— When I picked up a copy of “A Giant in the Shadows,” the worker at the Abraham Lincoln Home Visitor’s Center bookstore said, “That’s the first truly definitive biography of Robert Todd Lincoln.” I was checking to see if it mentioned Mariah Vance, the Lincoln laundress, cook and housekeeper whose grave our Civil War Roundtable group decorates each year at Spring Hill Cemetery.
As I flipped to the index, I saw that it did. The book received excellent reviews when it came out last year, but I had passed it by until that day. I’m glad that I stopped to look at the book, because it renewed my interest in Mariah Vance’s story and I also wanted to learn more about the Lincoln’s eldest son.
Almost as if by design, a couple of days later, I received a telephone call asking if I’d speak to the District 118 Retired Teachers group. I anticipated that they were going to ask me to speak about one of my usual topics. I was pleasantly surprised when Jennifer Skowronski, said, “You can choose your subject, but we’d really like for you to talk about Mariah Vance.” She had heard me mention Mariah at a meeting, and as I often do, when someone gives me an opportunity, I go into a discourse about her, and how I felt Mariah was a woman ahead of her time, whose real story had been treated unfairly.
The publication of a highly anticipated and then much-maligned book called, “Lincoln’s Unknown Private Life” almost blew Mariah Vance off the credibility chart. The book came out in 1993 and was based on scribbled shorthand notes taken in the early 1900s as the elderly “Aunt Mariah” told a young woman about her life with the Lincolns. It contained some stories that many scholars scoffed at as pure fabrication.
I have often wished that I could have heard the real stories in Mariah Vance’s own voice before they were written down, put away in a drawer for decades, re-read, written and re-written into several drafts by different authors and ultimately edited and re-edited into the book. I feel like there are probably some gold nuggets of Lincoln-lore buried in there somewhere that are just as reliable as many stories that have circulated about our 16th president for a century and a half. It’s just sad that most everything in the book is dismissed, and because of that, many people have dismissed Mariah Vance as well.
That’s why I am glad that the story I have heard and told about Robert Todd Lincoln’s visit to Danville in 1896 is documented in this new biography, “A Giant in the Shadows.” In discussing Lincoln’s role in the presidential campaign that year for William McKinley, author Jason Emerson says, “Robert did find one pleasing diversion while on the campaign trail, when he discovered that his childhood nurse and cook, Mariah Vance was living in Danville, Illinois.” He goes on to relay the story told by Uncle Joe Cannon about Lincoln’s disappearance from his hotel room, being late for his speech to the Republican faithful, and then finally found at Mrs. Vance’s home, “enjoying one of the finest meals of corn pone and bacon you ever tasted.”
The story of Robert Todd Lincoln’s visit with Mariah Vance was first published in newspapers and the “Literary Digest” following his death in 1926. But Lincoln’s visit and/or visits had been part of Danville’s oral history well before that.
The story goes on to relate that Lincoln was rushed to the speech where a large crowd was waiting for him in the park. Even though he had spent several hours with Mrs. Vance before the campaign gathering, as Emerson relates, “As soon as the event was over however, Robert eschewed the politicians seeking his company and instead went straight back to Vance’s house, where he stayed for several more hours until he had to catch his train.”
According to Cannon, “From that day until her death, ‘Mammy’ Vance received a substantial check each month from Chicago.” So obviously Mariah Vance had been an important part of Robert Todd Lincoln’s childhood.
In a 1903 article in the Springfield State Journal, Mrs. Vance said that she “had known Abraham Lincoln since he was a struggling young lawyer.” She and her sister Betsy had worked for the Todd family for several years and Mariah was employed by the Lincolns for at least 10 years. She was chosen by the Lincolns to pack their belongings, close, clean and lock their Springfield home, before the family left for Washington in 1861.
Her last duty for the Lincolns was to deliver their house key to the Chenery Hotel, where the family stayed before their train trip to assume the presidency for one of the most tumultuous terms in American History. That trip included a brief stop in Danville on the day before Lincoln’s 52nd birthday.
Shortly after that, Mariah’s husband, Henry got a job as a miner and the family moved to Danville. Henry died in the mid-1860s, and Mrs. Vance lived in Danville for most of the next four decades, but spending some time with her children in Springfield. Her son, Billy was a barber in Danville. His shop had a prime location in the First National Bank building near what is now Towne Centre.
According to Mrs. Vance, Billy and Robert Todd Lincoln were playmates as children at the Lincoln Home, and Robert helped Billy learn to read and write. The other Vance children were employed in various professions in Danville and Springfield. Many of them and their families are buried in Spring Hill Cemetery. Others are buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery, the site of the Lincoln tomb in Springfield.
But even without her link to the Lincolns, Mariah Vance’s story deserves to be told. She made some amazing accomplishments for a woman whose parents had been slaves and who had been an indentured servant herself until she was 18 years old. She helped found two churches in Springfield and then two more in Danville, and made sure that all her children attended school at a time when many did not.
She was the mother of a dozen children, raising the youngest ones on her own after her husband’s death, a landowner, a business owner and one of the best storytellers in Danville history.