Abe Lincoln, Presidents

Robert Todd Lincoln checks in.

http://weeklyview.net/2019/06/13/robert-todd-lincoln-checks-in/Robert Todd Lincoln ‎February ‎25, ‎2011 photo

Original publish date:  February 25, 2011  /  Reissue date June 13, 2019

Anyone who reads my column regularly knows that I have a love of odd, unusual history relics, ghost stories and collectibles. I spend a lot of time at antique shows, flea markets, libraries and historic buildings and about once a year, I stumble across something that speaks to me and ultimately reveals a deeper story than I ever imagined. I recently acquired an item, and a story, that I’d like to share with you. It is a personal check dated December 17, 1920 from the New York City bank account of Robert Todd Lincoln, the only surviving child of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln.
Finding a cancelled check from a long forgotten bank account of a dead celebrity is not as rare as it sounds. There exists a thriving underground market of dealers in checks and official documents from famous, or infamous, personalities from every field you can imagine. Think of it, most people save their old checks and if you’re a collector, what better way to authenticate a signature than on a check?
As with most Hoosiers, I share a certain fascination with Abraham Lincoln and the many sites, stories and memorabilia associated with him. I have long tried to decipher the complicated relationship between Robert Todd Lincoln and his parents. Aside from being Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln (August 1, 1843 – July 26, 1926) was an accomplished lawyer, US Ambassador and Secretary of War for Presidents Garfield and Arthur. In fact, most historians consider Lincoln to be our country’s second most effective Secretary of War behind only Jefferson Davis. Yes the same Jefferson Davis who opposed his father during the American Civil War as President of the Confederacy.
Robert Lincoln studied at Harvard University from 1861 to 1864 and much to the embarrassment of his father, Mary Lincoln prevented her son from joining the Union Army until shortly before the war’s conclusion in 1865. He briefly held the rank of captain, serving in the last weeks as part of General Ulysses S. Grant’s immediate staff and never saw actual combat. He was in the room at Appomattox when Lee surrendered.
Lincoln’s distant relationship with his father was due in part to the fact that Abraham Lincoln spent months on the judicial circuit during Robert’s formative years growing up in Springfield and later Robert was away at college when his father attained the White House. Although Abe was proud of Robert and thought him bright, the two lacked the same strong bond Father Abraham had with Bob’s younger brothers, Willie and Tad. There can be no doubt that Robert deeply admired his father and he wept openly at his deathbed.

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Mary, Robert, Abraham and Tad Lincoln.

Following his father’s assassination, in April 1865, Robert moved with his mother and brother Tad to Chicago, where Robert completed his law studies at the University of Chicago. Robert was admitted to the bar on February 25, 1867. In 1868, Robert Lincoln married Mary Eunice Harlan, the daughter of Iowa Senator James Harlan, a close friend of Abraham Lincoln. Senator Harlan is perhaps remembered for an 1865 incident as Secretary of the Interior under President Andrew Johnson, when he found a copy of Leaves of Grass on Clerk Walt Whitman’s desk (left there as the poet was making revisions) and found it to be morally offensive. “I will not have the author of that book in this Department”, he said. “If the President of the United States should order his reinstatement, I would resign sooner than I would put him back.” Robert and Mary had two daughters and one son: Mary “Mamie” Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln II (nicknamed “Jack”) and Jessie Harlan Lincoln.
After his father’s assassination, Robert’s life continued to be connected to sadness and tragedy. After all, Robert was invited to accompany his parents to the Ford’s Theatre but declined (citing what we would today call “Jet Lag” from his trip home from the war front) and instead he went to bed early at the White House. He was informed of the shooting just before midnight and was at his father’s bedside when he died. No doubt, the decision not to accompany his parents haunted him for the rest of his life. Not only for the supposed inability to protect his father, but also for the prospect that he too might have died in the attack.

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Mary, Willie, Robert, Tad and Abraham Lincoln.

In 1875, perhaps rashly and ill-advised, Robert had his mother Mary committed to a psychiatric hospital in Batavia, Illinois. Mary’s eccentric behavior has been well documented. Nevertheless, Robert tasted the sting of public criticism and rebuke for the first time in his young life. The incident led to a profound estrangement between Bob and his mother and the two never fully reconciled.
Coincidentally Robert was was just a few feet away when President James Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau at the Sixth Street Train Station in Washington, D.C. on July 2, 1881. Lincoln was serving as Garfield’s Secretary of War at the time and cradled the President’s body on the railroad platform as medical personnel arrived on scene. Later, on September 6, 1901, at President William McKinley’s invitation, Lincoln was at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, where the President was shot by Leon Czolgosz. From then on, Lincoln would politely refuse all Presidential invitations with the comment “No, I’m not going, and they’d better not ask me, because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.” However, he did attend the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922 in the presence of President Warren G. Harding. Harding was dead within a year.
Lincoln’s son Abraham Lincoln II , aka “Jack”, died in London at the age of 16 from blood poisoning after a freak infection set in following surgery to lance a boil under his arm. Jack was originally buried in the Lincoln Tomb in Springfield, Ill. but his mother (coincidentally named Mary) had Jack’s remains dug up and re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery after her husband Robert died in 1926. The cycle of sadness followed Robert after his death as Jack’s body was removed from the President’s tomb, where it had rested near his illustrious grandfather for 40 years, and removed to Arlington. Robert himself had expressed his intentions to be buried next to his father and son in Springfield, but for unknown reasons, his wife changed the plans. The empty crypts of both men can be found in the President’s tomb in Springfield to this very day. As a final irony, Jack’s name was not added to his father’s Arlington memorial until 1976.

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Lincoln’s great-grandchildren Robert Todd Lincoln (Bud) Beckwith and Mary “Peggy Lincoln Beckwith.

Of Robert’s remaining children, Jessie Harlan Lincoln Beckwith (1875–1948) had two children, Mary (“Peggy”) Lincoln Beckwith [1898 – 1975] and Robert (“Bud”) Todd Lincoln Beckwith (1904–1985). Robert’s other daughter, Mary (“Mamie”)Todd Lincoln (1869–1938) had one son, Lincoln Isham (1892–1971). Isham married but never had children. Peggy, who was rumored to be a lesbian because she smoked cigars and wore men’s pants, also never married or had children. Her brother Bud married three times but had no heirs.
That is where my personal story begins. As it happens, the 1920 Robert Todd Lincoln check that I purchased was also signed by Bud. This intrigued me as I knew little or nothing of Bud Beckwith and wondered why the check would be signed by both men.
Bud was an attorney and self described “playboy” who often listed his profession as “gentleman farmer of independent means” rather than lawyer. He served in the Coast Guard during World War II, which resulted in a lasting hobby of boating and sailing. To say that “Bud” Beckwith was eccentric is like saying water is wet.
At some point, Bud Beckwith realized that he was the last heir to the Lincoln name, the last direct link to the martyred President. In this role, he realized he was now the repository of the everyday Lincoln papers and mundane family belongings perhaps unworthy of museum stewardship but valuable just the same. Among those were the cancelled checks of his grandfather. Bud decided to forever link his name with that of his illustrious namesake by counter signing some of the checks that were left to him with his full name, “Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith” beside the fountain pen signature of “Robert Todd Lincoln”. He would sometimes send these checks out to autograph collectors who wrote asking for signed mementos from Bud or his family.

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Brentano’s Bookstore as Robert Todd Lincoln would have known it.

My check was written by the son of President Abraham Lincoln on December 17, 1920. It was made out to “Brentano’s” bookstore in New York City for nine dollars and seventy cents. It is easy to imagine Secretary Lincoln walking into Brentano’s on that Friday evening one week before Christmas before heading back to his estate, “Hildene”, in Manchester Center, Vermont. Was he buying books to give away as Christmas presents or to read on the 4 hour train ride home to Hildene? Perhaps he was buying books about his father?

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Brentano’s Bookstore Scene from Seinfeld

And Brentano’s? Well, if you are a fan of the “Seinfeld” TV show, you know Brentano’s. It was the setting for the 1998 episode titled, “The Bookstore” in which George is accused of taking an expensive art book into the bathroom causing the book to become forever “flagged” as unreturnable. Jerry also catches his Uncle Leo shoplifting in the store. As you can imagine, pop culture fanatic that I am, I was thrilled to establish my own personal link between Abe Lincoln and the iconic computer age television sitcom.

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Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower and Robert Todd Lincoln “Bud” Beckwith.

The last living person with a direct link to President Abraham Lincoln, Robert’s namesake grandson Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, aka “Bud”, died alone in a nursing home in Saluda, Virginia (about 45 miles from the Confederate Capitol of Richmond) at the age of 81 on December 24, 1985 at around 6:05 pm. Nearly 65 years to the day after my check was signed. History lives my friends. You can touch it, dream about it and in many cases buy it and make it your own. My suggestion? Go and visit your local antique store, there are many fine shops and malls around Irvington, the Indianapolis eastside and all the way out to Greenfield and beyond on the Historic National Road. You just never know what you might find. History awaits you.

Abe Lincoln, Assassinations, Auctions, Museums, Politics

Abraham Lincoln’s Hat Needs You!

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Original publish date:  September 3, 2018

Attention Hoosiers, Abraham Lincoln needs your help. More specifically the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation in Springfield, Illinois is appealing to all friends of Mr. Lincoln to lend a hand in their hour of need. Last week I traveled to the ALPLM to speak with the State Historian of Illinois and Director of Research and Collections, Dr. Samuel Wheeler. Although his title and resume may sound imposing, “Sam” is a breath of fresh air for the Lincoln historical community. Dr. Wheeler’s appearance is immediately disarming, his countenance inviting and friendly. Sam breaks the long-established mold of the elderly historian whose gray hair, Meerschaum pipe and leather-elbowed corduroy jacket are calculatedly designed to intimidate. Sam’s youthful appearance and ready smile invite everyone to come, sit and talk history for awhile.

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Dr. Sam Wheeler

Dr. Samuel Wheeler is the tenth State Historian in Illinois history and when you consider that 2018 is the state’s Bicentennial year, you may deduce that they choose their historians carefully. Sam’s specialty is the cool stuff: the history of Illinois, the Civil War Era, and the Life and Legacy of Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Wheeler’s life mission is to protect, preserve, and promote history through education. During his three years at the helm, he has devoted much of his time to assisting other museums, libraries, historic sites, documentary projects, and historical societies. He regularly speaks to diverse audiences across the country, writes for scholarly journals and popular magazines, and offers commentary to newspaper, radio, and television outlets. In short, Dr. Wheeler is a busy man.
The subject of my visit is a topic that has occupied social media, blog spots and chat rooms for the past few weeks. The ALPLM is in danger of losing some of its most precious Abraham Lincoln relics and associative memorabilia. If the ALPLM cannot satisfy a substantial financial liability by October 2019, priceless Lincoln relics will have to be sacrificed to meet their obligation. Meaning that these items will likely end up in the private collections of millionaires never to be displayed publicly again. While the amount of the liability, $9.7 million is staggering, Dr. Wheeler points out that “if we could just get every citizen of Illinois to donate one dollar each, we would wipe out that debt in no time.” Sam continues, “and if you could get Indiana to pitch in the same, we can keep the collection open for generations to come.”
LogoThe ALPLM’s “problems” began back in 2007 when it purchased the famous Taper collection for $23 million. “The collection is amazing,” says Sam, “the Lincoln top hat and bloodied gloves seem to be the items that resonate most with people, but the collection is much more than that.” Dr. Wheeler says that the uniqueness of the Taper collection centers around its emphasis on assassination related items, a field that had been largely ignored by Lincoln collectors at that time of its assemblage. The collection was created by Louise Taper, daughter-in-law of Southern California real estate magnate S. Mark Taper. She created the exhibition The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America which was at the Huntington Library from 1993–1994 and at the Chicago Historical Society from 1996-1997.
According to the ALPLM’s website, “Louise Taper amassed the largest private collection of Lincolniana in more than a half-century, highlighted by 1 of 3 stovepipe hats known to have belonged to Lincoln; the earliest of his boyhood sumbook pages, ca. 1824-1826; and more than 100 letters or notes in the hands of Abraham or Mary Lincoln. Also among the 1,500 items in the collection are manuscripts by friends and contemporaries, personally owned books and clothing or other accouterments, prints, broadsides, newspapers, artworks, period photographs, and assassination-related materials.”
The ALPLM acquired the Taper Collection two years after they opened the $150 million facility on April 19, 2005. To blunt public charges that the ALPLM had bit off more than it could chew, Dr, Wheeler compares the museum to a 13-year-old child. He states, “Not too many 13-year-olds have got it all together. We’ve matured a lot in the last two years.” Sam notes that in those two years, the ALPLM has streamlined much of their operation citing as examples that more of the collection has been digitized for research and the museum’s six research rooms have been pared down to one.
Presidential-Museum-CreditALPLM3“Bottom line,” Sam says, “we need to keep the collection here. That is our first priority.” It is easy to see how important this collection is to Dr. Wheeler by simply watching his eyes as he speaks. To Wheeler, the collection is not just a part of the museum, it is a part of the state of Illinois. Sam relates how when he speaks to groups, which he does quite regularly on behalf of the ALPLM, he often reaches into the vault to bring along pieces from the Taper collection to fit the topic. “People love seeing these items. It gives them a direct connection to Lincoln.” states Wheeler.
When asked if he has a particular favorite from the Taper collection, Dr. Wheeler smiles and says, “I’m particularly drawn to the gold cufflink that Lincoln was wearing at Ford’s Theater that night.” However, Sam is quick to point out that what makes the Taper collection so special is the depth of quality it represents. The collection contains Mary Lincoln’s hand fan carried to the theater that night, locks of hair from members of the Lincoln family, and the oldest piece of writing by Abraham Lincoln known. It is a page from 15-year-old Abraham Lincoln’s 1824 schoolbook whose content Dr. Wheeler can recite by hear. “Abraham Lincoln is my name/ and with my pen I wrote the same/ I wrote in both haste and speed/ and left it here for fools to read.”
Dr. Wheeler also informs that the Taper collection contains a treasure trove of letters written by John Wilkes Booth and his entire family as well as the ring J.W. Booth presented to his fiancée Elizabeth Sumner. “We also have stage costumes and the handwritten character sketch for John Wilkes Booth’s role in Shakespeare’s Macbeth,” says Wheeler. “Our main objection for the collection, is that we keep it in the public realm. That is imperative.”
The Lincoln Library foundation recently said, “If the foundation is not able to secure commitments in the very near future to retire most-if not all-of the remaining $9.7 million debt, it will have no choice but to accelerate the possibility of selling these unique artifacts on the private market-which would likely remove them from public view forever.”
gettyimages-468377946Hoosiers may ask, why doesn’t the ALPLM just ask the state of Illinois for the money? After all, with 300,000 visitors annually, the Lincoln Library Museum is one of the most popular tourist sites in the state of Illinois and is prominently featured in all of their state tourism ads. Well, the state is billions of dollars in debt despite approving a major income-tax increase last summer and as of the time of this writing, has yet to put together a budget. To the casual observer, one would think that financial stalemate between the state and the museum would be a no-brainer when you consider that the ALPLM has drawn more than 4 million visitors since opening in 2005. The truth is a little more complicated than that. Illinois State government runs and funds the Lincoln library and museum. The separately run foundation raises private funds to support the presidential complex. The foundation, which is not funded by the state, operates a gift store and restaurant but has little role in the complex’s operations, programs and oversight.
Aside from the items previously mentioned, the Taper collection, which numbers over 1500 pieces, also includes a pair of Lincoln’s eyeglasses and his billfold. The Taper collection includes about 100 Mary Todd Lincoln letters, giving the Lincoln presidential library a total of 500-out of only 600 in the world.
Museum officials are sorting out which Taper collection items were donated and transferred to the state, and what might end up for sale-if it should come to that. One item that won’t be on the auction block is the state’s rare copy of the Gettysburg Address, written in Lincoln’s own hand. Luckily, the document wasn’t part of the Taper purchase. The state’s collection of Lincoln artifacts, tens of thousands strong, draws researchers from across the globe and gives the public a chance to see up close the man many Americans feel was the greatest President in U.S. history.

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Carl Sandburg and Marilyn Monroe

The Taper collection also included a dress worn by 1950s movie star Marilyn Monroe, an admitted “fan girl” of the 16th President. The blonde bombshell’s dress was considered a non-Lincoln item that potentially would fetch big bucks to help pay off the loan. Perhaps to show that they were serious, in late July the ALPLM sent Monroe’s slinky black dress off to a Las Vegas auctionhouse, where it fetched $50,000 from the lucky bidder. Also sold were seven original photographs of Monroe, which sold for $3000 each. However, an original bust of Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg failed to sell. All proceeds from the Julien’s sale went towards the outstanding debt. Hopefully Lincoln relics will not be next up on the auction block.

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Author Doris Kearns Goodwin

Dr. Wheeler is doing his best to get the message out. Aside from his normal 60 hour work week he spends nights and weekends all over the state and country talking about Lincoln, the museum and sounding the alarm to save the collection. The museum is getting help from cherished friends like Doris Kearns Goodwin who will be speaking at the ALPLM on October 29 with “proceeds from this event to benefit the campaign to secure a permanent home for Lincoln’s most personal effects comprising the Taper collection.” Interested and concerned Hoosiers can help by visiting the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library website at http://www.alplm,org and there is a “Save the Lincoln Artifacts” go find me page on the web.
If every Hoosier would chip in a few bucks we could honor our state’s favorite son and help our neighbors in Illinois at the same time. Skip that latte for Lincoln. Snap off that sawbuck for the rail splitter. Honest Abe is depending on you.