History comes alive at the library, with a visit from Mrs. Lincoln

History comes alive at the library, with a visit from Mrs. Lincoln

By now, most people know I cannot discuss any topic without sneaking in a movie reference. So here goes: if you have ever seen the 1984 film Teachers with Nick Nolte, then you might remember that the best teacher in the entire movie was the one who threw the history book out the window, dressed up as George Washington, and invited his students on a virtual trip down the Delaware River. 

I love you, Mr. Gower. 

Those in attendance at the Durham Library’s recent presentation of “Mary Todd Lincoln: Wife and Widow” were invited to the same transformative experience as those students in Mr. Gower’s history class: meaningful learning through interaction with a historical figure.

Yes, Mary Todd Lincoln died in 1882, but her story survives, thanks to the artful depiction of her life by actress Sally Mummey.

Through immersion in the role, Mummey conveyed the extent to which Lincoln, like many women of her era, was defined by her role of wife, despite her intent to be outspoken, which led to her being labeled as insane by the press, the “vampire press” as she called it. As today, it was a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario.

Let’s consider a timely example: Mrs. Lincoln was publicly scolded if she didn’t entertain during her tenure as first lady, but any frivolity was met with refrains of, “Doesn’t she know there is a war on?” Clearly, there were conflicts beyond those being fought on the battleground. 

Always knowing that she wanted to be first lady, Mrs. Lincoln advised that we remember to “be careful of what we wish for.” Although a rainy wedding day is typically prophetic of good fortune, she and her husband had anything but, even before his ill-fated end. The Lincolns endured death threats and the loss of three sons. In political victory, Abraham told his wife that “we are elected.” In hardship, it appears, the same pronoun applies.  

Yes, there were some lighthearted reflections. It’s difficult to imagine not having a spouse recognize his own home, because a second story is added without his knowledge, and a chance encounter with actress Sarah Bernhardt left this first lady questioning the false praise that is often heaped on the famous.

The best laughs came through our enlightened understanding of sexual mores: husbands should not be left alone in a room with another woman, and a “loose woman” was any female without a corset. Shame on us. 

In my follow-up conversation with Ms. Mummey, I asked further about the clothing she wore during the performance, all of which was authentic. I learned that black veils were treated with formaldehyde to preserve the integrity of the color. Apparently, grief was not difficult enough, requiring assault on the olfactory senses to make it that much more exhaustive. Insanity, did you say? 

Our discussion prompted me to share my experience seeing Daniel Day-Lewis speak following a presentation of Lincoln at the Bantam Cinema many years ago. He brought up those ideas that we fail to consider, namely that we have no understanding of what Lincoln’s voice sounded like. So too, are we ignorant of the tenor of Mary’s screams from seeing her husband slump forward on that dreadful day at Ford’s Theater. We can only imagine that the cries of this fine actress were close to reality. Mary had, after all, been holding her husband’s hand at the very moment he was shot.  

There are so many Mr. Gowers out there: those who fight to make sure that figures from history are imbued with the dimension that pulls them off the pages of a school textbook.

We can be grateful in knowing that, thanks to the Durham Library and actress Sally Mummey, we don’t have to go back to high school to experience that same authenticity in learning.