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Mary Lincoln wasn’t ‘crazy’ – she was a bereaved mother, new exhibit says

UPDATED: Wed., May 5, 2021

The “Reflections of Grief at President Lincoln’s Cottage” places Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s grief over the deaths of their children alongside modern-day bereaved parents.  (Chris Ferenzi/Courtesy of President Lincoln’s Cottage)
The “Reflections of Grief at President Lincoln’s Cottage” places Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s grief over the deaths of their children alongside modern-day bereaved parents. (Chris Ferenzi/Courtesy of President Lincoln’s Cottage)
By Gillian Brockell Washington Post

WASHINGTON – Callie Hawkins had been working at President Lincoln’s Cottage museum for 10 years when she became pregnant. She and her husband were thrilled, and she joked with her co-workers about the baby’s “perfect” due date, Feb. 12 – Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

When the day arrived, Hawkins went into labor right on schedule. But when she and her husband got to the hospital, the medical team couldn’t find the baby’s heartbeat. Their son Coley James Hobbie was stillborn the next day.

Three years later, Hawkins sits on a picnic bench near the cottage where Lincoln and his wife spent more than a quarter of his presidency, pressing with her thumb a pendant around her neck that says “Mama.”

“After my son died, I got really afraid that people would maybe judge me or think about me in the way that history has remembered Mary Lincoln,” she said. Which is to say, she was afraid they would think she was “crazy.” In her lifetime, the former first lady lost her husband to an assassin’s bullet and three of her four children to disease. Her lengthy, public mourning defied conventions of the day and led to criticism and questions about her sanity.

With that in mind, Hawkins, now the interim executive director and director of programming at the cottage, helped to create an exhibit titled “Reflections on Grief and Child Loss” at President Lincoln’s Cottage. In it, accounts of the Lincolns’ grief are presented alongside the stories of modern-day bereaved parents and their kids showing their similarities across time.

Abraham and Mary Lincoln (she did not go by Mary Todd Lincoln in her lifetime) had four sons; only one survived past age 18. Son Eddy died of an unknown illness at 3 in 1850; Willie died of typhoid at 11 in 1862, while the couple occupied the White House; and Tad died of a lung disease at 18 in 1871.

Back then, Hawkins said, “society allowed certain types of grief. You could wear black, you could have a mourning band on your stationery and things like that.” But Mary Lincoln didn’t stick to what was socially acceptable. When Eddy died, she tore out her hair; when Willie died, she was so overcome she couldn’t leave her bed for weeks and missed his funeral. She would cry loudly and wore black mourning clothes much longer than was socially acceptable.

The modern bereaved parents in the exhibit, who are anonymous, describe a society that is in some ways even more uncomfortable with expressions of grief than it was 150 years ago.

“I think society expected me to just move on,” says the mother of Jacob, who was murdered when he was 6. “I think it is still a surprise for some people that we still talk about her so freely,” said the mother of Abby, an only child who died at 17 five years ago. “I think they are confused as to why we are still talking about her, assuming reflecting on her life, and death, only accentuates the pain.”

Hawkins encountered this discomfort when she presented the project to colleagues. “Isn’t it going to make visitors sad?” they worried. Yes, it will, Hawkins replied. And that’s a meaningful experience.

Some in Mary Lincoln’s day thought to grieve as deeply as she did was sacrilege. It showed she didn’t trust God’s will, they said. A modern-day mother described the same judgment from her religious community. “I thought my faith was not good enough because I was sad and angry,” she said. Like Mary, she lost three children – Julia, Matt and Charlie – in separate events.

Mary Lincoln also participated in seances with various spiritualists – generally con artists – who promised to communicate with her dead children, and, later, her husband. Instead of judging her supposed gullibility, the modern-day bereaved parents’ testimonials give context to her desire to feel the presence of the dead. They, too, seek ways to connect: in nature, in prayer, in activism or simply talking aloud to their children before they go to sleep at night.

President Lincoln felt these losses deeply, too, but he expressed it in more socially acceptable ways, like throwing himself into work, locking himself in his office or secretly visiting the crypt that temporarily held his son’s coffin at night. In a sexist society, his grief was viewed as a more heroic “melancholy” than Mary’s, who was dismissed as self-absorbed or insane – a stereotype that persists to this day.

The exhibit has been designed in consultation with grief experts like professor Joanne Cacciatore, who has written several books dear to families going through traumatic death. So while much of it is intended to help bereaved parents feel less alone, it’s also meant to demystify this type of grief for people who might be unfamiliar or deeply uncomfortable with it.

At the end of the exhibit, visitors can take with them a postcard-sized handout with tips on how to help someone who is grieving. Don’t try to fix it or distract them, it says. Show up.

“Other people are far more uncomfortable with my grief than I am. It’s a welcome part of my life now. I’m going to love Coley forever, so I am going to grieve him forever, and that is OK,” Hawkins said. “And we see that with Mary Lincoln. I mean, she grieved the losses of her children and her husband for the rest of her life. Even when it made other people uncomfortable.”

The exhibit puts a poignant emphasis on place and places of refuge. For the modern-day parents, that can be visiting their child’s grave, tending to a garden, sitting by a river or preserving their child’s bedroom. For the Lincolns, it was the cottage. While they had always planned to decamp to it during humid Washington summers, they didn’t get a chance to do so until shortly after Willie’s death.

It was a balm to them, a peaceful place where they could just be. They spent the next two summers there, as well. In describing the cottage to a friend, Mary Lincoln wrote: “When we are in sorrow, quiet is very necessary to us.”

“I always thought that this was a truly special place, but I didn’t feel it in my bones the way that I do now,” Hawkins said. “I remember the exact moment, as I was sitting at the hospital, thinking, ‘Now I get it. Now I know. I know what they needed, and I need that, too.’ ”

Hawkins now sees the cottage as a place that holds broken hearts, both hers and the Lincolns’. Like the rest of the staff, she used to call their bedroom at the cottage the “Emancipation Room” because it is where Lincoln wrote the historic Emancipation Proclamation. Now, Hawkins also thinks of it as a sacred place where the couple probably shed many tears together.

At the center of the exhibit springs a smooth white trunk evoking a weeping willow tree. On each dangling paper leaf, visitors are encouraged to write the name of a lost child or someone else they love who has died. When the exhibit concludes in two years, each name will be transferred onto a sheet of seed paper and planted – all that love and grief sustaining something new and alive.

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