Changes in the White House: Packing Up and Leaving
Mrs. Lincoln was too grief-stricken immediately to vacate the White house after her husband's death. Unlike her son Robert, she did not take the train to Springfield, Illinois for President Lincoln's burial. She was coherent enough, however, to veto internment of President Lincoln's body at a site in the center of Springfield preferred by the city's leaders. She remained in Washington for several weeks, dealing with her grief and packing up her family's possessions. Among the things she gave away was a walking stick, which she presented to abolitionist Frederick Douglass. White House seamstress Elizabeth Keckley lived through not only the packing up, but also the process of trying to sell some of Mrs. Lincoln's clothes in subsequent months:
In packing, Mrs. Lincoln gave away everything intimately connected with the President, as she said that she could not bear to be reminded of the past. The articles were given to those who were regarded as the warmest of Mr. Lincoln's admirers. All of the presents passed through my hands. The dress that Mrs. Lincoln wore on the night of the assassination was given to Mrs. Slade, the wife of an old and faithful messenger. The cloak, stained with the President's blood, was given to me, as also was the bonnet worn on the same memorable night. Afterwards I received the comb and brush that Mr. Lincoln used during his residence at the White House. With this same comb and brush I had often combed his head. When almost ready to go down to a reception, he would turn to me with a quizzical look: 'Well, Madam Elizabeth, will you brush my bristles down to-night?'
Journalist Noah Brooks, who was close to Mrs. Lincoln, reported in mid-May that “nearly all of the preparations for departure have been made. No President ever received so many tokens of good will from the people as did our late lamented Lincoln; and these gifts, packed for transportation, comprise more than two car loads of bulky boxes – a single set of dining ware being large enough to require three hogs heads in packing. This was a gift from a gentleman in Philadelphia, who had the war made to order, the Lincoln initials being beautifully emblazoned thereon in a monogram. Beside this were gifts of paintings, photographs, statuary and others works of art and virtue – some of them very beautiful, and so numerous that Mrs. Lincoln intends to have a sort of museum attached to her future residence, so that all persons may see these gifts, under proper restrictions and regulations.”2
Benjamin Brown French, the federal commissioner of public buildings, wrote in his May 24, 1864 diary: "Mrs. Mary Lincoln left the City Monday evening at 6 o'clock, with her sons Robert & Tad (Thomas). I went up and bade her good-by, and felt really very sad, although she has given me a world of trouble. I think the sudden and awful death of the President somewhat unhinged her mind, for at times she has exhibited all the symptoms of madness. She is a most singular woman, and it is well for the nation that she is no longer in the White House."3
French was called to the Capitol in mid-January, 1866 to testify about the disappearance of Washington furnishings. He recorded in his diary on January 14: "At the Capitol all day yesterday - before the Committee on appropriations of the House for two hours....No evidence was elicited that Mrs. Lincoln carried away anything in the 75 to 100 boxes that she packed and took with her to Illinois. I think the Committee have abandoned further investigation. Thank God I knew nothing as to what she took. All I know is what was left when the house came into President Johnson's possession, and, so far as beds and bedding and table linen & the necessary housekeeping utensils are concerned[,] there was absolutely nothing left. I had to purchase an entire new 'set out.' But where the things went I do not pretend to know. Rumors say that a great many were sold by Mrs. L.[,] but no evidence of the fact, at all reliable, has ever come to me."4