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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Mary Todd Lincoln; signed autograph letter, 6 pages; on the death of her son to close friend Julia Ann Spriggs; $18,000. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Mary Todd Lincoln sat by her son’s bedside and watched his labored breathing. The delicate, blue-eyed, Willie was her favorite and she could see him growing weaker.

On good days Willie rarely left her side. Curled up in a chair with pencil and paper in hand or reading a book, the 11-year-old spent long, leisurely afternoons next to his doting mother.

Mrs. Lincoln said Willie was the child who would be the hope and stay of her old age. She could see now, she was wrong. When Willie finally did pass away in 1862 of typhoid fever, Mrs. Lincoln was so distraught she couldn’t attend the funeral.

“God called his beautiful spirit home,” wrote Elizabeth Keckley, the black servant who cared for the boy. “He lay with eyes closed--his brown hair parted as we had known it--pale in the slumber of death; but otherwise unchanged.”

The poet Nathaniel Parker Willis, an acquaintance of the Lincoln family, had this to say about Willie.

"With all the splendor that was around this little fellow in his new home (Whitehouse), he was so bravely and beautifully himself --and that only. A wild flower transplanted from the prairie to the hothouse, he retained his prairie habits, unalterably pure and simple, till he died.”

First person accounts like this provide graphic pictures of Willie, his mother, his life shortly before his death, and the reactions of those around him after he died. Historically, they’re invaluable.

One more piece was added to the picture recently. A six-page, autographed letter signed by Mary Todd Lincoln to her good friend and neighbor Julia Ann Spriggs in Springfield, Ill., surfaced at Sotheby’s New York on June 16.

Written on mourning stationary and dated May 29, 1862, three months after Willie’s death, the letter offers intimate insight into Mary’s frame of mind. She writes to Julia.

“What would I give to see and talk to you, in our crushing bereavement, if any one’s presence could afford comfort, it would be yours,” Mary said.

“…when the blow came, it found us so unprepared to meet it,” she added. “All that human skill could do, was done for our sainted boy…One so pure, was not to remain long here.”

Willie, the third Lincoln son, said to have inherited many of his father’s traits was dead. Grief stayed behind.

By 1862, Washington’s population had gone from 60,000 to 200,000. The area’s overly taxed sewage lines also broke draining into the Potomac.

The Whitehouse got its water from the contaminated river. Huge outbreaks of typhoid resulted all over Washington, D.C. Willie was one of many casualties.

“When I think over his short but happy childhood, how much comfort, he always was to me, and how fearfully I always found my hopes concentrating on so good a boy as he was…my question to myself is, ‘can life be endured,’” Mary added.

Offered for sale in the Fine Books and Manuscripts sale, the letter brought $18,000. Here are some current values for other historical pieces offered in the auction.

Historical Ephemera

Photographs; Panama Canal; 120; mostly the American phase of construction; circa 1912; $3,000.

Autograph letters; Katharine Hepburn; 23; to sculptor Robert Johnson McKnight; signed and nine typed; circa 1943 to 1988; $4,800.

Carte-de-visite photo album; Civil War Union officers; 197; at the end is a carte of Charles Dickens; 1860s; $33,600.

Autograph letters and documents; album of presidential documents and letters from George Washington to Herbert Hoover; $38,400.

Autograph letters; Winslow Homer; 103; offering important documentation of Homer’s paintings and methods of working; written to Knoedler Gallery in New York City; $204,000.

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