Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Son of Honest Abe: Robert Todd Lincoln, An American Story

Robert Todd Lincoln (Age 22)
A few days ago I got an email from my Mom. The subject of the email was Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the 16th President of the United States.

It's an incredible story.

Who Was Robert Todd Lincoln?

He was the only child of Abe and Mary Lincoln to survive into adulthood - with his three brothers having died from illnesses at young ages.  Believe it or not, Robert lived until 1926, dying at the age of 83. But along the way, he lived a remarkable  life.
For  starters, he begged his father for a commission to serve in the Civil  War, with President Lincoln refusing, saying the loss of two sons (to  that point) made risking the loss of a third out of the question.  But  Robert insisted, saying that if his father didn't help him, he would                                                            join on his own and fight with the front line troops; a threat that drove Abe to give in.

But you know how clever Abe was. He gave Robert what he wanted, but wired  General Grant to assign "Captain Lincoln" to his staff, and to keep him well away from danger.
The  assignment did, however, result in Robert's being present at Appomattox Court House, during the historic moment of Lee's surrender.

Then, the following week, while Robert was at the White House, he was awakened at midnight to be told of his father's shooting, and was present at The Peterson House when his                                                           father died.

Little Eddie died at age 4 in 1850 - probably from thyroid cancer.  Willie was the most beloved of all the boys.  He died in the White House at age 11 in 1862, from what was most  likely Typhoid Fever.
Abe  grieved the hardest over Willie's death. It took him four days to pull  himself together enough to function as President again. Lincoln had a  temporary tomb built for Willie, until they could return home with his  body to Springfield , and he often spent long periods of time at the tomb.

I  guess Tad was a real hellion. None of his tutors could control him,  which is why he grew up unable to competently read or write. He was a  momma's boy, he had a lisp, and was probably mildly  retarded.
He  died at age 18 in 1871, most likely from the same thyroid cancer Eddie had died from, suggesting a genetic flaw.

But  - back to Robert, following his father's assassination, he moved to Chicago with his mentally  ill mother, and brother Tad, who was 12 at the time. Robert  finished law school and practiced the craft for a time, while constantly struggling to keep his Mother in check.

As  she had done as First Lady, Mary went on shopping binges that far exceeded common sense, driving what was left of the family fortune  into bankruptcy, and leading to violent disputes between Robert and  she.
Robert  also had torrid battles with Mary to keep her from destroying Lincoln's private papers, not just for their financial worth, but for  their historic value also, with Mary forever trying to tear them apart and burn them in fireplaces.

In  fact, her irrational behavior (she was probably schizophrenic) grew so destructive that Robert had to have her put away, with his signature  signing her into a psychiatric hospital, where she stayed locked up  for three months. Mary never forgave him for it - and they remained estranged from then on - until Mary died at age 63 in  1882.

Worth  noting, as a deceased President's wife, Mary had petitioned Congress for a pension, and she got one! She received $3,000 a year, a sizable sum back then.

Of  profound interest, as an adult Robert wrote there was a lot of  distance between his father and he - caused mainly by Abe's being  absent so much of the time during Robert's formative years. Abe was  forever gone on state wide judicial circuits, or campaigning for  office - or serving in the state legislature.

Robert  writes that his most vivid memories of his father were seeing him pack  his saddle bags to be off again. Nonetheless, Robert respected his  father - and he wept obsessively the night he was  killed.

Abraham Lincoln, II on His Death Bed
In  1868, Robert married a senator's daughter and they had  three children -- two girls and a boy, Abraham Lincoln's only  grandchildren. Their son, whom they named Abraham Lincoln II (but whom  they called "Jack") would die in 1890 from an infection arising from  having a boil pierced under his arm. He was 15 at the time, and at left is a blurry, but still remarkable photo of him lying in bed,  shortly before he died.

The  two daughters, however, lived fairly long lives, one living until 1938 to die at age 69, and the other until 1948, dying at age  72.

The last direct descendent of Abraham Lincoln would be the child of one of  Robert's daughters - Abe Lincoln's great grandson - a guy named Bud Beckwith, who died married but childless, in 1985.

In  his own right, Robert made quite a life for himself. He got into politics and was highly regarded in those circles. In fact - he served  as Secretary of War under President Garfield - and, incredibly, was  with him when Garfield was shot at the Washington train station!
And  then - some years later, Robert would also be present when President McKinley was gunned down in Buffalo ! If you were President, you'd  probably be leery about having him around, wouldn't  you?

In  later years he would  serve in other political appointments and ambassadorships, and later  became president of the Pullman train car company, a booming  enterprise back then, and a position he would hold for the rest of his  life.

Worth noting, Robert was an avid amateur astronomer, and even had an  observatory built into his Vermont home (which is better described as  a mansion), but the telescope was so well built and powerful  that's it's still used today by a local astronomy  club!

In  the photo at right is Robert (far right) appearing in his late 70's at  the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922.

A  footnote. Abe Lincoln once said he doubted Robert would do very  well in life.  Beyond the fact that Robert was able to live in a  mansion, he was several times offered the chance to run as President or Vice-President, with his every time refusing the offer.  So, Old Abe's assessment of his son was way off the mark, wasn't it? Of course, who knows how much being Abe's son influenced Robert's success in life?

Anyhow, and now for the most incredible thing there is to know about Robert Lincoln's story.

In his 20's, Robert was standing on a train platform in Jersey City, buried among a crowd of passengers attempting to buy sleeping births from a haggard conductor, when the train  suddenly moved.  Robert was standing so close to the train  that it spun him around and sent him dropping into the space between  the train and the platform -- a perilously tight place to be --  against a moving train threatening to crush  him!
Suddenly  - a hand grabbed Robert by the neck of his coat and pulled him up onto  the platform, a quick action by a solidly strong man who saved Robert's life.  And you know who that man was?
It  was Edwin Booth - the brother of John Wilkes Booth who had murdered Robert's father!


Are all the claims in this story, especially towards the end, true? If Wikipedia is to be believed, the answer is a resounding yes!

No matter, I found the story to be fascinating. And I hope you did too.

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