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Mary Lincoln at the Shakespeare Birthplace

Saturday, August 27, 1870. An American woman dressed in widow’s weeds enters a house on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon. Having recently arrived from a self-imposed exile in Germany, she steps across the threshold and pauses for a moment before addressing the visitors log where she signs her name: Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. It will be more than 150 years before history records her pilgrimage.

A black and white photo of the gardens at Shakespeare's Birthplace in 1870s. A man in a Derby hat is helping a lady in a period dress down the step into the garden.
Shakespeare's Birthplace as it would have appeared in the 1870s

Though hundreds of Mary Lincoln’s personal letters survive, tracking her journey abroad in the years after her husband’s assassination remains a difficult task. Her letters offer a scattered roadmap only. Arriving in Frankfurt, Germany, in October 1868, Mary and Tad Lincoln used the city as a base for exploration until the summer of 1870 when the escalating Franco-Prussian War forced many travelers, including the Lincolns, to flee to England. Mary’s last known letter from Frankfurt, as dated by historians, was written August 17th, 1870 (Turner, p. 575). In the next letter of record, dated September 7, York, England, Mary notes a recent visit to London. By September 10th, Mary and Tad are in the Midlands.

In three weeks’ time, Mary and Tad had travelled from Frankfurt to London (likely via Southampton), on to Stratford-upon-Avon, Liverpool, York, and Leamington Spa. Even today, this is an ambitious itinerary, but in an age of steamships, railroads, and carriages, it was even more so. Now, thanks to the archives at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT), we know a bit more about Mary’s journey, including the visit she paid to Shakespeare’s childhood home. Contemporary issues of the Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser and the Leamington Gazette offer additional insights into Mary’s movements (SBT).

On September 3, the Leamington Gazette reports that “Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. J.H. Orne, Miss S. B. Orne, Mr. T. Lincoln, Mr. P.B. O’Neill,” had recently arrived at the Regent Hotel in Leamington. Given the newspaper’s weekly distribution schedule, we can assume the travelers checked in between the 26th of August and the 2nd of September, suggesting that a tour of the house on Henley Street on Saturday the 27th of August had been a priority.

On October 1, the Gazette reports the arrival of “Mr. W. Henderson, London, Mrs. Orne, Miss Sallie Orne, Mr. P.B. O’Neill.” Listed separately are “Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, U.S.A.” On October 8, another announcement of the arrival at the Regent of “Mrs. Lincoln” and “Master Lincoln, U.S.A.”

In Leamington,Tad attended to his studies while Mary appears to have continued her travels, including a journey back to Frankfurt (Turner, p. 578). By November 19th, the Gazette notes “Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln of 6 Wellington Street” had removed themselves to London. The next extant letter from Mary is addressed to her daughter-in-law and presumed by the Turners to have been written in November from London. The timing fits, though further research into the address in Leamington may prove more illuminating.

These pins in the map of Mary’s travels are helpful, but what of Mary’s tour through Shakespeare’s birthplace. Why does it matter? Biographies of the 16th President of the United States are dotted with stories of the Lincolns reading Shakespeare and attending theatrical performances; in 1862, Mary gifted her oldest son, Robert, the eight volume set, The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare (The Lincoln Collection). So, Mary’s visit to Stratford offers a poignant reminder of heartache in the wake of loss. Grief clung to Mary Lincoln just as she clung to the obsequies of her bereavement, evident in her mourning clothes and near constant epistolary allusions to her loss. Up to this point, Mary had shown a fondness for traveling incognito (ostensibly to avoid criticism from the U.S. Congress and the press that she was gallivanting around Europe). But here, in this sacred space, would she miss the opportunity to represent herself and her husband? After all, by the end of August 1870, Mary’s battle in Congress to secure a widow’s pension had ended in her favor. Her anxiety was, for the moment, assuaged.

“Mrs. Abraham Lincoln,” she wrote in a practiced hand, before placing her pen in the far left column, something no one else on the page had done, and writing, as if the formality of it bore witness to the gravity of the moment, “Master Thomas Lincoln.” Mary’s friend, Sally Orne, signed next, followed by Sally’s daughter. These signatures set the scene: Mary’s skirts crossing the floor of the old Tudor house, a place both she and her husband might have visited together had an assassin’s bullet not ended Abraham Lincoln’s life at the close of America’s Civil War.

Meantime, Tad Lincoln was a young man versed in German and French, well-travelled, and increasingly homesick for his brother Robert and Robert’s young family. A devoted and almost certainly burdened son, Tad (at age 17) may have escorted Miss Sallie Orne through the rooms, the teenagers rapt or paying scant attention to the details of Shakespeare’s life. Did Tad’s mother impress upon him the importance of this pilgrimage and what it might have meant to his father? Perhaps Tad and the young Miss Orne discussed President Lincoln’s penchant for reading aloud his favorite Shakespearian passages. Perhaps they wrote their names on the wall or etched their initials into the window glass as so many other visitors had done.

England was the last stop on Mary and Tad’s Grand Tour. Tad had been pressing his mother to send him home to Chicago, but Mary was reluctant to put her son on a ship alone. She convinced Tad to stay in England until the following spring. In early May 1871, the Lincolns set sail from Liverpool aboard the SS Russia, arriving in Chicago by May 21st (Turner, p. 587). Two months later, Tad was dead. The typhoid fever that had killed his brother, Willie, in the White House had likely weakened Tad’s heart and lungs. He had picked up a cold on the voyage to New York. Whether he succumbed to pleurisy, to pneumonia, or to congestive heart failure, Tad Lincoln, only 18 years of age, died on July 15, 1871, leaving his mother and only surviving sibling to navigate what would continue to be a fraught relationship.

I like to picture Mary on that late August Saturday in 1870, climbing the narrow stairs, gazing out of the window in the room where Shakespeare is said to have been born, and casting her mind back to happier days with her husband and sons. The signatures in the Shakespeare Birthplace visitor logs are a poignant waypoint in the tragic life of Mary Lincoln, and a discovery weighted with deeply sorrowful implications.

*Daniel Weinberg of the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago, Illinois, examined a digital photograph of Mary’s signatures and submits the following: “You may quote me saying that, though I have only examined a computer image of the signature, it appears to be in Mary Lincoln’s hand and, hence, is an exciting discovery.”

**Turner and Turner 1987 edition.

Dr. Toni Chappell recently completed her PhD in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University in Bath, England. Her debut novel, Widow Lincoln, is looking for an agent.