by Philip Jett
“A simple faith in God is good enough for me, and beyond that, I do not concern myself very much,” Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said while president. Nonetheless, his White House was frequented by spiritualists at his wife’s behest. Though some warned the Lincolns of impending doom, none were able to save the president’s life or his wife’s sanity.
Spiritualism in the United States exploded during the Civil War, particularly in the nation’s capital. Fathers, husbands, and sons were dying on battlefields in this country at a rate never before imagined. It is estimated that 620,000 to 750,000 soldiers died by war’s end, or one in ten white men of military age. It’s not difficult to understand the desire of family members to hear from their deceased loved ones during such a terrible time, and few believed as strongly in spiritualism as Mary Todd Lincoln.
Having already lost her son Eddie in 1850, it was almost more than she could bear when eleven-year-old Willie died from typhoid fever in 1862. Mary locked herself away for weeks until she finally emerged donning black mourner’s clothes. “He was his mother’s favorite child,” Mary’s seamstress wrote. “Mrs. Lincoln’s grief is inconsolable.” At the suggestion of former First Lady Jane Pierce, who’d lost her sons years earlier, Mary invited well-known spiritualists, such as Nettie Maynard, to hold séances within the White House so that she might commune with her dead little boy.
Seated in a circle about a table in the Red Room of the White House beneath a chandelier with its flames doused, a spiritualist would clasp hands with Mary and her friends as someone played music to attract spirits from the darkness. Adept at deception, the visiting spiritualist typically conjured tapping sounds somewhere within the room to indicate Willie’s spiritual presence. The trickery worked. Mary was so convinced that Willie had returned that she reported to her half-sister: “Willie lives. He comes to me every night and stands… with the same sweet, adorable smile he has always had. He does not always come alone. Little Eddie is sometimes with him… You cannot dream of the comfort this gives me.”
President Lincoln was also deeply affected by Willie’s death. Intelligent and personable, Willie most closely resembled his father. “I stood at the foot of the bed, my eyes full of tears, looking at the man in silent, awe-stricken wonder,” Mary’s seamstress wrote of the president. “His grief unnerved him, and made him a weak, passive child. I did not dream that his rugged nature could be so moved.” The lamenting Lincoln often visited his son’s corpse in a temporary vault in Oak Hill Cemetery where he’d sit for hours, sometimes directing that his son’s coffin be opened. “Do you ever find yourself talking with the dead?” Lincoln asked a Union officer during that heart-wrenching time. “Since Willie’s death, I catch myself every day involuntarily talking with him as if he were with me.”
Despite his intense grief, President Lincoln did not resort to spiritualism. “He was no dabbler in divination, astrology, horoscopy, prophecy, ghostly lore, or witcheries of any sort,” wrote a friend. The president did, however, humor Mary occasionally by attending séances where it was reported that he had more interest in observing the tricks than harboring any real expectation of communication.
Some spiritualists warned Lincoln of assassination, but it didn’t take a spiritualist to understand the ever-present danger to the president. When warned once, the president replied: “Colchester has been telling me that.” Colchester was the renowned spiritualist, Charles Colchester, who frequented the White House at Mary’s request. It turned out that Colchester may have had special insight into Lincoln’s peril that originated not from the spirit world, but rather a few blocks from the White House. Colchester was a friend of John Wilkes Booth.
Booth’s interest in spiritualism began soon after that of Mary Lincoln. Following the death of Booth’s sister-in-law in 1863, the already superstitious actor attended a number of séances conducted by Colchester. The two became friends and many noticed the men consorting at the same hotels and eating establishments about Washington, D.C. After the assassination, Colchester fled the capital city and was never questioned about the president’s death.
Mary’s dependence on spiritualists naturally intensified following her husband’s assassination. After moving to Chicago with her son Tad, who died six years later, and her oldest son, Robert, she frequently hosted séances in her home until Robert forbade it. Undeterred, she visited spiritualists in Chicago using assumed names. She also visited William Mumler, a “spirit photographer,” who produced a photograph of Lincoln’s spirit resting his consoling hands on Mary’s shoulders. Though clearly fake, Mary believed it to be authentic. “A very slight veil separates us from the loved and lost,” she wrote a friend, “though unseen by us, they are very near.”
While the hocus-pocus of spiritualists may have comforted Mary, their shenanigans were not enough to settle her unraveling sanity. In 1875, Robert Lincoln caused an arrest warrant to be issued for his mother, who was taken into custody, certified insane, and committed to Bellevue Place, a private asylum in Batavia, Illinois. She remained there for over a year until she stirred sufficient public interest in her plight that she was released. She lived out her life quietly with a sister in Illinois and never forgave Robert.
For Mary Lincoln, the ghostly and chilling realism feigned by charlatans and swindlers could not rival that of her actual life—three sons died in her arms, a husband was fatally shot while seated beside her, and she was committed to an insane asylum by her sole living son. Few, if any, can imagine the assault on her reason inflicted by such real-life horrors—and none in their right mind would want to suffer her heartbreaks.
PHILIP JETT is a former corporate attorney who has represented multinational corporations, CEOs, and celebrities from the music, television, and sports industries. He is the author of The Death of an Heir: Adolph Coors III and the Murder That Rocked an American Brewing Dynasty. Jett now lives in Nashville, Tennessee.