The Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne hosts a portion of the Lincoln Financial Foundation collection, including many photos of the Lincoln family.
But it’s also home to a few macabre keepsakes, including an original print of Mary Todd Lincoln by the infamous spirit photographer William H. Mumler. The photograph was alleged to show the president’s ghost standing behind the former first lady with his hands on her shoulders, lovingly watching over her. Mumler photographed the former first lady in 1872, seven years after her husband’s assassination.
At the time, spiritualism in America was very much a religion, practiced by many who had lost loved ones in the Civil War and to disease. Mary herself had lost two sons and her husband. As her mental and physical health declined, she found much comfort in the photograph and the idea that she could peek behind the veil of death and communicate with her loved ones.
Mumler and his wife, a famous “healing medium” who conducted business in her own right, began his successful business in Boston and later moved to New York. But critics claimed Mumler was a fraud, and he was brought to trial.
Photography was still new in those days, and Mumler’s technique, possibly a double exposure, was unable to be proved. He was acquitted, but his career was ruined.
Mary Todd Lincoln didn’t fare any better.
She behaved erratically, walking about town with $56,000 in government bonds sewn into her petticoats. She sent telegrams to her remaining son’s business partner after dreaming Robert Lincoln was on his death bed. When she rushed back from her vacation in Florida, she found a perfectly healthy, albeit confused Robert Lincoln.
Her spiritualism, combined with hearing voices and her erratic behavior, led her to stand trial for lunacy. Mary’s insanity file is also part of the Lincoln Financial Foundation collection. She was briefly institutionalized, but she had a plan.
She secured her release after smuggling out letters to The Chicago Times with the help of a feminist lawyer and fellow spiritualist. Soon the public embarrassment was too much for the hospital and her son, Robert, who had been placed in charge of her finances.
After the court proceedings, in which she again gained control of her finances and was released to live with her sister, she attempted suicide by ordering a massive amount of laudanum from a local pharmacy. Her efforts were thwarted by a pharmacist who realized her intent.
She remained estranged from her remaining son until shortly before her death at age 63.