A desperate Mrs. Lincoln visits New York in 1867

Marylincolnmathewbrady1861On September 17, 1867, a woman checked into a room in the posh St. Denis Hotel (below) on Broadway and 11th Street.

Her reservation was made under the name Mrs. Clarke. But with her real name written on her luggage, she was quickly recognized as presidential widow Mary Todd Lincoln.

This was hardly Mrs. Lincoln’s first trip to the city. After her husband was elected in 1860, she was a frequent visitor to New York.

Her trips weren’t about politics, however. She was mainly in Gotham to shop the city’s many expensive stores—like A. T. Stewart, Lord and Taylor, and Tiffany & Co.

MarylincolnstdenishotelMrs. Lincoln was what today would be called a shopaholic. Perhaps she bought so many things to dull the pain after her 11-year-old son Willie died in 1862. Or maybe she felt that the president’s wife had to look her best at all times.

“I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity,” Mrs. Lincoln told her seamstress and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley, during her husband’s 1864 reelection campaign.

Her extravagant spending was what brought her back to New York in 1867. She had fallen deeply in debt since her husband was assassinated two years earlier and she was forced to leave the White House for Chicago.

The struggling Mrs. Lincoln had the idea to sell some of her wardrobe items and jewelry, hoping it would ease her troubles.

MarylincolnkeckleyKeckley (left) arrived in New York the next day to assist Mrs. Lincoln with the sale. The two women moved to the Union Place Hotel, because the St. Denis would not allow Keckley, who was African-American, to stay on the same floor as her friend.

They went to a diamond broker first, and then “Elizabeth and Mary invited second-hand clothing dealers to their hotel to inspect Mary’s wardrobe for sale,” wrote Catherine Clinton for the New York State Archives Partnership Trust.

“Both women then prowled shops on Seventh Avenue, hoping to trade old clothes for new greenbacks.” But “gossip began to circulate about this mystery woman wrapped in widow’s weeds who was peddling her wardrobe.”

After the diamond broker betrayed her trust by having her letters published in the New York World, the press savaged her “old clothes sale” (though the New York Times also felt that family members of former presidents should be better provided for).

MarylincolnstdenistodayPublic opinion was against her. Even worse, her items drummed up no interest. She fled back to Chicago to her rented rooms.

Her financial situation continued to fall apart, as did her mind. She was committed to an Illinois asylum in 1875 but made periodic trips to New York to address her health before dying in 1882.

[The St. Denis Hotel today, which was on the route President Lincoln’s funeral procession took through New York in April 1865]

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5 Responses to “A desperate Mrs. Lincoln visits New York in 1867”

  1. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    It is thought Mrs Lincoln suffered from diabetes and there was little understanding how to treat / endure the malady. This added to her physical troubles. Her eldest son Robert had little patience and was dismissive of his Mother’s woes; lil’ Edward had died as an infant; Willie’s (William) life ended as he lay in the famed Lincoln bed in the White House; then, her darling boy Tad (Thomas) was dead by age 18. Is there any wonder this woman was in a swirl of depression and dark sorrows.

    Mary was from a genteel Kent. clan and obviously sensed her duty was to ‘present a lifestyle of grand and au currant stylishness.’ Some women have no budget-sense and how could she have ever guessed the family-bread-winner would be killed, leaving her adrift without a home, pension, serious savings, etc…

    I have tremendous sympathy for Mary Lincoln…

    What is that B&W structure pic? The name of the place or the business?

  2. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    One more small bit to share with your readership.

    The necklace, bracelet and earrings Mary is wearing in this precious photo — those were chosen by Lincoln himself. They are a design of oval pieces covered in seed pearls. He chose them as a gift for his wife at the time of his Inagural. They came from Tiffanys.

    Mrs. Lincoln also made many purchases from what used to be the oldest business in Washington, D.C. ‘Galt Bros Jewelry’ (they have gone out of business.) I understand when the store was being closed out and everything was being sold (fixtures, old stock, etc…) 1860s era paperwork was discovered showing where Mrs. L. bought a great deal of jewelry from them — then, after wearing the pieces to some special event, she would return the jewelry and get her money back. Because she was the First Lady, the store was co-operative.

    Interestingly, one of the Gault family would wed a remarkable woman several decades into the future. Alas, she became a widow and then, re-married a widower of some national / international standing. Edith Bolling Gault became Mrs. Woodrow Wilson. Soooo, these jewelry stores have links to the White House in many ways…

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you Audrey. I have sympathy for her too, but the public in the 1860s did not, apparently. The black and white photo is the St. Denis Hotel, where she stayed…and left after they refused to give Elizabeth Keckley a room on the same floor as hers.

  4. A desperate Mrs. Lincoln visits New York in 1867 | Ephemeral New York | First Night History Says:

    […] Source: A desperate Mrs. Lincoln visits New York in 1867 | Ephemeral New York […]

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