Can Mary Lincoln's Memoir Be Found?
More on William Reid
In this post, I will share a few more details on Mary Lincoln’s missing memoir. Well, it’s not actually clear that it was a memoir, which is part of the puzzle. What exactly was she writing?
In 1886, the North-West Magazine published biographies of prominent men from Portland, Oregon. Reid’s biography noted that while practicing law in Dundee, Scotland,
He asked by Mrs Mary Lincoln to assist in compiling portions of “Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln," for which she procured him the appointment of United States Vice-Consul at Dundee.
He always spoke of it as though it was a known project, perhaps even a collaboration between Mary and others.
Mary also gave Reid a psalm book in exchange for his work, one that had belonged to Lincoln himself. When author and Lincoln collector William J. Johnstone acquired it from Reid’s daughters, Mrs. Robert Gomez and Mrs. P. A. Duhrkoop, around 1930, he was told it was “a reward for assisting in collecting data in 1868 for reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln.”
This type of wording repeatedly crops up. He was essentially compiling data, and presumably organizing it into a narrative form. But what was the data, and where did it go?
Remarks Reid made in 1909 could shed some light. Dr. Smith was a friend of the Lincoln family, and who Reid knew in Dundee, Scotland. Smith introduced him to Mary when she visited in the late 1860s. She spent most of her time in Germany during this period, making occasional visits to Dundee.
Dr Smith…was then writing the “Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln” at the request of Mrs. Lincoln…Mrs. Lincoln, knowing that Smith at his advanced age—over 70—was feeble in body, and that, though strong in mind he could not live long, asked me to assist him in his work, which I cheerfully volunteered to do without fee or reward…as Dr. Smith could not furnish me with one details which occurred doing the war…I had to write her for many particulars, and in her desire to furnish me the same, the little woman wrote me letter after letter, giving me the explanations I asked. From these numerous letters and contents it was evident her whole heart and soul were devoted to the memory of President Lincoln, and seemed to live for but one object—to show to posterity Abraham Lincoln in his true character.
So Dr. Smith had started the work, presumably on Lincoln’s faith and family life, and Mary had added a lot of information about Lincoln during wartime—anecdotes designed to show his true character. So it seems like it would have been a rather “personal” view of Lincoln, one that spanned his adult life. Probably a rather respectable one, designed to smooth over some things. But were the reminiscences of other people involved, or intended to be?
What Happened to the “Reminiscences?”
As Reid explained:
Unfortunately Teddy [Taddie] Lincoln’s death followed in England [Chicago, in July 1871], and so also in Scotland that of Dr. James Smith [also in July 1871], the consul, whose family and wife, all southerners, distrusted Lincoln and his wife, although she was a southerner, too. Consequently before the doctor died, he appointed executor under his will, made in Dundee, his last request being for me to go to the United States and remain there…
Mary had left Reid still in charge of the book when she returned to the U.S., where Tad died only months later. It seems Smith was living alone, as his wife had returned to America with some of Mary’s letters and gifts to Smith. As mentioned above, Mrs. Smith was not a Lincoln fan, though they had probably be friendly back when Dr. Smith had been the pastor of a church in Springfield, IL, in the 1850s. Lincoln appointed him consul at Dundee in 1861 because he had wished to return to his homeland.Mrs. Smith gave these items away to presumably interested friends in America. It seems unlikely she ever possessed any of the material Reid was using.
Upon Smith’s death, Reid had a public announcement made that Smith had left papers for Mary, which she saw, but she was so grief-stricken it took her a year to respond. She asked that he send the papers to Isaac N. Arnold, then working on a biography of Lincoln, and it seems Reid failed to respond for some time. It’s not clear if Reid ever sent the papers to Arnold; if so, it seems Arnold disposed of them, and there’s no sign he made any use of the material. Given that shortly after this correspondence, his involvement in the commitment proceedings of 1875 ended his relationship with Mary Lincoln, it may have no longer seemed appropriate. Out of all the options, it seems likeliest Arnold somehow got the papers, yet wherever this surviving correspondence came from, no other letters have surfaced to confirm that Reid complied with or even responded to Mary’s request for the papers.
As Reid was busily preparing to move to Oregon during this time, they may have simply been sitting at the Dundee consulate. Perhaps they were later sent by diplomatic channels, or by Reid before he departed? I have to check the archives for correspondence relating to it. It’s just weird he never mentions what happened. There’s no reason to think he took them to Oregon, but he clearly had the papers at the time of Smith’s death, and the newspaper reports indicate he was indeed acting as Smith’s executor.
On August 27, 1871, Harper’s Bazaar published a codicil from Dr. Smith’s will, which reads as follows:
I give, devise and bequeath unto John Bright, Esq., member of the British House of Commons, and to his heirs the gold-mounted staff or cane which belonged to the deceased President Lincoln of the United States, and presented to me by the deceased’s widow and family as a mark of the President’s respect, which staff is to be kept and used as an heirloom in the family of the said John Bright, as a token of the esteem which the late President felt for him because of his unwearied zeal and defense of the United States in suppressing the civil rebellion of the Southern States.
Reid transmitted the cane to Bright. It seems unlikely that he sent them to Smith’s American relatives. Additionally, he kept the letters Mary sent him about the work, and had them with him in Portland until the end of his life. This suggests he had already incorporated the information they contained into the larger work.
Reid also spoke of another source of information:
What surprised me most was afterwards my appointment as United States vice consul at Dundee by Hamilton Fish, secretary of state, unsolicited on my part. This position I held until two months after my arrival in Oregon in 1874…Before that early period, 1868 to 1872, when I met the American consuls in Great Britain, including General Badeau, consul general, nearly all had been in the northern army…appointed by Lincoln particularly for their faithfulness to the union, for the sympathy of people of Great Britain, except Dundee, was during the war greatly in favor of the south. We used to meet together and, especially when Mrs. Lincoln was in Europe, they used to recount their personal experiences of Abraham Lincoln, from which I gathered numerous anecdotes of the sterling integrity of the president…
More on Reid’s Life
On November 28, 1870, Dundee’s The Courier and Argus:
We hear that Mr. William Reid, writer, 41 reform street, was on 24th October appointed by the United States consul-general in London (General Badeau) Deputy United States Consul at Dundee, and the Secretary of State at Washington has since confirmed the appointment.”
So both Badeau and Fish signed off on it, and presumably Grant himself. Mary would have been living in England at that time, and evidently used her influence to reward Reid. She must have liked his work.
By January 1874, he was wrapping up his work in Dundee, but little attention came to it until The History of Portland, by H. W. Scott, was published in 1890.
In 1868 be was employed by Mrs. Mary Lincoln, widow of the president, to assist in the preparation of the “Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln.” While employed on this work he was appointed by President Grant as United States consul at Dundee.
This was quoted in nearly every biography of him from then on. He was clearly quite proud of the association, yet so vague! He was often caught up in starting enterprises and business litigation, so it is no surprise this was not his main focus, but it’s frustrating. The History of Portland’s description of Reid makes it pretty clear why Mary found him congenial:
He is a man of remarkable energy, and his capacity for work seems almost unlimited. Always active, ever-on-the-move and apparently never tired, it is a wonder to his friends when he finds time for needed rest. His main power seems to lie in the unconquerable spirit of perseverance with which his plans are pursued. If one path to a desired end is closed, he seeks another; but the object on which he has fixed his eye is never abandoned. He extracts pleasure out of the work, and appears most happy when organizing the business details of some great enterprise, really enjoying the task for its very complexity.
However, by 1893, his many ventures had failed and he was financially ruined. He disappeared suddenly, resurfacing in London by June of that year. He seems to have stayed abroad for years, apparently unable to face his community, but he stayed active and persistent, as usual.
In fact, he managed to secure his old position! From The Oregonian, September 2, 1897:
William Reid in Dundee—From a copy of the Dundee, Scotland, Advertiser, received here, it is learned that William Reid, for number of years a resident of this city, and well know throughout this section as ‘Dundee’ Reid, is now vice consul for the United States in Dundee. He occupied that position years ago under Lincoln’s administration, before coming to this country. Mr. Reid left here several years since under embarrassments, owing to the financial stridency having caused the collapse of some of the extensive schemes he was was engaged in; and since that time but little has been known here of his doings or whereabouts.”
Then, in 1902, he became a consular agent in Wellington, New Zealand. (Reid had long since become a U.S. citizen). By 1909, he was back in Portland, telling more about his time with Mary Lincoln, as quoted above. He seems to have lived a more simple but reasonably comfortable life in his later years. In 1913, he wrote one of his frequent letters to the editor about local issues, mentioning:
I have twice visited New Zealand in 40 years, the last time with special written authority as a United States consular agent from Secretary [of State John] Hay…
Reid died of cancer in June 1914. He was 70 years old, and died with little to his name. His papers, which likely included Mary’s letters and the psalm book, were left to his unmarried daughter. It is most likely his descendants disposed of them after Johnstone failed to show interest in anything but the psalm book. His adult children lived into the 50s, so they could have survived that long. His living descendants have no idea what might have been done with them. But Reid had wanted the letters auctioned before his death, so why that was not done remains mysterious. His family needed the money, and I’ve so far found no record of Robert Lincoln’s involvement.
There are a few other twists here, but I doubt they are relevant to the memoir. Dr. Smith’s daughters married into elite Chicago circles in which Robert Lincoln also ran. Dr. Smith had a wealthy and unmarried, childless relative in Scotland, Hugh Smith, who died in the 1880s. A dispute arose over his estate, and one of Smith’s son-in-laws, then in financial trouble, went to Scotland and challenged the will in the name of his wife, arguing Hugh Smith was inane when he made it. The son-in-law was John Forsythe, a friend of Robert’s who Mary was not fond of, apparently because of the love of real estate speculation that led to his ruin. He’d actually been married to two of Smith’s daughters. When his first wife died, he married her sister, who actually died in the middle of the will challenge, while he was abroad. I’m not exactly sure how it all ended.
Reprinted in Dundee Courier and Argus, January 1, 1886.
The Minneapolis Star, June 24, 1932.
Oregon Journal, February 12, 1909.
He actually appointed Smith’s son, who resigned and was replaced by his father, and then joined the Confederate Army. It’s a long story, but the war destroyed Smith’s family. They’d lived in the south before moving to Illinois, and Mrs. Smith returned to live in the south once the war ended. She was, however, buried in Springfield with the service held at the home of Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth Grimsley, who had recently married the pastor of what was once Dr. Smith’s church.
Oregon Journal, February 12, 1909.
The Oregon Daily Journal, January 5, 1913.