On September 16, 1867, a small dark haired woman dressed in mourning clothes checked in as “Mrs. Clarke” at the St. Denis Hotel at Broadway and 11th St. She was waiting for a friend who would arrive any day. Mrs. Clarke had business to transact in the city.
Mrs. Clarke was Mary Todd Lincoln, widow of the late president, whose assassination had occurred a little over two years earlier.
|Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882)|
Mary would wear mourning dress for the remainder of her life. It was not only her husband she was mourning and missing terribly, but also two sons: Willie, who had passed away in 1862, and little Edward, who had died many years ago at age four.
She had grief; she had debt; and she had a longing to restore some semblance of security to her life. And so she had set upon the plan to sell some of her jewelry and wardrobe to make money. New York City was her choice for the sale since it spelled fashion and sophistication in a manner that the Midwestern city of Chicago did not.
|Willie & Tad with their cousin, Lockwood Todd, 1861|
She had visited New York City on occasions in the past, and she had shopped in the fashionable stores that lined Broadway, but this time, as she prepared for another visit to the city, she hoped to return home with less than she would bring.
Soon, her friend, Elizabeth Keckley, whom she called Lizzie, would arrive in New York to join her.
Lizzie, a truly self-made woman, was Mary’s close friend and confidant. She had lived with the Lincolns in the White House after working for Mrs. Lincoln as her dressmaker. Lizzie had purchased her own freedom after being enslaved for thirty years.
Lizzie traveled by train to the city. She was worried by the letters she had recently received from Mrs Lincoln; Mary seemed intensely distraught.
“After an anxious ride,” Elizabeth Keckley recalled of her trip to New York to meet Mrs. Lincoln, “I reached the city in the evening, and when I stood alone in the streets of the great metropolis, my heart sank within me. I was in an embarrassing situation, and scarcely knew how to act. I did not know where the St. Denis Hotel was, and was not certain that I should find Mrs. Lincoln there after I should go to it. I walked up to Broadway, and got into a stagegoing up town, with the intention of keeping a close look-out for the hotel in question. A kind looking gentleman occupied the seat next to me, and I ventured to inquire of him: “If you please, sir, can you tell me where the St. Denis Hotel is?”
“Yes; we ride past it in the stage. I will point it out to you when we come to it.”
“Thank you, sir.” The stage rattled up the street, and after a while the gentleman looked out of the window and said: “This is the St. Denis. Do you wish to get out here?” “Thank you. Yes, sir.” He pulled the strap, and the next minute I was standing on the pavement. I pulled a bell at the ladies’ entrance to the hotel, and a boy coming to the door, I asked: “Is a lady by the name of Mrs. Clarke stopping here? She came last night, I believe.” (Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, Four Years in the White House, 272-273).
This passage underscores the nature of the New York City that Mary and Lizzie would inhabit in September of 1867. It was indeed a “great metropolis,” a place accessible by modern means of transport; a place of large, luxury “European-style” hotels, a place where women could come and go as they pleased. But it was also a place very much rooted in the 19th century, where a horse drawn stage was a normal conveyance; where women used their own entrances to public spaces, and where the business that even the most famous of women had to transact would be defined and controlled by men. Mary and Lizzie’s time in New York would take them to locations that underscored the city’s impending transformation, a city on the verge of the modern era, a city approaching the twentieth century, but a city still held by prejudice when it came to matters of race and gender.
|Wall and Broad Streets in 1867, NYC, National Archives|
At the St. Denis
Lizzie soon found Mary in the hotel lobby, and the two happily greeted each other. Soon, though, they were in poor spirits when they learned that the hotel would not offer Lizzie a room near Mary.
After the dining room refused to serve Lizzie a meal, the two women left the hotel the next day, walked up Broadway, and found a restaurant where they were both served. The restaurant was, according the Lizzie, “some place between 609 Broadway and the St. Denis Hotel.”
This might have been the New York Restaurant at 734-736 Broadway, listed in a guidebook from the era as a place where women would be allowed to dine alone. At the time, the options would have been limited for the two women dining alone since although “the city is filled with restaurants . . . many ladies do not know where they can go with comfort.” (Appleton’s Hand Book of American Travel, Northern and Eastern Tour, New York: D. Appleton and Co, 1873, 10.)
Afterwards, they walked north. Heading up Broadway, they crossed 14th street and entered the large park known formally as “Union Square Place,” but commonly called “Union Square Park.”
In 1815, the park had first been laid out in an area once known as The Forks, a place formed at the intersection between Broadway (formerly called Bloomingdale Road) and Bowery Road (hence the name “Union”). Robert Macay, How to See New York and Its Environs, NY: Macay Publishers, 1875, 61.)
|A statue of Washington in the park; by 1876 Lincoln would join him|
Over the years, the park had been enlarged by adding surrounding lots. By 1872, Central Park designers Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux would re-design it, and in 1876, a statute of Mary’s late husband would be erected there in honor of the country’s centennial.
At the time Mary and Lizzie stopped by, however, it had yet to be transformed. The two women found an area that was largely residential; the neighborhood was known as “a fashionable place of residence.” The park itself was a quiet, tree-lined area enclosed by a fence.
|Union Square Place, c. 1850, was a place of “fashionable residences.”|
In just a few years, the area would become more and more urbanized as the city grew up around it. The neighborhood would be transformed and become largely commercial, with several important businesses established there: Tiffany & Co. would move into an “an iron building, erected at an immense cost, and filled with the largest and finest collection of jewelry,” and also “occupying the ground floor of a fine brown stone building, is Brentano’s, the “great literary head-quarters” of New York.” James Dabney McAbe, Lights and Shadows of New York Life, 1879, 127
In 1867, the two women “took a seat on one of the benches under the trees, watched the children play, and talked over the situation.” (Keckley, 284).
There, Mary told Lizzie that she had looked at the New York Herald that morning and selected the firm of W. H. Brady at 609 Broadway in order to sell her jewelry. In fact, she had gone to the firm that morning and met with a Mr. Judd. Neither he, nor another of the firm’s partners. Mr. Keyes, agreed to this Mrs. Clarke’s desired prices, and so she was about ready to leave when one of the men, examining her jewelry, noticed her real name engraved on one of the pieces.
Now he was interested in working with her.
Two of the men, Mr. Keyes and Mr. Brady, were to call upon her at the hotel that afternoon.
They recommended the Hotel Earle at Canal and Central St (which had no rooms available) and so they went to Union Place Hotel on the corner of Broadway and 14th Street.
|Union Place Hotel, built 1850|
They checked into the hotel and spent a few days under the influence of these salesmen who promised Mrs. Clarke, now known to them as Mrs. Lincoln, that they would make a large sum from the sale of her clothing. They would appeal to her compatriots! They would raise the funds she so deservedly needed. Wealthy clients, they ensured her, would be sure to spend their money on purchasing her garments out of sentiment, and perhaps, curiosity.
|Ad for a clothing shop on 7th Ave, 1865|
But Mrs. Lincoln wanted to try her own hand at the sale, and so she spent several days inviting old clothes dealers to the hotel and even venturing to Seventh Avenue to show her goods. (She and Lizzie might have checked Trow’s City Directory for ads stating that women selling clothing were attended by a special lady dealer.) In the meantime, the press was getting wind of her presence in the city, and her trunks, stowed downstairs at the hotel, were being inspected for the vestiges of her name that were still visible on the labels.
Mr. Keyes and Mr. Brady were still working on encouraging Mrs. Lincoln to hold a public sale. Why not write letters in which she could state her case for the world to see? they proposed. And in this case, the “world” would be the newspaper, the New York World, who would be given the letters in preparation for the sale.
|1867: Central Park|
The salesmen advanced Mrs. Lincoln several hundreds of dollars to cover her hotel expenses, and, on a Sunday in late September, they loaned the women a private carriage to take a ride through Central Park. Although the park had opened in 1857, its re-design would not be complete until 1873. Thus, the park that the two women visited was still unfinished.
Perhaps it did not matter anyway, since the ride was not at all refreshing. Mary drove the carriage, cloaked in a heavy mourning veil, and the carriage was hot. They “could not throw open a window for fear of being recognized.” (Keckley, 288).
After fearing that word of her mission in the city had circulated widely, the two women set out to the “country” for a few days, and returned to the city, checking in at the Brandreth House, at 415 Broadway, at the corner of Canal.
Finally, Mary consented to write the letters, and the salesmen appealed to various wealthy and powerful people with them, asking if they might support the martyred president’s widow with a donation.
They had no luck.
And so they prepared to exhibit Mrs. Lincolns’ items and advertised the impeding sale by sending her letters to the papers.
By the time the sale was readied in the showroom at 609 Broadway, thousands of people were eager to attend, aware of the scheme to sell the clothing.
The showroom was “thronged with visitors.”
The sale was a disaster.
The press seemed to delight in making a mockery of Mrs. Lincoln. The papers carried stories of this venture as if Mary were someone to be despised, as if the very act of her selling her clothing were a great insult to the nation. The press seemed to believe that this sale was simply the latest chapter in Mary’s well-known and deeply reviled penchant for spending vast amounts of money on lavish goods and clothing.
|Old Clothes Sale|
And so the papers reported not only upon the lackluster sales of the clothing, but also the low moral underpinnings that seemed to be masked by the venture. At the showroom at 609 Broadway, Mary’s clothes were inspected by shop girls and the wealthy alike, the papers reported; they were hung over the sofas and backs of chairs, they became wrinkled; her “cheaper dresses” lay “in promiscuous heaps” upon a piano.
They did not sell, the papers reported, because Mrs. Lincoln had priced them too high. Mssrs. Keyes and Brady, once seemingly her greatest supporters, were now eager to explain to the press that they had advised Mrs. Lincoln to to be more reasonable in pricing the items. But she had not listened.
And thus, Mary Lincoln was blamed for the failure of the sale.
|Chicago Daily Tribune carries the story, October 15, 1867|
For Mrs. Lincoln, the trip to New York City would damage her reputation further. (For more of the story, see Keckley’s account.)
Nearly 150 years later, and that damage seems not to have been entirely repaired. President Lincoln is revered and celebrated, but Mary Todd Lincoln continues to be portrayed as materialistic, greedy, and even “insane.” She still mystifies people, as scholars, artists, actors, and others try to understand her–and sort through the various portrayals of her.
She is a woman whose image seems ever shifting beneath the hands of the portraitist.
Perhaps Mary was a bit like the city she and Lizzie visited in 1867–in flux, changing, governed by its past, and looking to the future with great plans and a lot of hope.
But her clothes! Mary’s clothes. Once upon a time, the old clothes dealers glanced at them with hardly any interest.
And now they are now the stuff museums are made of.
|Mary’s silk dress, 1861, now at the Smithsonian|