Kitty Kelley and Mrs. Lincoln

Kevin Cowherd

April 12, 1991|By Kevin Cowherd

EXCERPT FROM Kitty Kelley's new book "Mary Todd Lincoln: The Unauthorized Biography." (Simon & Schuster, $24.95):

. . . the whole business of the Emancipation Proclamation which Lincoln, the gin fumes rolling off him, had nothing to do with, as we shall soon see.

The year was 1862. The war between the North and South was raging. Union forces had bogged down near Richmond and suffered another serious setback at Bull Run. Mary Todd Lincoln was desperate to lift the gloom that enveloped Washington and to avert attention from her scandalous affair with prominent abolitionist Elijah Cummings.

One day she turned to her husband, who was jabbing the cat with the fireplace poker, as was his custom.

"Dear, know what you ought to do?" said Mary Todd.

"SHUT UP, WOMAN!" said Lincoln, who had been drinking for hours.

For some moments, silence descended upon the room, save for the horrible screeching of the cat. (Lincoln was now lunging at the poor creature with one of Mary Todd's knitting needles.)

"Dear," Mary Todd began again, "we really should address this issue of slavery."

"Huh? Whaa?" said Lincoln.

"I'm thinking of something called the Emancipation Proclamation," said Mary Todd. "It would essentially abolish slavery in the Confederate states, thereby weakening their economic base."

"Fine by me," said Lincoln, lurching after the cat with a letter opener.

So that evening, after the president had passed out on the front lawn of the White House and been dragged off to bed by the servants, Mary Todd proceeded to pen the most important document of her husband's political career.

Certainly, she felt up to the task. For all intents and purposes, she had been running the government for months. Soon after his nomination as a compromise candidate in 1860, it became clear that Lincoln was woefully ill-equipped to be the 16th president of the United States.

In addition to his fondness for alcohol and his undisguised cruelty toward animals, Lincoln had shown an alarming lack of interest in the affairs of state. There was also this: Abraham Lincoln was an inveterate liar.

Mary Todd discovered this disturbing trait early in their courtship, when Lincoln insisted he had been born in a log cabin in backwoods Kentucky.

Through friends of her family, Mary Todd knew Lincoln was born in Boston and had, in fact, a pronounced New England accent until the age of 16.

Lincoln also claimed to have known an impoverished childhood. On long carriage rides with Mary Todd, when he wasn't mercilessly whipping the horse, Lincoln would spin elaborate tales of back-breaking labor in the produce fields, parents who were barely literate and reading by candlelight.

Mary knew this was all nonsense, and that the young Lincoln had actually enjoyed a privileged upbringing complete with adoring nannies, extended trips to the Continent and the finest secondary education (by Harvard tutors, no less).

Lincoln's compulsive lying reached a crisis stage in 1858, when Mary Todd discovered him sneaking into the house at 3 o'clock one morning, carrying his boots in one hand.

Lincoln was in a sorry state. Bourbon and lipstick stained his collar. And there were stray feathers on his topcoat, indicating he'd been chasing pigeons with a tree branch once again.

Yet despite overwhelming evidence that he'd been up to no good, Lincoln concocted an astounding story of an historic debate earlier that evening with Frederick Douglass -- a debate, he said, that would ensure his reputation as an orator of no small stature.

Mary Todd believed not a word. Instead, she delivered a well-aimed kick to her husband's behind and sent him to bed, warning him not to even look at the cat.

Not that Mary Todd Lincoln was herself a saint. In addition to her sordid affair with Cummings, she had lately developed an insatiable craving for opium.

Nevertheless, she was a tireless champion of democracy and eager to preserve the Union. And so late in 1862, with Lincoln snoring fitfully next to her, she penned one of the most revered documents in the history of this country.

On Jan. 1, 1863, an unsteady Lincoln, his eyes badly bloodshot and hands trembling, delivered the Emancipation Proclamation.

Unseen by his audience was a small yellow mutt named Amos, who lay under the podium and whose tail Lincoln was stepping on.

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