Today marks the death of first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, on July 16, 1882. She died dejected by a nation that had taken her husband’s life, a son who briefly had her committed to a sanitarium, and journalists who wrote her off as a slightly unhinged widow given over to séances and table rapping.
History’s assessments have never fully captured Mary Todd Lincoln and never will until she is also understood as a protofeminist and religious radical whose points of view reveal an early and influential marriage of protest politics and occultism, and who made a potentially seismic impact on the nation.
Several months after occupying the White House in March 1861, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln experienced the nightmare of so many midcentury parents: Their 11-year-old son, Willie, was gripped by a serious fever, probably from typhus. A sensitive, precociously religious child, Willie was the family favorite. After illness struck, weeks of struggle and bedside vigils did no good. Late one afternoon in February 1862, the boy died.
For Mary Todd, the loss was overwhelming. She began to frequent trance mediums in desperate hope of contact. And, in the aggrieved mother’s heart, contact did occur. One evening, biographer Carl Sandburg wrote, she rushed into the room of her half-sister and exclaimed, “He lives, Emilie! He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of my bed, with the same sweet, adorable smile he always had.”
Mary Todd’s was the kind of story told time and again, repeated in newspapers and letters by people from every walk of life who eloquently, if agonizingly, testified to the reality of another world. For those Americans who ardently believed, Spiritualism, or talking to the dead, provided some of the most moving and affecting experiences of their lives.
For Mary Todd Lincoln, Spiritualism was a lifelong interest — and sometimes a public embarrassment. Seven years after her husband’s assassination, in February 1872, she was the subject of bruising articles in both the Boston Herald and the New York Times. Each reported that the veiled widow clandestinely sought out the services of notorious medium Margaret Fox. The New York Times, in “A Curious Story About Mrs. Lincoln Reiterated,” obliquely called Fox “a well-known lady medium on Washington-street” in Boston.
Mrs. Lincoln had made the insufficient effort of disguising herself on a Boston hotel registry as “Mrs. Linder.” The most famous widow in America joined others at a public sitting in Fox’s parlor, where, reported the Times, “the spirit of her lamented husband appeared and, by unmistakable manifestations, revealed to all present the identity of Mrs. Lincoln, which she had attempted to keep secret.” In 1875, Mary Todd’s one surviving son, Robert, had her briefly committed to a sanitarium, claiming — spuriously — that she was squandering her estate on Spiritualist hoo-ha such as that in Boston.
And this, at last, is the image with which most historians are comfortable: the widow Lincoln, famously nervous and often depressed, her mind loosened from too much loss, seeking final solace in the darkened séance room. But less understood is how Mary Todd may have induced President Lincoln himself into more than a passing interest in Spiritualism.
Civil War Séance
In April 1863, in the presence of a reporter from the Boston Gazette, Lincoln hosted a séance in the Crimson Room of the White House. Attending were Mary Todd, two cabinet secretaries, and a trance medium named Charles E. Shockle, who seemed more nervous than anyone else during the whole affair. (Twice during the evening, he fainted and had to be revived.) Once everyone was seated at the table, according to Prior Melton, the Gazette’s correspondent, Lincoln gamely pitched political questions to Shockle, the “spirit visitors” who spoke through him, and the two cabinet members, while Mary Todd looked on silently.
As with all such episodes in Spiritualist history, this one raises the question of which sources to believe. Historian John B. Buescher noted that no trance medium named Charles E. Shockle appeared in any of the Spiritualist newspapers of the day, which suggests the Gazette’s correspondent may have invented the whole affair.
Several days after the Gazette article’s publication, however, the New York Herald reprinted the evening’s account (“which we presume to be true,” stated an adjunct note) and added its own news analysis about Spiritualism’s popularity. Several other newspapers followed suit in reprinting the piece. There is no record of the White House ever disputing the report. Lincoln biographer Sandburg took note of the affair and wondered why the president permitted a reporter to be present at all.
The likelihood is that the White House séance served a shrewd political end. Lincoln used the encounter to show the public that even in the midst of the Civil War, the commander in chief could sit back and sample the same kind of parlor-room novelty that other Americans were marveling over. The Gazette story presented Lincoln as relaxed, good-humored, and not excessively encumbered by wartime command. In something of a White House propaganda coup, at least one paper of the Confederacy, Georgia’s Macon Daily Telegraph and Confederate, reprinted the Gazette piece in full.
Whether elements of the story were fabricated — such as the mysterious, possibly pseudonymous Mr. Shockle — the dialogue does suggest vintage Lincoln. When the medium told the president that an Indian spirit wished to convey a message, Lincoln replied, “Well, sir, I should be happy to hear what his Indian Majesty has to say. We have recently had a visitation from our red brethren, and it was the only delegation — black, white, or blue — which did not volunteer some advice about the conduct of the war.” In other settings, the president had often — and humorously — complained of how visitors liked nothing better than to bestow advice about the war, when what he needed were victories.
If the Gazette had intended to expose Lincoln as a Spiritualist, it more fully captured him as a good-humored skeptic. But there exists another remembrance of the Civil War era that depicts a different Lincoln from the one teasingly subjecting his cabinet members to spirit counsels.
An 1891 memoir by a trance medium named Nettie Colburn Maynard, Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist?, stands apart from some of the era’s hackneyed literature in its vividness of style and even verisimilitude. At the end of 1862, Maynard wrote, as the Civil War passed into a second Christmas season and with hopes for peace at a dreary low, she was, at the instigation of Mary Todd Lincoln, ushered into the private quarters of the White House and asked to give a spirit reading to the exhausted commander. At the time, Lincoln had drafted but not yet signed the cornerstone measure of his presidency: the Emancipation Proclamation. There was enormous tension in the nation over when, or whether, he would put his signature to it.
“For more than an hour I was made to talk to him,” Maynard reported. During the course of her unconscious transmission from the spirit realm, Maynard wrote, Lincoln was assured that if he acted to sign and enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, it would be the primary achievement for which he would be remembered. As Maynard emerged from her trance, she found that a grave hush had fallen over the room. “Mr. President,” asked Congressman Daniel E. Somes of Maine, an onlooker at the séance, “would it be improper for me to inquire whether there has been any pressure brought to bear upon you to defer the enforcement of the Proclamation?” Yes, Maynard reported Lincoln as saying. “It is taking all of my nerve and strength to withstand such a pressure.” Lincoln then turned to the teenage medium. “My child, you possess a very singular gift; but that it is of God, I have no doubt. I thank you for coming here tonight. It is more important than perhaps anyone present can understand.”
Whether any part of the account is true cannot be known. But it underscores a distinct and misunderstood quality among many American Spiritualists, including Mary Todd. And this was the desire to associate supernaturalism with the social good. Maynard, whatever her veracity as a witness, sought not to convince the public that she counseled Lincoln on how to conduct himself in war, how to exercise power, or how to deal with the Confederacy, but rather that, through her trance reading, she advised him to do the greatest thing a leader could do in the eyes of social reformers.
In this way, Spiritualism was both an occult movement and a political one. It attracted the interest and participation of utopians, suffragists, and radicals, because, among other things, it provided a setting in which women — for the first time in American history — could regularly serve as religious leaders, at least of a sort. Most spirit mediums were women, with many voting-rights activists among them. Mary Todd Lincoln brought a progressive influence into the Civil War–era White House from those who claimed to speak to voices from beyond. Until her death, she never recanted her beliefs — or her principles.