In 1998, the fledgling National First Ladies Library in Canton got an offer it had to refuse -- a nearly 140-year-old letter of condolence written on black-bordered stationary by Mary Todd Lincoln, a letter filled with anguish, yet seeded with hope.
The library’s director of education, Lucinda Frailly, says her group was simply in no position to buy.
"We didn’t have the money at the time. We were so young, very young. I wasn't here yet. There may have only been a couple of employees, and we had to let it go."
Now the letter’s for sale again through a private auction house. It’s expected to bring bids of $20,000 to $40,000. And while the library – now part of the National Park Service – is in much stronger financial shape – the letter remains out of its price range. So, says Frailly, the library can only hope for a loving new owner.
“Whoever gets it is going to be just thrilled to have it in their collection. I hope it’s a place where people can go and view it. I know there are private collectors out there and this was the hands of a private collector. But, ohhh, such rich history when it’s the first lady’s thoughts on something as important as the content of this letter.”
Context is everything
Frailly carefully holds even the copy of the words pulled from the auction web site, and she reads in the accent of the Kentucky-born child of wealth that Mary Todd was.
“May 5, ’62. Executive mansion. Mr. Reeves, my dear sir. The sad intelligence of the death of your most excellent wife ….”
Mary Lincoln was writing to Charles Reeves of Cleveland, Ohio. She offered condolences on the death of his wife, Hester, who had tutored her son, Willie, in Springfield, Ill. And she was writing less than three months after Willie had died of typhoid fever.
“And I fully know and believe they are this day together rejoicing in the presence of their savior. I have shed many, many tears over the last writing of your sainted wife in memory of our darling boy. If it were not for the hope that by serving God rightly here we might be able to meet them again, what would life be?”
The letter was believed to be in the hands of the Reeves’ granddaughter until the 1930s when it was sold, and private collectors have had it since. RR Auction is selling it as part of an auction of 500 pieces of Civil War memorabilia and RR’s vice president, Bobby Livingston, says the envelope alone attracts interest.
“In those days, the president didn’t have to pay for postage. The president just had to sign the outside of the envelope where the stamp normally goes. And so we also have the black-bordered envelope what we called franked by Abraham Lincoln on the outside. So it’s an incredible lot, it’s compelling and it's heartbreaking.”
He says the market for such material has been in the making for generations.
“People have been collecting autographs and signatures from famous people for a milleneum. We actually have autograph requests answered by people like Abraham Lincoln where he’ll write a little letter, ‘Here’s an autograph per your request, Abraham Lincoln.’ So people are actually collecting autographs for all these years.
Today, people who love history and want these historic figures to come to life buy things from us. What really I find fascinating is you get to read these handwritten letters, which is really a lot art today, but youre able to go right back in time with Mary Lincoln, right during the Civil War. The letter that we have from her was written right after Battle of Shiloh, and its very much in parallele to the tearing apart of our country as she tears apart her heart over the loss of her son."
'Mourning a lot'
One of Mary Lincoln’s four half brothers died at the Battle of Shiloh, fighting for the Confederacy. Another died in Baton Rouge and the third was killed at Vicksburg. So, says Lucinda Frailly, tragedy and mourning were associated with Mary Lincoln long before April 11, 1865.
“The lady was in mourning a lot. And let’s face it. Her husband, she was sitting in Ford’s Theater right beside him. And he fell into her arms. She was there, she witnessed that bloody awful thing. And when he was taken across the street, Mary Lincoln was not allowed to go into the room. They wouldn’t let the first lady with her husband. He would have wanted her there. He adored her.”
Frailly refers to letters Mary Lincoln wrote years later, after she was declared legally insane. She sees the same carful hand in those letters as she sees in the one to addressed on May 5, 1862 to Charles Reeves of Cleveland, Ohio.
“Please excuse this letter written in much haste and almost blotted by my tears. When we weep here, we can only remember that, then, all tears are wiped away from their eyes. Sorrow never enters there. Your ever sincere friend, Mary Lincoln.”
The auction ends Thursday.