Saturday, July 2, 2022

North Shore Notes: All The Single Ladies

     I was glad that Northshore correspondent Caren Jeskey picked up on my mention of Mary Todd Lincoln the other day — the widowed First Lady just isn't thought of as a Chicago figure, though she lived here for years. I've done some research on her myself, for my upcoming book, and while I'm not quite as willing as Caren is to characterize Lincoln merely a dynamic woman misunderstood — she certainly was plagued by depression and paranoia and compulsive buying jags — I do  agree that she's a compelling personality who merits more contemplation than she receives.

By Caren Jeskey

     Neil’s annual review of this blog made mention of Mary Todd Lincoln who lived in Chicago during the Great Fire. Hearing her name started the creaky wheels of my brain turning. Aha! It came back to me after a minute or ten. I was reminded that I’d like to pay a visit to a place my Thai massage therapist mentioned after a divine 90 minute pummel and stretch session last year.
     The Groesback Building at 1304 West Washington now houses a yoga studio where Thai yoga teacher trainings are held. Masseuse Extraordinaire Jenn Cooper informed me that on top of being a fantastic way to spend a couple hundred hours (namely getting stronger and healthier and learning to pass this gift of body work on to others), it would be held in this beautiful old building where the widow of Abraham had once lived.
     My interest in the building was sparked again, so I did a bit of digging and learned more about Mary Todd. You may know this, but I did not. I must not have been paying attention in history class those days. Or more likely we never really learned about her, except as a side note. Mary had a host of problems (which are nauseatingly well documented). We know what is likely the most traumatizing of her experiences. Legend has it that after her husband’s 1865 assassination, “at first, the crowd interpreted the unfolding drama as part of the production, but a scream from the first lady told them otherwise.”
     During her tenure in our fair city Mary bounced around Chicago quite a bit, perhaps having a hard time finding housing stability? Perhaps by choice?
     According to this historian, she initially arrived to the Tremont House Hotel, moved to the Hyde Park Hotel, then to a South Wabash address. From there she bought a home at what’s now 1238 West Washington, which she rented out a short time later, moving into the Clifton House Hotel. Then back to another West Washington address, back to the Clifton House, and then in 1868 (three short years after arriving in Chicago) she and her then 15 year old son Tad traveled abroad (where she also bounced around). They got back to Chicago in 1871. She stayed at her son Robert’s place for a bit, and as her fate would have it she was three blocks away from the O’Leary house (of cow infamy) when the Fire broke out. Then to the Grand Central Hotel. A year later in 1875, her son and the courts petitioned her to be committed to jail for the mentally ill 45 miles outside of town, in Batavia Illinois. "A jury of twelve men ruled her insane and appointed Robert as conservator of her estate. Mary — who did not know about the trial until that day — sat quietly through the proceedings.'
     I doth protest. Lock her up, drug her, and strip her of all of her rights and freedoms? No. Help her. Hug her. Someone please take care of this woman. If you have to lock her up, send her somewhere to heal from her horrible losses and grief. They traumatized her again. Twelve Angry Men, then Batavia? Prior to being shipped away, she accomplished amazing things. Mary had no source of income to speak of after her husband was gone, so she successfully petitioned the government for a pension. It took years, and she won her case five years after his death. Can you imagine that? A woman ahead of her times. She received $3000 per year, roughly $80,000 today.
     Prior to her husband’s murder mere feet away from her while out enjoying some laughs, she’d already lost an infant son and an 11 year old son. Son Tad, who’d accompanied her on travels abroad and during part of her stay in Chicago, died at the age of 18, probably of TB.
     Mary is described throughout history as insane, unconventional, bold, and odd. How about a smart, savvy and shrewd survivor? That seems more complimentary, and that’s who she was. A hero. Not a nutjob. A heavily traumatized woman trying to make a buck in the big city at a time when people born with her anatomy were not even allowed to vote.
     Chicago’s not the easiest place. In fact, most of it burned down during her tenure here. At one point she had to sell furniture to the Hyde Park Hotel. Mary was a true hustler.
     The silver lining of this tale? “On May 19, 1875, Mary Todd Lincoln was arrested and tried for lunacy before a jury of twelve men in the Cook County Court in Chicago.”
     Today, people with mental health conditions have the right to much more gentle, caring care. I won’t get into how unaffordable it is, nor how difficult it is for even the brightest among us to find. That’s for another day.
    I want to thank Neil for mentioning my contribution to Every Goddamn Day in the yearly review of his blog. I was touched by his description  of me— "caring, engaged, active and joyful." I see and experience myself as much more melancholic than the rest of the world sees me, and for that I am grateful. For what is a woman if she is not a strong survivor?

25 comments:

  1. Caren, this might be one of the best Saturday pieces you've written since arriving here in 2020. Kudos to our North Shore bureau chief. Until Neil wrote about the Great Fire, I was unaware that Mary Todd Lincoln was a resident of Chicago. I had always assumed that she had gone back to Springfield after her husband died. Instead, she struggled to survive in the big city. For her efforts, she was "arrested and tried for lunacy before a jury of twelve men"--there are no words...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Grizz. I hope we keep doing better for those with psychological challenges rather than labeling and disenfranchising the very people who need and deserve care. Many of whom are our family members, friends, neighbors, and key people who provide so much to us with their intelligence and creativity. We don't want to go back the days of sterilizing and warehousing those with mental illness, though that's where we will head if things keep going south with protecting human rights.

      Delete
  2. You and Neil are a great one-two punch (maybe six-one punch but who’s counting). As with much of US history, this is yet another important embarrassment I’ve learned about it in recent years.
    It seems whoever came up with the curricula to be taught in our schools about US history conveniently skimmed over (or omit or worse, fabricate) events that expose horrible things our forefathers and foremothers, have done and continue to do.
    Florida’s Governor Desantis and his acolytes have passed legislation where it is illegal to teach these things for fear of making us “feel guilty”. I’m not making that up.
    We have to keep track of Desantis, the next GOP nominee for President. He is just as dangerous as his mentor.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I will take your advice and pay attention. Scary times for so many people.

      Delete
    2. I wouldn't blame schools so much about teaching U.S. history. After all there is so much of it. To me the internet has been a great thing. Maybe I just follow the right people, (for the most part) But I have learned a lot from what those people tweeted out. One example is Emma Goldman. I had heard the name and knew she had been deported. I have been reading about her. Pretty interesting person. I just finished reading her autobiography. She could have used an editor,but it was very interesting. I would be surprised if most of Neil's readers know about her. By the way she is buried in Chicago next to the haymarket rioters that were hung. That event is what brought her to America when she was 17 or 18. Surprisingly my Great Grand parents are buried at the same cemetery. Obviously I know much about Nixon. I am reading Nixonland. A lot more devious than even I though. Whas a scumbag.

      Delete
    3. Check out "Reds" if you are an Emma Goldman fan. Also so many good reads including "Living My Life".

      Delete
    4. Good to see this kind of discourse and lively commentary. Love how CJ finds a thread and builds a story around it from the ground up, then expands it to a theme/cause. I for one love old buildings and the stories they can help unfold. Mental illness is real. Scrappy Mary deserved a lot better, we are dealing with scary times right now/right here, and the light of day needs to shine on these accounts past as well as present for history repeats, if not always in rhythm. While we speak our truth, don't forget to breath, align and practice self-care.

      Delete
    5. Emma Goldman appears in my new book, and I had to read some of her autobiography (it's very long) as research, which gave me a deep appreciation for her, not only as a radical, but as.a writer. A very distinctive and bold personality.

      Delete
  3. Caren - wonderful column, as always. Those of us with a melancholy streak can benefit from viewing it as a feature rather than a bug. I recommend the book "Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy" by Eric Wilson. It offers valuable insights into the folly of viewing happiness as the necessary default mental state.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Just as I was contemplating a comment on the inadequacy of present treatment of mental illness, I heard Dr. Zorba Paster, who has a Click & Clack type radio show on Wisconsin Public Radio, recommend low dose antidepressants to a young woman recovering from a traumatic auto accident. Dr. Zorba dispenses common sensical and scientifically accurate medical advice combined with an amusing patter with Tom Clark, his "Ed McMahon." The program that precedes Zorba on WPR, The People's Pharmacy, would be right up Caren's alley, I think.

    John

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks John. On Your Health and The People's Pharmacy now bookmarked to listen to on a walk.

      Delete
  5. I'm guessing that part of the problems Mary Todd Lincoln had were because she was a Southerner & expressed some sympathy for them over the years. There was still a lot of anger over the Civil War for a long time in the north, due to all those who died or were injured.

    ReplyDelete
  6. A deeper and more complex understanding of a woman who survived loss. This Saturday post resonated with me more deeply than others because I too am a widow and a single mother, and though we may think that we’ve advanced in our perceptions of this specific subset of our society, I’m here to dispel that myth. Widows and/or single mothers are mostly pitied, but also, seen as having an ‘edge.’ But that so-called ‘edge’ is because with every life situation, I’ve had to fight to be seen and heard. The odds were most certainly stacked against Mary Todd, but and it sounds as though her perseverance may have been threatening to the people (mostly men) around her. The trauma she endured most certainly stayed with her, but the fact that she negotiated a pension for herself, moved and traveled shows that she truly was a survivor. And, had she been afforded psychological and emotional care, who knows how much more she would have thrived.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your comments. In my other life I'm a therapist and love to link people with someone to talk to. Feel free to look me up and email me. Sending you warm wishes, and strength today and every day.

      Delete
  7. For another fascinating rabbit hole, look up Elizabeth Keckley.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Done. Wow. I found "From Slavery to the White House."

      Delete
  8. I grew up a few blocks away from a statue of the Lincoln's in a Racine, Wisconsin park. Mary Todd evidently spent a summer in Racine while a son was attending college there. Abe never visited the town. Revisiting a picture of the statue, it shows a less grim visage than portraits of her in middle age show.
    Tom

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That’s a nice thought. Me too.

      Delete
  9. Just watched "Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness" on PBS. First-person accounts from young people ranging in age from 11-27 about living with mental health conditions. Quite enlightening.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I recall going to a seminar for History Teachers on Mrs. Lincoln downtown back in the 80's. Her oldest son didn't treat her too well and had her put away for a time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wish we could wind back the hands of time for that seminar.

      I did read about her son helping get her institutionalized. I wonder what the story is there as well.

      Delete
  11. Thanks for this, Caren. Reading “Lincoln in the Bardo” helped me with understanding this lady … the loss of a dearly beloved child undid both of his parents. I’ve worked with “complicated grief” in my practice of psychotherapy and it doesn’t get much more complicated than the loss of child. Very little understanding or true empathy from others who haven’t experienced this … and don’t get me started on how women were viewed and treated in Mrs. Lincoln’s era. Keep writing .. there is so much we need to bring to the light of day about misogyny and mental illness … hard to know where to begin.

    ReplyDelete

Comments are moderated, and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.