“A death-battered childhood”

Being a woman, especially when going through my angry period, the phrase “women and children” could infuriate me. If a policeman or politician used the term, I would be incensed at being categorised among the fragile, feeble or otherwise not-fully-human, the gold standard being the white adult male.

Reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln has opened my eyes to what lies behind the phrase. It’s the lingering echo of the collective fear and grief of generations of men, men whose wives and children died during childbirth and infancy in the days before penicillin and obstetrics.

Kearns’s book is a virtuoso achievement. Not content with writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln, it’s also the biography of the three men who ran against Lincoln for the Republican nomination in 1860:  William Henry Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates.  The scope allows Kearns to use the similarities and differences between the four men, their childhoods and families, to create a picture of mid-19th century America that throbs with life.

And death.

I’m up to the point where Lincoln, after a severe case of cold feet, has just married Mary Todd. Aged in his early 30s, he has encountered death many times. The three people closest to him in the world – his mother, Nancy;  sister, Sarah; and his first great love, Ann Rutledge – have all died. His mother died of “milk sickness” when he was 9, Sarah of childbirth when he was still a teenager, and Ann of typhoid when he was in his mid-20s.

Kearns describes Lincoln as having “a death-battered childhood”. In fact, the same was true for three of the four men.

Of the four rivals, Seward alone kept parents into his adulthood. Chase was only eight when he lost his father. Bates was eleven. Both of their lives, like Lincoln’s, were moulded by loss.

The saddest story is that of Chase; for him, the battering persisted well into adulthood. He lost all three wives, and three of the five daughters born to him.

Catherine (Kitty) Garniss died from complications following the birth of her first child 18 months after her marriage. The child died at the age of five from scarlet fever.

Eliza Ann Smith died at the age of 25 from tuberculosis after giving birth to two daughters, one of whom predeceased her.

Sarah Belle Ludlow gave birth to two daughters, Nettie and Zoe; Zoe died at the age of 12 months, and two years later, Sarah died.

Chase didn’t tempt fate a fourth time. Though he was only 44 when Sarah died, the man who would go on to become secretary to the treasury under Lincoln’s presidency did not marry again.

Stay tuned for more stories from Kearns’s book.


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3 thoughts on ““A death-battered childhood”

  1. -The book sounds REALLY wonderful…
    ….and then Lincoin lost his child, too, right? Didn’t Mary Todd go insane after that? I can completely understand that now. Completely.
    Great post, as usual. x


    • I just got up to that bit. This is what Kearns says: “For seven weeks, Mary had worked to arrest the high fever and racking cough that accompanied the relentless disease [tb]. Despite her ministrations, Eddie declined until he fell into unconsciousness and died early on the morning of the 1st. Neighbours recalled hearing Mary’s inconsolable weeping.”

      I didn’t know that was coming, but there’s been something in the story to this point … some reserve towards Mary, esp compared to the other mens’ wives. From Lincoln’s hesitation about marrying her, even down to the description of how she looked.

      I feel very sorry for her when Kearns describes how it was when she was in an unstable mood: “When Mary fell into one of these moods, Lincoln developed what one neighbour called ‘a protective deafness’, which doubtless exasperated her fury. Instead of engaging Mary directly, he would lose himself in thought, quietly leave the room, or take the children for a walk.”


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