came to our house early in the morning of a November day and without any preliminaries said, ‘My wife wants you to come over to our house this evening.’ I asked what was going on. He replied, ‘We are going to have a wedding. I met Mr. Lincoln a little while ago, and he told me that he and Mary were going to be married this evening. I think he said at the parsonage, but I told him that must not be. Mary was my ward and if she was going to be married, it must be from my house.

“He went on to say that he had left his wife greatly disturbed over the fact that she did not have time to prepare a suitable wedding feast. There were no confectioners in those days to furnish dainty refreshments which are now so necessary on such occasions, no caterers to relieve the housekeepers of the labor of preparing the menus for hungry guests.

“Every housekeeper had to depend on the skill of her own hands and her own good taste in preparing the needed edibles for such occasions. There was only one bakery in the city of Springfield. Its choicest commodities were gingerbread and beer. Someone had spoken of Mr. Lincoln as a ‘plebeian’ at one time. This rankled Miss Todd sorely. So when about noon of the wedding day Mrs. Edwards’ feelings were sufficiently calmed to talk to her sister of the affair, she said, ‘Mary you have not given me much time to prepare for our guests this evening. I guess I will have to send to old Dickey’s for some of his gingerbread and beer.’ Mary replied, ‘Well, that will be good enough for plebeians, I suppose.’ Mrs. Edwards was a model housekeeper and her entertainments were always elaborate and elegant. They were on this occasion, although conditions were not favorable. She was equal to the emergency and prepared an elegant and bountiful supper. The wedding was what might be called a pretty one, simple yet impressive.”

That evening Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln spoke their wedding vows in the double parlor of the Edwards home as rain beat against the windows. Dr. Charles Dresser, the first rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, performed the ceremony and Mary’s friend, Julia Jayne, served as bridesmaid. It is believed Mary wore her sister Fanny’s wedding dress, which was a white satin gown brocaded in a small flower pattern. The ring Lincoln gave to Mary was inscribed with the words, “Love is Eternal.”

The guests ate the wedding cake, which was still warm, according to an account left by one of the guests, Mr. Leigh Kimball. The newly married couple moved into the Globe Tavern at 315 E. Adams Street, paying $4 a week for rent.

And their marriage has gone down in history. For a “plebeian” who was considered below Mary in social rank, Abraham Lincoln became one of the most well-known and revered presidents in our history. It all started here in our town of Springfield. 

Cinda Ackerman Klickna wrote this article for IT in 1987 and revised it in 2018.

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