The Misunderstanding of Mary Lincoln and the Henry Wikoff Incident

kerry

Cadet
Joined
May 3, 2017
Hello,

I've been doing a lot of Mary Lincoln research the last few years, and the one thing I always come back to is the Henry Wikoff incident, because it is so completely misunderstood, and illustrates a lot of the distortions that have made it hard to understand her life. I also find the press warfare of the era fascinating, and Herald editor James Gordon Bennett is one of the most interesting Americans of all time, IMO. Wikoff himself was quite fascinating. I'm still working on fully breaking the events down, but this blog piece is a good start for anyone who is interested: https://kerryellard.wordpress.com/2019/08/31/mistaken-identities-part-i/

The incident was the alleged leak of Lincoln's first annual message to Congress to the Herald. It was more like a summary of a few talking points, totally non-sensitive, that was published literally a couple of hours before the official release of the whole message to the press. Stuff like this happened all the time, and people were waaaay more focused on the much more extensive leak of Simon Cameron's message advising arming black soldiers, which led to a showdown between him and Lincoln, who eventually forced Cameron to omit that portion. Abolitionist-leaning congressmen were furious, and the Herald, more conservative, taunted them. When Lincoln realized what Cameron's message said, he unexpectedly held back all cabinet member's messages, so congress opened and nothing was delivered until the next day. Literally no one mentioned the summary until more than two months later, when the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, then really at odds with the Lincoln administration on a number of things, started investigating telegraph censorship.

It was then alleged, in a way that doesn't quite add up, that Wikoff had procured the information from Mary Lincoln. It was made by Tribune employees who were in an intense rivalry with the Herald and thought it was being favored in having fewer telegraphs censored by the war department. I still can't quite figure out what actually happened, but the way it has been portrayed as a scandalous leak is totally inaccurate. The committee's purpose was to make sure that the government was allowing everyone's leaks to go uncensored--it was not at all a security issue. It was just a fishing expedition used to humiliate Lincoln, as they were using every tactic they could. This was a very minor event given all that was going on. It in no way damaged the Lincolns' relationship with the Herald, as has been alleged, though it did somewhat with Wikoff, who was being used as an example of a social undesirable by republicans who didn't want to attack Lincoln indirectly. Instead, they attacked Mary Lincoln's social taste. Interestingly, many of them, who were not based in D.C., grouped together Wikoff, Sickles, and Ward "Hill" Lamon as the same type of undesirable, who would only be invited by Mary Lincoln. Lamon was super friendly with Lincoln and had been for decades, but super unpopular in DC, especially with abolitionists, since he was born in Virginia and pretty pro-slavery, but largely also because he was bold and shameless, which is what bothered people so much about Wikoff and Sickles and the Herald. In no way was his presence related to Mary Lincoln, but that allegation repeatedly resurfaced, including by Rose Greenhow. And he had nothing to do with someone like Wikoff.

The twists and turns of the story are crazy, as is how confused the story has become--and it still surfaces regularly. There is a particularly absurd narrative held to by Lincoln historians in which Wikoff was a spy for the Herald. There is no way that the Lincolns did not know who Wikoff was, or about his Herald connection. Lincoln had been approached by Wikoff months before and badgered for a pass for a Herald reporter. He was unable to get one, and wrote a pretty groveling letter to Bennett apologizing.
 

DBF

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 6, 2016
Why when I read your post the idea of "there is nothing new under the sun" come immediately to my mind. Is that your blog? I found the story of Lincoln and the newspaper man F. A. Mitchell quite amusing - he didn't seem to think much of those boys climbing all over their father.
 

kerry

Cadet
Joined
May 3, 2017
Why when I read your post the idea of "there is nothing new under the sun" come immediately to my mind. Is that your blog? I found the story of Lincoln and the newspaper man F. A. Mitchell quite amusing - he didn't seem to think much of those boys climbing all over their father.

Yes, glad you liked it. I'm trying to find cute stories that appeal to a wider audience to balance out my long Wikoff pieces!

ETA: And while avoiding references to modern politics, there truly is nothing new. The Wikoff story came up multiple times this year, and everyone missed its significance. Many people debated the ability of congress to do things like arrest people for contempt via the sergeant-at-arms during an investigation. That is exactly what happened to Wikoff. Had anyone understood the incident, it still would have been awkward to use him as any kind of precedent, because it demonstrated congressional authority, but does so in a context in which the House made no pretense of being grave and objective.
 
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kerry

Cadet
Joined
May 3, 2017
History seems to paint Mary Lincoln as a depressed woman, which she was later confined to a mental hospital. Knowing what she went through in her lifetime... I have sympathy for her.

I would say that this is definitely too simple and linear a story, and the real one, to the extent we can know it, is much more interesting. She wasn't nearly as fragile as she's been portrayed--she liked a good controversy at times, and the Wikoff thing really was not a major scandal in her lifetime---it became portrayed as a huge deal in the twentieth century. It was a brief affair totally overshadowed by the death of the Lincoln's son, which happened literally days after the Wikoff thing finally wrapped, following a long illness that occupied most of their attention. It's generally believed the dying child plea is what got the committee to back off--it's not very clear to me that this is the case. They did sort of hush it up, but not particularly well, and I feel like some other factors were at play. Family deaths did so much more damage to Mary Lincoln than negative press or her vagaries, but it is often portrayed the other way.

I've also always had trouble with seeing her life as a story of depression. I can see why some think she was bipolar, and maybe she was, but a lot of people confuse extreme grief with depression. They are not at all the same--you can define clinical depression differently, but I would describe it as many others have, from experience, it as a lack of ability to take interest in life; a dull paralysis; apathy. In most cases, you don't have any energy. Mary Lincoln almost always had crazy amounts of energy and was very active even while overcome with grief and hysterical. Her coping strategy was to travel constantly and go sight-seeing--even river rafting!--which I don't think is typically a depressive reaction.

This also seems to count against the mania aspect, as she seems to have been "manic" most of the time from 1860 until her death, which is the only time with detailed records. Some people are very high energy and intense, and these traits were more encouraged at the time, more so in men--adventurousness is part of it. It was her default state, and there are no discernible clinical depression episodes until well after Tad's death, much later in her life, which there is not a lot of information about, and may have been the result of a physical illness keeping her confined. It seems, from comments people made, that she had very brief periods of disassociation of some kind, where she became disoriented and angry or paranoid. She was reclusive, definitely had psychological trauma and an unstable emotional state, and I think it is accurate to say she had some biological mental abnormality that we'd probably call mental illness. But she also was just eccentric and intense, and from a family that had the same "crazy streak"--where you draw the line, I don't know, or how you'd categorize it, but bipolar has never seemed the best description for it, and she left little testimony of depression. The periods in which she kind of disappeared, which may have indicated depressive states, seemed to correlate with a cessation of writing letters, which was definitely a mark that something was wrong, as she loved to write letters. I also think fewer of them happened to be saved, because she was in contact with fewer people at this time, and her life had become so tragic that they were hard to treasure.
 

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Location
Central Pennsylvania
I've never been convinced Mary was at all mentally unstable. She was a dandy target and for some reason still is. One huge, major problem has been that scumbucket Herndon's book. He was pretty much her stalker- hated the bejammers out of Mary Lincoln. Because he'd been one of Lincoln's law partners his nonsense was swallowed whole and the entire book is drivvel. The guy made a great living filling lecture halls, actually touring the country. His topic? Mary Lincoln. The thing is, that stupid book has been sourced and sourced again when researching her- then the next book sourced from that one. McClure's magazine did a terrific, beautifully researched and sourced rebuttal some years later but no one paid any attention to it.

She couldn't win. Born and raised Southern aristocracy, she married the enemiest-enemy of them all, Lincoln. ( which might explain Rosie Greenhow's input ). Northern women disliked her for the same reason- she was Southern. DC society also made the mistake of assuming she required help navigating society and it did not go well.

I'll say she was depressed, who wouldn't be? That's it though, although that's just an opinion. It really had been a good marriage, having your husband violently murdered while he was holding your hand would do something to you. She's already lost 2 boys, would lose another and have the last behave incredibly poorly towards her. Family shattered by the war, feeding frenzy by the press, pretty much stalked by Herndon, betrayed by a couple of sisters and a best friend. One of her friends at the time went up in smoke over one of the ridiculous accusations printed about her and told Mary she was writing to the paper to insist it be corrected. She said Mary told her please do not, it would only put herself in the cross hairs.

Hadn't come across a Todd family unstable streak? Were there family members who were known to behave erratically? I'm sincerely not arguing the point, it's just brand, new information.
 

kerry

Cadet
Joined
May 3, 2017
I've never been convinced Mary was at all mentally unstable. She was a dandy target and for some reason still is. One huge, major problem has been that scumbucket Herndon's book. He was pretty much her stalker- hated the bejammers out of Mary Lincoln. Because he'd been one of Lincoln's law partners his nonsense was swallowed whole and the entire book is drivvel. The guy made a great living filling lecture halls, actually touring the country. His topic? Mary Lincoln. The thing is, that stupid book has been sourced and sourced again when researching her- then the next book sourced from that one. McClure's magazine did a terrific, beautifully researched and sourced rebuttal some years later but no one paid any attention to it.

She couldn't win. Born and raised Southern aristocracy, she married the enemiest-enemy of them all, Lincoln. ( which might explain Rosie Greenhow's input ). Northern women disliked her for the same reason- she was Southern. DC society also made the mistake of assuming she required help navigating society and it did not go well.

I'll say she was depressed, who wouldn't be? That's it though, although that's just an opinion. It really had been a good marriage, having your husband violently murdered while he was holding your hand would do something to you. She's already lost 2 boys, would lose another and have the last behave incredibly poorly towards her. Family shattered by the war, feeding frenzy by the press, pretty much stalked by Herndon, betrayed by a couple of sisters and a best friend. One of her friends at the time went up in smoke over one of the ridiculous accusations printed about her and told Mary she was writing to the paper to insist it be corrected. She said Mary told her please do not, it would only put herself in the cross hairs.

Hadn't come across a Todd family unstable streak? Were there family members who were known to behave erratically? I'm sincerely not arguing the point, it's just brand, new information.

Yes, the Todds were known for this, but I will say that Kentuckians were known for volatility in general. There was a tolerance for eccentricity and volatility that we do not have throughout the U.S., so the significance of it was less than we make it out to be. As just one example, look up John Randolph of Roanoke. I've done a crazy amount of research into this issue, but obviously I can't judge anyone's mental health from 150+ years after their death, and I don't think mental health can be as clearly labeled as people wish, so I don't think there's one right answer. I think it is subjective, but I would describe her as unstable, while also saying that instability is common. I can send you all my sources if you pm me your email. "Mrs. Abraham Lincoln," an early biography of her by a Dr. Evans written prior to modern psychiatry, goes into the Todd family history on this issue, but since then more has been discovered.

I certainly agree with you she is and was a target, and that her situation was impossible, and that a lot of things have been distorted because of this. But the instability is a largely separate issue; during the war era and immediately after, most people in the newspaper community were almost certainly aware of this, and pretended not to be, portraying her behavior as beyond comprehension or malicious. The southern sympathizers attacked her for allegedly being a rube and other things, not her mental state. The northerners preferred secessionist allegations. Her mental health was rarely used against her during this time. Even Herndon did not focus on it publicly, or much at all beyond an occasional reference. He focused on her temper and Lincoln's supposed lack of love for her, not her eccentricity, probably because he was comfortable with eccentricity. I don't know what was up with Herndon--there's a piece missing in that story. But it's worth saying that in the McClure's piece, if you are talking about the interview with Emilie Helm, they quote from a letter from a cousin close to her in childhood. They omit the portion where the cousin says that at least Herndon tried to be fair to her, in his way, unlike the war era press!! The guy who wrote arguing Abraham Lincoln was not a Christian also said that Lincoln's biographers (this was in the 1890s) have been much fairer to her than the press, especially in the 1860s. He means Herndon and Lamon, who basically described her as an extremely strong personality who both contributed to Lincoln's success and made him miserable. His position is contrary to accepted wisdom, but I agree with it. The press did most of the damage before Herndon and Lamon were on the scene, and were more sleazy; Herndon and Lamon became blamed for Mary's bad historical reputation in part because they were outsiders and were very eccentric themselves, and very bold in their pronouncements. They deserve some of it, and probably all of the blame for the missed wedding story/Ann Rutledge, but the war era press was worse and more insidious. Mary Clemmer Ames is one of the worst offenders, IMO. Some of it was malice, some of it was groupthink. A lot of it was partisan squabbling that journalists and politicians seemed to forget was partisan squabbling they'd invented themselves, and began using it as research material for their post-war memoirs. For example, Ben Perley Poore's memoirs are just copied and pasted from the newspapers of the time, and not always his own accounts. He was somebody who definitely did have firsthand knowledge, but a surprising number of people seemed to write over their own knowledge with newspaper files. Digital memory is a freaky thing---newspaper sites have recently made it possible to see what an issue this was.
 

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Location
Central Pennsylvania
but I would describe her as unstable, while also saying that instability is common.


Sorry, lost me with this plus the part about " Kentuckians were known for volatility ". It's awfully generalized.

It's impossible, yes, to diagnose Mary Todd or anyone else from a distance of 150 years. The thing with Mary Todd Lincoln is, is that she's been made into this entire topic requiring investigation. Sometimes the simplest answer is the answer, you know? That's the story of a woman who had the misfortune of marrying one of the single most famous men in world history. It's a ' thing '. We do that to wives of famous men- there are a few exceptions but in general for some reason someone has to explain to me, we like our famous men burdened by unsatisfactory marriages.

And honestly, Herndon tried to be fair to her? Lost me again.
 

kerry

Cadet
Joined
May 3, 2017
Sorry, lost me with this plus the part about " Kentuckians were known for volatility ". It's awfully generalized.

I meant it as a generalization. My point is that a lot of this stuff can't be neatly defined---much of it is cultural or family norms, mental health/illness is often a spectrum, and people try to hard to "explain" relatively minor differences explained by the fact that people vary in their personalities. I agree with you that people often make too much out of something, and that there's not nearly as much of a unique need to investigate some aspects of Mary Lincoln and explain them as some would suggest. I think she's held out to be more of an outlier than is warranted. I also don't think there's anything wrong with investigating her life or offering opinions, in part as a corrective to that attitude.

I don't want to derail the thread, but here is just one amusing example: Mary Lincoln's much younger half-sister ended up getting engaged to a confederate soldier at the beginning of the war, and their correspondence from while he was at the front was published fairly recently. At the beginning, her mother opposed the marriage:

"I told Mother that I thought she had better give her consent and approval at once for my mind was made up, and I felt myself more of a Todd than ever, and they are noted for their determination or, as malicious people would say, obstinacy...."

“I am out of temper with the people here for showing the Blues so much partiality …. And Sadie Bell and I speak our minds freely when we meet. You have a sample of my amiability. I am a Todd, and one of these days you may be unfortunate enough to find out what they are."

Personally, I have a lot of appreciation for spirited, willful people--I don't use the term volatile disparagingly.
 
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