Heartache Healed at Waukesha
Mrs. Lincoln Found Comfort in Spring City Many Years Ago
After Terrible Blow of Assassination of President-Husband Crushed Her
House and Spring Where She Sojourned During Rest in Wisconsin
Witnesses Still Live to Tell Story by Jane Holland
Waukesha, Wis. - Wisconsin helped both Mrs. Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln to forget the great tragedies of their lives.
When Lincoln, still the young Illinois Legislator, walked from Milwaukee to Sheboygan in the fall of 1835 and contemplated settling in Port Washington, where he tarried over night, his trip was undertaken to escape the haunting scenes and memories connected with the death of his fiancée.
When Mrs. Lincoln chose a quiet cottage in Waukesha in the summer of 1870, it was to drink the healing spring waters and recover her strength which had been failing ever since the assassination of her husband.
Both Abraham and Mary Lincoln are said to have possessed sensitive, tautly-strung natures, capable of the most acute suffering. He inclined to morbidity, to an overburdening "sense of the incompleteness of life," an inheritance from his mother. Hers was the intense, passionate disposition which came as the dowry of a long line of fiery Kentuckians.
He was sometimes harrowed as a young man with gloomy doubts and melancholia, which in the time of his great emotional stress engulfed him in a storm of uncertainty. After the death of his fiancée, he wandered alone in the woods, lost to his friends, muttering strange words, until he was found by an acquaintance who sheltered and nursed him back to health.
Mrs. Lincoln's tragedy came after her intense, spirited nature - which glowed at attention and resented even the unconscious indifference of her absorbed lover - had been claimed and quieted by the maturity of years.
After the strain and grief of her husband's death and burial, she also sought solitude. But it was to the peace and quiet of a Wisconsin village that she retreated to wear her grief away.
It is a strange coincidence that the romances of three lives so closely bound together, with Abraham Lincoln as the connecting link, should all have been darkened by the tragedy of premature death. Each knew love as only the few experience it. Yet, from each, love exacted a crushingly heavy penalty. The romances of Ann Rutledge, Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln each fell under the shadow of a death, all the more cruel because it seemed so needless.
Ann Rutledge wilted like a rose and died because of an unfaithful lover. Abraham was robbed of the woman he was to marry because an imagined wrong she had committed which preyed upon her conscience. Mary Todd Lincoln was widowed by the craze shot of a maniac.
When Lincoln returned home from Springfield at the close of the 1833 session of the Illinois legislature, to resume his duties as postmaster and continue his law studies, New Salem held the dearest thing in life to him at that moment.
He loved a young girl of that town and although he had known her since he had moved there two years before, for the first time he felt free to tell her of his love.
One of the most prominent families of New Salem was that of James Rutledge, keeper of the village tavern. He came of a distinguished family, one of his ancestors signed the declaration of independence; another was chief justice of the Supreme court.
When Lincoln first met Ann Mayes Rutledge she was 19 and "fresh as a flower." Like any pretty, auburn-haired, blue-eyed girl, Ann had many admirers and when Lincoln appeared in Salem she was engaged to the most persistent of them, John McNeill.
This young man had come out from New York, and although nothing was known of his family, he was supposed to be one of the thousands of easterners seeking his fortune in the west.
In spite of working his way to the head of a good business and winning the girl who was sought by his partner and the other eligibles of the village, John McNeill grew restless in New Salem. Toward the end of his second year he decided to return to New York for a visit. Before he left he sold his store, to secure perfect freedom from his business, he said.
"It was late summer before he reached his home and wrote to Ann explaining his silence. The long wait had been a severe strain on the girl, and Lincoln had watched her anxiety with softened heart. It was to him, the New Salem postmaster, that she came to inquire for letters. It was to him she entrusted those she sent. In a way the postmaster must have become the girl's confident; and his tender heart, which never could resist suffering, must have been deeply touched."
"But the young girl could not dismiss the haunting memory of her old lover. The possibility that she had wronged him, that he might reappear, that he loved her still though she now loved another, that perhaps she had done wrong - a torturing conflict lay across her like a shadow and wore upon her until she fell ill."
The gentle, troubled girl grew paler as the days crept by. She had kept her lover from her but when she realized that her condition was hopeless she sent for him. The two spent an hour alone in an anguished parting. Two days later she died.
Ann Rutledge's tragedy ended mercifully in her own death. Abraham Lincoln's began in the same event.
Then it was that the stricken man, his head bowed on his hand while tears trickled through his fingers, said to a friend: "The thought of the snow and rain on her grave fills me with indescribable grief."
Later he was seen wandering bareheaded by a lonely river, babbling strange words. Bowling Green, one of the most devoted friends took him away to his own cabin, high up near a ragged cliff where his wife Nancy nursed him until he was once more master of himself.
For months, after he was himself again, he would often walk the twenty-seven miles northwest of Salem to the lonely spot in Concord cemetery where Ann Rutledge was buried, and in bitter grief mourn beside her grave for hours.
The day which was to prove a tragedy for the whole country no less than to Mary Todd Lincoln, dawned soft and sunny in Washington - that glad, serene morning of April 14, 1865.
For a week joyous crowds had thronged the streets shouting peace. Spring was so far advanced that "the Judas trees and the dogwood were blossoming in the hillsides, the willows were green along the Potomac, and in the parks and gardens the lilacs bloomed. It was a day of promise and joy to which the whole town responded".
The streets were decked in flags and bunting. And as Mrs. Lincoln rejoiced to a friend, her husband seemed tranquil. There was a marked change in him. She saw it and his friends noticed it. His thin face which had grown more gaunt and haggard day by day through the terrible years of '63 and '64 was gradually losing it's pallor and the lines were filling out.
The family party which met at breakfast in the white house was quite cheery. Captain Robert Lincoln, the president's son, had arrived from Grant's headquarters that morning, where he had been seeing a little of military life since graduating from Harvard.
The Lincoln's were in a happy mood when he departed for the cabinet meeting scheduled in the morning. In the afternoon he and Mrs. Lincoln went for a drive alone. After they had explored the peaceful nooks of an old cemetery and remarked upon the tranquility of the place, the president said tenderly: "Mary, we have had a hard time of it since we came to Washington; but the war is over, and with God's blessing we may hope for four years of peace and happiness, then we will go back to Illinois and pass the rest of our lives in quiet, and I will open a law office at Springfield or Chicago and practice law."
Mrs. Lincoln had made up a theater party in the evening and when their guests could not go insisted on substituting a young couple of their acquaintance lest the audience which would be made up largely of soldiers should be disappointed at not seeing the presidential box filled. Not an hour later, two men bore a long, silent body from Ford's Theater and behind them a woman following "in evening gown, flowers in her hair and jewels on her neck," wringing her hands and moaning. Mrs. Lincoln's cry which startled the house almost as much as the fatal shot which ran out a minute before was what brought it to its feet in realization of what had happened.
The shock of his death did not end with the impression services in the East room of the White house, where Robert Lincoln was the only one of the president's family able to be present, nor with the days of mournful travel as the funeral car slowly made its way back across the country to Springfield for the final burial scene of the nation-stirring tragedy.
Although months lengthened into years the widow of Abraham Lincoln failed to regain her buoyancy.
Waukesha was at that time quite the summer resort of the northwest. Families from the Blue Grass region arrived with their Kentucky thoroughbreds and Negro servants to spend the hot days in a round of gayety and splendor at the summer hotels.
Col. Dunbar had discovered the medicinal qualities of Bethesda spring in 1863, and other springs were rapidly being developed. Waukesha's fame as a health resort was traveling as fast as the stories of her gayety. It was the knowledge of her healing waters, doubtless, that brought Mrs. Lincoln in the late summer of 1870 to spend a month in H. M. Hubbard's quiet boarding house.
A modern bungalow owned by Max Diedrich now stands on the side of the hill on St. Paul avenue at the head of Wisconsin street and others cluster around it, but then the boarding house six blocks from Five Points, the center of the village, was out where the houses commenced to scatter and there were not too many passers by.
A block below, on West avenue, was the Hygeia spring, the famous source of supply for the pipe line which was designated to transmit water to Chicago for the world's fair in 1893, before the plan was frustrated by Waukesha citizens who believed that if the public could get Waukesha water from a faucet in Chicago local business would be ruined.
Built in the shape of an old Grecian temple, its healing waters long since dry, the ruins still stand amid the weedy overgrowth and dry grasses.
It was the daily mecca to which the woman with the tired look on her face walked each day to drink deeply before returning to her room for an afternoon rest.
H. M. Youmans, for many years editor and publisher of the Waukesha Freeman, remembers Mrs. Lincoln's visit."I came to Waukesha to learn the printers' trade with my brother-in-law, the late Theron W. Haight, in 1870, when the village springs were fast becoming popular," says Mr. Youmans.
"I remember seeing Mrs. Lincoln strolling slowly along the shady sidewalks. She was always by herself. She looked frail and worn, as one who had been shuffled 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."
A. J. Frame, many years president of the Waukesha National bank, and another older residence of Waukesha retain pleasant but fleeting memories of the widow of Abraham Lincoln. No one as companionable and responsive as Mary Todd Lincoln could avoid leaving an impression upon those she met even in chance encounters. The neighbors were shyly friendly and she was quick to answer their kindness.
Copyright 1997 - 2005 by Debie Blindauer
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