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137 9 “I Am Likely to Have a Good Deal of Trouble” In October 1867, Robert wrote his fiancée Mary Harlan that he believed his mother was “sane on all subjects but one”—money. Ever since he was a child, he had witnessed his mother’s love for shopping—especially during the war years when he shopped with her—but it was not until late 1865 that he began to understand the depths of his mother’s mania. It was at this time, as Congress finished its debate on Mary’s request to be paid the remainder of her husband’s second-term salary, that one House member informed Robert that numerous payment claims against his father’s estate had exercised a “deleterious influence” on deliberations. “All this is very mysterious to me,” Robert wrote David Davis. “I was not aware there were any claims, and even if there were, in what way they could be deleterious. You of course will exercise your own discretion in telling me, if you know anything of the matter.”1 In fact, Davis did know, as he had received multiple bills regarding Mary’s overdue accounts.2 Robert soon learned that his mother had acquired huge debts while first lady, which she hid from her husband, assuming she could pay them off quietly during his second term. But with the president’s death, creditors immediately came calling for payments that Mary did not have. The exact amount she owed is unknown, but estimates range from $6,000 to $70,000.3 Mary thought she could keep these bills secret from her son and from estate executor Davis, which she could not. In the end, Mary liquidated the debt herself by returning many of the goods she had purchased on credit and paying off the rest.4 These Washington debts were only the beginning of Robert’s troubles with his mother during the ensuing ten years. While not all of the issues involved money, most of them did, a circumstance that only strengthened Robert’s belief and fear that his mother was growing increasingly irrational. While Robert, chapter nine 138 Mary, and Tad were living only off the interest allowances doled out by Davis from Abraham Lincoln’s estate, Mary continually demanded more and more money. Robert agreed with his mother that the family was living in limited circumstances, but it was in no way as close to poverty as Mary believed. But no matter how much he remonstrated with her on this topic, she simply would not agree with him. Despite her fear and angst over shortened finances, Mary continued to purchase material goods for her own wardrobe that Robert found unnecessary and troublesome. In 1866, Mary decided to purchase and furnish a home at 375 West Washington Street in Chicago using the $22,000 Congress had given her as the remainder of President Lincoln’s 1865 salary. Robert advised his mother against the move, believing her income not enough to sustain the house, but she did not listen. After just one year in the house, Robert was proved correct, and Mary was forced to vacate, rent it out, and return to boarding.5 Dejected by her failure to live comfortably, Mary Lincoln had an idea on how to raise funds that would lead to the most infamous event in her life and one that would completely humiliate Robert. Taking a cue from European royalty, specifically Empress Eugenie of France, Mary decided to sell her old White House dresses and jewelry in New York City as a way to raise money to alleviate her “common” circumstances. This she did anonymously to avoid newspaper exposure, but her ruse was quickly discovered and plastered in newspapers across the country. As if the secondhand sale was not embarrassing enough, Mary also wrote men whom her husband had given public offices and “suggested” they purchase some of her articles to help relieve the want of their dead benefactor’s widow. When these people refused, Mary’s solicitors forwarded the letters to the press. Once Mary’s plot was publicly revealed, numerous gawkers came to see her items on exhibition but not to buy. In the end, hardly anything was sold, but the sale became a sort of carnival sideshow and was viciously ridiculed in the newspapers as an embarrassment to the memory of the martyr president created by a “vulgar” and “dreadful” woman.6 Robert, a Victorian gentleman who believed in the sanctity of family privacy and...


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MARC Record
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