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Did not always embrace Lincoln’s legacy; no direct descendants surviving today
Breeze-Courier Guest Writer
Abraham Lincoln never met his grandchildren, since he was assassinated before any of them were born. Given
the opportunity, they may not have been especially interested in meeting him, either.
Taken as a group, the Lincoln grandchildren and great-grandchildren were few in number and a rather mixed lot. Many were unlike their famous ancestor, often shunning the Lincoln legacy in favor of their own interests and cushy lifestyles.
“I don’t think they were much like Lincoln,” said Dr. Wayne Temple, a nationally recognized Lincoln authority from Springfield, Ill. “I don’t think that all of them were that interested in being connected to Lincoln. Some of them didn’t seem to care much about it.”
Lincoln had three grand- children, all the product of Robert Todd Lincoln, the only one of the President’s four sons to live to full maturity. First was Mary, born in 1869 and named for her grandmother, Presidential widow Mary Todd Lincoln. The girl was more commonly known by her nickname, “Mamie.” Next was Abraham Lincoln II, born in 1873 and better known as “Jack,” followed by daughter Jessie in 1875.
The Lincoln grandchildren grew up with plenty of advantages. A captain of industry, Robert Lincoln was an influential Chicago lawyer who later spent fourteen years as president of the Pullman Palace Car Company. Robert Lincoln also served as Secretary of War from 1881- 85 and minister to England from 1889-93. He was fre-uently mentioned as a Presidential candidate, but showed no inclination to run.
The family also spent extended periods in Washington as well as Mount Pleasant, Iowa, the home of Robert’s father-in-law, former U.S. Senator and Cabinet member James Harlan.
His eldest daughter, Mary, was the third of the name in the line, following her grandmother and mother, also named Mary. She married Robert’s personal secretary, Charles Isham, in 1891 and was a trusted confidant to her father, handling some of the family’s personal papers before her death in 1938.
While some descendants distanced themselves from the Lincoln legacy, Jack embraced it. A bright boy with a keen interest in military history, Jack even tried to sign his name like his famous grandfather.
“He’d practice until he could sign his name just like Lincoln, and sign into hotel registries with the name ‘Abraham Lincoln,’” laughed Temple. “Of course, it was perfectly legal, since that was also his name. But it would really shock the hotel registrars when they saw that name.”
Loved by all, Jack was once playing baseball in Chicago when he broke a neighbor’s window. Angry, the neighbor demanded his name. When Jack replied “Abraham Lincoln,” the neighbor reportedly said, “Don’t you lie to me.”
Jack was attending school in Versailles when he suffered a rather mundane cut on his left arm in November 1889. The wound became severely infected, and Jack languished for four months his death in March 1890 at age 16.
The loss devastated his parents, and Jack was buried in the Lincoln Tomb in Springfield. Robert, too, had expected to be buried there, but after his death in 1926, wife Mary decided that he “should have his own place in the sun.” She ordered her husband buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and Jack’s remains were exhumed and moved there in 1930. The decisions did not sit well with some, particularly in Springfield.
Jessie, meanwhile, married three times, beginning with her November 1897 elopement to her first husband, Iowa Wesleyan football player Warren Beckwith, whom Robert disliked. In that union, Jessie left the Lincoln home in Chicago, met Warren and boarded a train to Milwaukee, where they were married. She returned home as if nothing had happened, and her father found out when a reporter called the next day.
A chronic problem to Robert, Jessie was always asking her father for money, loans, and favors. She was eventually disinherited from the sprawling Lincoln summer estate in Vermont, Hildene, and had an open affair in her second of three marriages. She died in 1948.
“In reading Robert’s letters, I think she was a disappointment to him,” said Temple. “I mean, the way she ran off and married that football player, and the way she lived. I think she really disappointed him.”
Three great-grandchildren of President Lincoln were produced, and each shared similar traits; they were wealthy, lived quietly, and disliked publicity. Mary Isham had one son, Abraham Lincoln “Linc” Isham who, at age 15 in 1907, crashed Robert’s luxury automobile, angering his grandfather. An art collector and musician, Linc married a prominent New Yorker, a union that produced no children. He died in 1971.
Jessie had two children with her first husband, starting with daughter Mary, the fourth generation with that name, who was better known as “Peggy.”
Peggy, who never married, enjoyed golf, hunting, fishing, and car collecting. A chain smoker, she dressed in pants and men’s shirts. A friend said, “she should have been a man.”
Indifferent to the Lincoln legacy, Peggy once said “I don’t care much about ancestors” and “it was just luck that A.L. happened to be a relative.” After christening the nuclear submarine USS Abraham Lincoln in 1960, she penned in her diary “Cloudy A.M. Sun out P.M. Broke bottle on boat. So home to bed.”
Peggy Beckwith never mar- ried and died in 1975 at age 76. She gave Hildene to the Christian Science Church, following the religious prefer- ences of her grandmother and aunt Mary Isham. Hildene has since been transferred to a private group that operates it as a historic site.
Her brother, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, was a Georgetown law school grad but never practiced, choosing to live off the family fortune. A self-described “spoiled brat” and self-styled playboy, he once said that he never asked Robert Lincoln much about his great-grandfather or the Civil War since he was “not especially interested.”
Like some of the others, he attended a few Lincoln-related events and donated some items to various museums and libraries, but said, “I just want to live my own life.”
However, Temple, who met Beckwith on several occasions, believes that he was “very proud of the Lincoln legacy. Whenever I talked to him, he certainly seemed proud of his connection to Lincoln.
“But he wasn’t always willing to speak publicly about it, or reminiscene,” continued Temple. “He didn’t look much like Lincoln, either. Lloyd Ostendorf, the greatest of the Lincoln artists, told me one time that Beckwith did- n’t look like Lincoln at all, except that he had Lincoln’s ears.”
In 1976, the second of Beckwith’s three wives, who was 36 years his junior, charged him with paternity during divorce proceedings, although Beckwith had undergone a vasectomy six years before. In a celebrated case, a judge ruled Beckwith was not the father. He never sired any other children.
Beckwith died in Virginia on Dec. 24, 1985 at age 81, the last direct descendant of Abraham Lincoln. Other Presidents with no surviving direct lineage include Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Polk, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, and McKinley.
However, thousands of Americans claim some kin- ship to Lincoln, mainly as distant cousins several times removed. Emmy-winning actor Tom Hanks is reported- ly a distant relative to Lincoln based on his connec- tion to the President’s birth mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217- 710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.