Book Review: Mrs. Lincoln (Author: Catherine Clinton).

Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln. Three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just finished Catherine Clinton‘s tome on Mrs. Mary Lincoln, (titled simply Mrs. Lincoln: A Life) First Lady and wife of President Abraham Lincoln. The text clocks in at 336 pages, followed by around sixty pages of footnotes. The work is readable, though a bit plodding at times. Its strengths are focused in a few key areas:

  • The work talks about Abraham Lincoln as well as Mary, providing a good overview of the lives of both.
  • The work brings in interesting topics about the era as they relate to Mary Lincoln, providing insights into the 19th century in addition to its portrait of Mary Lincoln.
  • The work attempts to be balanced in its portrayal of Mary – showing both her strengths and weaknesses.

My biggest complaint with the work is the rare occurrence (two or three times) of French in the text (without a translation). This seems unnecessary for a work which appears popular rather than academic (though it is certainly scholarly).

Also, at times Catherine makes statements about Mary Lincoln which seem like conjecture. She posits what Mary was thinking or feeling in certain situations. I expect this comes from Catherine’s thorough knowledge of Mary Lincoln – but still, it feels a bit tentative at times.

Overall, a worthwhile read. Provides fascinating insights into spiritualism and mental illness in the 19th century.

Facts to Ponder: Spiritualism in the 19th Century.

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I am currently reading Catherine Clinton’s Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, which in addition to its fascinating portrayal of Mary Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln also provides significant sidebars providing insight into the 19th century in the United States. I’d like to share a few tidbits from one such sidebar on spiritualism:

“Struggling against her [Mary Lincoln] overemotional nature, she found herself enthralled by an increasingly popular pastime in Civil War America: spirit circles. These were gatherings organized by mediums who practiced spiritualism, communing with those who had ‘crossed over’–talking with the dead. This belief in contact with the dead was one of the fastest-growing movements in nineteenth-century America, accelerated by the mounting Civil War death lists.” (pg. 182)

“The American penchant for belief in the spirit world predated the nineteenth century. It was popularized especially among the Methodists, who believed their leader, John Wesley, had been an early pioneer of the practice of ‘rapping.’ In 1726, Wesley suggested that his childhood home had been haunted by ‘raps and knocks, footsteps and groans,’ and the family had even nicknamed the family ghost…” (pg. 182)

“Some spiritualists branched out from spirit circles to venture into what was termed magnetic healing…One celebrated case in particular helped ally the two: After two years of lying flat in a darkened bedroom after slipping on ice and suffering paralysis, Olivia Langdon was desperate and sought nonmedical treatment. A spiritualist healer was summoned to the girl’s Elmira home, and he prayed over her. After the visit, Olivia rose out of her bed, completely recovered. The spiritualist attributed his miraculous success to the ‘form of electricity passing from his body to his patients.’ (Olivia went on to marry Samuel Clemens, later famous as Mark Twain.)” (pg. 184-5)

“…Judge John Edmonds of New York, became convinced of this new movement’s transcendent significance. Edmonds resigned his position on the New York State Supreme Court to become a medium.” (pg. 185)

“Women disproportionately flocked to spirit circles…Spiritualism was ‘the only religious sect in the world…that has recognized the equality of woman.'” (pg. 186)

“Spiritualism caught fire because it coincided with the deepest needs of American women at midcentury. At a time when nearly half the deaths in New York State were children under five, it is no wonder that grieving mothers sought escape with dreams of Summerland, the spiritualist name for heaven.” (pg. 186)

“The more than two million Americans subscribing to spiritualist beliefs in 1850 would triple their numbers by the summer of 1862…” (pg. 186)

“In 1863, Mary confided to Senator Orville H. Browning…that while visiting a medium in Georgetown (Mrs. Laurie), she ahd been in contact with her son Willie.” (pg. 187)

“Lincoln did take meetings with spiritualists–even without Mrs. Lincoln present–but this may have reflected his extreme curiosity and courtesy rather than any affinity.” (pg. 187)