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Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Mary Lincoln’s financial woes

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 1:17 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD — In 1865, Mary Lincoln was a frantic widow worried about paying down her enormous debt. Benjamin B. Sherman was a generous Wall Street banker. Concerned about Mrs. Lincoln, he raised money from coast to coast to help the slain president’s family.

Today, his descendants have donated records of that fundraising, along with original letters by Mary Lincoln and Robert Lincoln, to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

They show a calm son turning down his share of the donated money, and a frightened mother convinced she was on the verge of financial ruin. They also reveal a generous nation, with contributions coming in from Iowa to Maine, and even from the South.

The material donated today is almost entirely new to historians. Only one of the letters has been published before, and that was an incomplete version.

“We are delighted to be able to share this important piece of Lincoln history with all Americans through this gift to the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum,” said one of the donors, Peter Thompson Jr. “The letters and cash book offer revealing insights into the mindsets and feelings of the Lincoln family in the aftermath of the assassination of President Lincoln.” 

Thompson and his sisters, E. Park Zimpher and Sharon Giordano, are fourth-generation descendants of the 1865 banker, Benjamin B. Sherman. They traveled to Springfield and personally handed the items to Museum officials at a small ceremony near the Treasures Gallery.

“This is a generous donation to the museum and to our nation’s understanding of a dark period for the Lincoln family,” said Eileen Mackovich, director of the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. “We’re grateful to Mr. Sherman’s descendants for their decision to share this family treasure.”

The items will go on display once cleaning and other preparation have been performed by ALPLM staff. Research on the donors listed in the cash book will continue.

The fundraising drive raised $10,750 for the Lincolns.

Mary Lincoln felt she needed the money desperately. “I am humiliated, when I think, that we are destined, to be forever, homeless,” she wrote to Sherman. 

She also asked him to help trim the $26,000 debt she had accumulated. “May I ask you, as a last favor, to see Mr. Moser and Godfrey, when you receive this, and have the fur bill cut down considerably,” she wrote.

In truth, however, Mary Lincoln had a comfortable income from the president’s estate and the unprecedented decision of Congress to give her all the money Lincoln would have been paid in 1865, worth roughly $1 million in today’s dollars.

For more information about the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, visit www.presidentlincoln.org.

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