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.
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?