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Mary Lincoln's 'widow's fund' letters donated to presidential library & museum

Banker's family gave unknown letters and a cash-ledger book

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[November 16, 2012]  SPRINGFIELD -- In 1865 a Wall Street businessman with a soft spot for an unpensioned widow took up the duty of collecting contributions for the Lincoln family in their hour of need. Now, that man's descendants have donated the proof of that generosity.

"The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is a wonderful center both for displaying important historical documents and also for academic research regarding our 16th president," said family member Peter R. Thompson Jr. "We as a family are honored to participate in a small way to the great work being done there."

Thompson and his sisters, Ms. E. Park Thompson Zimpher and Ms. Sharon Fowler Thompson Giordano, are fourth-generation descendants of the 1865 banker, Benjamin B. Sherman. They and their spouses traveled to Springfield and personally handed the items to museum officials during a small ceremony Saturday near the Treasures Gallery of the museum.

The items will go on display once cleaning and other preparations have been performed by ALPLM staff. Research on all of the donors listed in the cash book will be ongoing.

Benjamin B. Sherman, a grocer and banker working at 95 Wall St., New York, served as "general agent" or treasurer of The Lincoln Memorial Fund to assist the Lincoln family after the president's death. He took in contributions from across the map -- from Davenport, Iowa, to coastal Maine, even a little from Canada and the South -- for nearly a year. His ledger reveals a total of about $10,750 collected, from hundreds of people, some of whom donated a dollar and others more. It also shows the accruing interest, Sherman's small expenses in advertising the fund and its final disbursal to Mrs. Lincoln in May 1866.

Even more revealing are the three letters being donated along with the "Cash Book." Two letters by Mary Lincoln and one by Robert Lincoln show the calm selflessness of the son and the frantic worry of the mother at about eight months after the president's death. (One of the letters by Mary was published in the 1972 edition of her correspondence, though incompletely transcribed there.)

Robert writes to Mr. Sherman: "I wish whatever of the fund there is in your hands to be solely appropriated to my mother. The income which I derive from my father's estate is sufficient to maintain me until I begin to earn my living. The same is of course true with regard to my brother (Tad, nearly 13 years old)."

Lincoln had died with an estate valued at about $110,000, which was divided evenly among Mary, Robert and Tad.

In late 1865, Robert was studying law under an eminent Chicago attorney whom his father had known. Mary and Tad were moving around every few months between hotels and then a house she bought at 375 W. Washington St. in Chicago.

The already published letter by Mary Lincoln to Sherman, dated Dec. 26, 1865, reveals her anger, jealousy and despair. She thanks him for his assistance and states:

We are homeless, and in return for the sacrifices, my great & noble Husband made, both, in his life & death, the paltry, first year's salary, is offered us, under the circumstances; such injustice, has been done us, as would call the blush, to any true loyal heart! The sum is in reality, only $20,000, as the first month's salary, was paid My husband & I presume, the tax, on it, will be deducted from it. The interest, of it, will be about $1500. I am humiliated, when I think, that we are destined, to be forever, homeless. I can write no more.

Her lengthy postscript reports a rumor that a similar fund in Boston had raised $10,000 for her, and she asks Sherman to write to Boston to investigate.

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The next letter to Sherman, never before seen by historians, is dated Jan. 13, 1866. It reveals what exactly troubled her besides the tax taken out of President Lincoln's annual salary.

May I ask you, as a last favor, to see Mr Moser & Godfrey, when you receive this, and have the fur bill cut down considerably. Your influence can accomplish this.

There is no evidence here of what, if anything, Sherman tried to do to ask merchants to reduce or eliminate Mary Lincoln's many other debts, most of them to clothiers and jewelers.

"We are delighted to be able to share this important piece of Lincoln history with all Americans through this gift to the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum," said Thompson. "The letters and cash book offer revealing insights into the mindsets and feelings of the Lincoln family in the aftermath of the assassination of President Lincoln."

Lincoln's annual salary of $25,000 while president was roughly equivalent to $1 million today, nearly the highest the chief executive's pay had ever been, measured against the overall cost of living. Congress' willingness to give Mrs. Lincoln the final 11 months' worth of it -- the president had already collected a month's worth, before dying six weeks into his second term -- was unprecedented in U.S. history.

As an attorney in Springfield, he may have earned about $5,000 a year before his election.

The interest from Sherman's Dollar Fund, plus the interest from Mary' Lincoln's share of her husband's estate, plus the interest from Congress' gift of his 1865 salary came to roughly $4,500 a year after taxes. This was a very comfortable living then -- but Mary had an estimated $26,000 in debts run up from the White House years, and an unknown number of merchants were pressing her to pay.

Her sense of the "injustice" was fair in one respect. In tribute to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's military victory in the war, the nation had given him fine houses in Galena, New York City and Washington, D.C. Sir Morton Peto, a British industrialist mentioned in Mary Lincoln's first letter to Sherman, had been given a banquet costing $25,000 by his New York friends the previous week, to thank him for his support of the Northern war effort and to assist him during his own financial troubles that year.

Mary Lincoln repeated many of the figures a few days later to her friend Mary Jane Welles, wife of the secretary of the Navy. And about a week after that she tried to arrange the sale of roughly $2,000 worth of jewelry in New York with the assistance of Tad's tutor.

[Text from file received from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency]


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