Eyewitness 1861: Pittsburgh gets to know new White House ladies

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Curiosity about presidential spouses is not a 21st century phenomenon. The election of 1860, in which Abraham Lincoln became president, placed Mary Todd Lincoln in the national spotlight as well.

On March 4, 1861, the day that her husband was inaugurated as the nation's 16th president, the Pittsburgh Daily Gazette had a story describing the appearance and character of the new First Lady. The next morning, March 5, The Pittsburgh Post ran a shorter report on Lincoln's vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, and his second, much younger, wife, Ellen.

The lengthy feature on Mary Lincoln was written by an anonymous New York Times correspondent who had traveled with the president-elect and his family on their trip from Springfield, Ill., to Washington.

Previous newspaper reports had made Mrs. Lincoln out to be either a Roman goddess or a frontier hick, the story said. Those diverse views of Mrs. Lincoln appeared to depend primarily on whether the writers backed or opposed her husband's election.

The Gazette's "Portrait" first sought to dispel misconceptions about her: "Mrs. Lincoln does not chew snuff, does not dress in outre style, does not walk 'al a Zouave,' does not use profane language, nor does she on any occasion, public or private, kick up shindies."

Whatever journalists had compared Mrs. Lincoln's walk to that of a Zouave had meant to be insulting. Zouaves originally were French North African soldiers who wore baggy, brightly colored, Oriental-influenced uniforms. The style later was adopted by military units from both sides during the Civil War. To "kick up a shindy" was a 19th century term for starting quarrels or causing commotion.

"Her form inclines to stoutness, but is well fashioned and comely, while her hands and feet are really beautiful," the reporter wrote of Mrs. Lincoln. Her lovely extremities and her "well-shaped ear" indicated that "she has come from a race of people who were well born," he concluded.

Her blue eyes, non-Grecian nose, expressive mouth and rounded chin supported his conclusion that "she is a decided -- not obstinate -- woman."

Lincoln's vice president, a former senator from Maine, was described in the Post, a newspaper usually hostile to Republican politicians, as "one of nature's noblemen." It compared Hamlin favorably with longtime Massachusetts Sen. Daniel Webster. The story's unnamed writer was unusual in that she was described as a "lady correspondent."

"I must not forget to say of Mrs. Hamlin what one lady is loath to allow of another, that she is right pretty," the reporter wrote. "From Mrs. Hamlin's youthful demeanor and her husband's devotion she is evidently a second spouse ... She is petite with auburn hair and hazel eyes." She had "a sunshiny smile and unpretending manners."

At 25, Ellen Hamlin was half the age of her 51-year-old husband when he became vice president. Replaced by Democrat Andrew Johnson on a "unity" ticket in 1864, Hamlin returned to the U.S. Senate, representing Maine for another 12 years. He died in 1891. Ellen Hamlin lived until 1925.

Tragedy dogged Mrs. Lincoln, who saw her husband mortally wounded and who buried three of her four children. Concerned that she might kill herself, her surviving son, Robert, had his mother briefly committed to an insane asylum. Released into the care of her sister, she died in Springfield, Ill., in 1882.

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. All Civil War-related stories can be read at www.post-gazette.com/civilwar /.


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