The things you find tucked away in someone’s safe after they’ve died don’t always reflect well on them. But in the case of Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s eldest child and the only one to survive to adulthood, secret documents found in his safe helped restore his image as a righteous man and a good son. In the years after his father’s assassination, his mother, Mary Todd, suffered from severe depression, paranoia and mental illness to the point where her behavior became a concern to the family.
Mary Todd, who also had to bear the burden of losing three sons that died young, was said to have an irrational fear of poverty and sometimes walked around with thousands of dollars in government bonds sewn into her outfits. After she almost jumped out of a window to escape a fire that was a figment of her imagination, Robert had her committed to an asylum in Batavia, Illinois, in 1875.
Mary Todd got a lawyer and after a trial that made her son Robert look like a dirtbag who needlessly pushed his mother into an asylum without legitimate grounds, she was released. She drifted around Europe for four years before returning to Springfield, Illinois, where she died in 1882 at age 63. The cause of death was listed as paralysis and many believe that she may have had a stroke.
In 1978, nearly 50 years after Robert Todd Lincoln died at 82, caretakers of Hildene, his country home in Manchester, Vermont, found some papers labeled “MTL Insanity Papers” in a safe tucked away in his bedroom closet. The files, which contained Robert’s correspondence with family members and medical professionals regarding his mother’s condition, revealed that he wasn’t the uncaring son he’d been portrayed as. The file proved that his concern had always been his mother’s health and well-being.
Learning more about Robert Todd’s complex relationship with his mother is just one of many reasons to visit Hildene, the Lincoln family home in Vermont where Robert Todd Lincoln lived and died. Visitors can tour the stately home, built in 1905, visit a beautifully restored century old Pullman car, check out the estate’s farm and take a long stroll on the estate’s extensive grounds.
Robert was said to have had a distant relationship with his father as a boy, thanks to the demands of his father’s career and the fact that he was often away from home. He was 21 when his father was assassinated but managed to carve out a remarkable career of his own, even as his mother was descending into increasingly worse mental health. He was a successful lawyer who later served as the U.S. Secretary of War and U.S. Ambassador to The United Kingdom before becoming the President and Chairman of the Pullman Company.
When Robert was 20, he and his mother stayed at the Equinox Hotel and he was taken by the natural beauty of the Manchester area. He vowed to return one day and did just that 40 years later, purchasing a 500-acre plot that was to become a country home that would serve as a residence for Lincoln family descendants until 1975. While his father kept his summer home just miles from the White House, Robert Todd preferred Vermont’s natural splendor. Today, the residence is maintained by the non-profit Friends of Hildene, and if you don’t mind plunking down $400-500 per night, you can stay at the Equinox if you want the full Lincoln experience.
My children enjoyed petting the farm animals but the highlight of the visit for me was touring Sunbeam, a restored 1903 Pullman car that was moved to Hildene a few years ago to honor Robert time at the company and the fact that his father signed the Transcontinental Railways Act, which paved the way for the construction of the transcontinental railroad. In the heyday of trail travel, more than 100,000 Americans slept on Pullman cars while traveling around the country each day. It might have taken forever to get from Chicago to New York, but if you take a walk through Sunbeam, you’ll wish it were still possible to travel the country in Pullman style.
[Photos and videos by Dave Seminara]