Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln

In 1986 or 1987, I was doing research for a music composition project while a student at Ball State University. My project was based around the life of President Lincoln, and eventually transformed into the musical, LOVE IS ETERNAL: Mary Todd Lincoln.

In the course of research, I discovered there was a polka commissioned in honor of the First Lady, entitled, The Mary Lincoln Polka.  I set out to find a copy, or recording, and was always told it no longer existed, or by some Lincoln scholars that it never existed, ever.

Around 2002, following a few more requests for verification, I received a Xerox copy of one page from the score!

Twenty-five years later, I have numerous confirmations that there is, indeed, a Mary Lincoln Polka, and many have heard the music.  I sadly, have not.

Jim McCutcheon, guitarist

Jim McCutcheon, guitarist

Once, while visiting a very popular eatery in Kettering, Ohio, The Peasant Stock (now Figlio’s in Towne & Country plaza), a good friend and popular guitarist, Jim McCutcheon, was entertaining the appreciative diners. Jim was graciously taking written requests from the guests, and I scribbled, “Please play ‘The Mary Lincoln Polka.'” I will never forget the hysterical look that came across Jim’s face as he read the note before searching the room for where I was seated.  It will always remain one of my favorite, more milder  pranks!

Here are some recent findings to support the existence of The Mary Lincoln Polka…

From ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S CLASSROOM

On February 5, 1862, there was a major ball at the White House to show off Mary Lincoln’s redecoration of the interior. As part of the night’s festivities, the Marine Band, under the direction of Francis Scala, premiered one of his works, “The Mary Lincoln Polka.” Upstairs, Willie and Tad Lincoln lay feverish with typhoid. Tad survived, but Willie did not. After his death on February 20, Mrs. Lincoln could not bear the thought of the semi-weekly concerts. “It is our especial desire that the Band, does not play in these grounds, this Summer. We expect our wishes to be complied with,” Mrs. Lincoln wrote to Lincoln aide John Hay in late May 1862. After Hay wrote Mary Lincoln asking if the Marine Band could resume its concerts in Lafayette Square, she replied: “It is hard that in this time of our sorrow, we should be thus harassed. The music in Lafayette square, would sound quite as plainly here. For this reason, at least, our feelings should be respected.”

The Marine Band concerts were moved that summer. In August 1862, Stoddard wrote: “The Saturday evening musical promenades are held in the Capitol, instead of the White House grounds, this summer, and the Marine Band discourses sweet music to gay and wandering crowds; but the striking features are changed.

Transcript from the PBS documentary, ABRAHAM & MARY LINCOLN: A HOUSE DIVIDED:

Narrator: On the evening of February 5, 1862 Mary Lincoln organized a glittering reception in the East Room. Her lavish renovation would at last be on display while the Marine Band entertained with music specially composed for the occasion “the Mary Lincoln Polka.”  

Linda Levitt Turner, Biographer: Mary Lincoln’s Grand Gala Levee was plotted for months and months and months. And it was such a grand party that it was the kind that people invented an excuse to be out of town if they weren’t invited. On the table were models out of spun sugar of Fort Pickens and another one of the Ship of State and then over here was the terrapin and over there was the turkey and there was the ham and there were the shrimps and there were the oysters.

Narrator: Mary herself appeared in a white satin dress with a neckline so low that her admiring husband asked her if some of what he called its “tail” shouldn’t be sewn to the top. She had hoped that this splendid evening would finally make her not only the “First Lady” of the land — but the Queen of Washington Society, as well.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Historian: The reception had glittering men and women, fine dining. It was the moment of triumph that Mary had so yearned to find. This would be her crowning glory.

Narrator: The festivities went on ’til three in the morning. One newspaper called the ball “a brilliant success”: “Primarily we must remark the exquisite taste with which the White House has been refitted under Mrs. L’s directions… Mrs. L. possesses as rare a beauty as the Empress of the French.”

But Mary and the President spent much of that evening upstairs in 11-year-old Willy Lincoln’s bedroom. Their son was ill with what the doctors called “bilious fever” — typhoid.

During the days and nights that followed, Mary never left Willy’s side. As she nursed him, some newspapers savaged her for having entertained so lavishly in the midst of war. “Disgraceful frivolity, hilarity, and gluttony,” said one.

Another charged that the evening had been worthy of “a woman whose sympathies are with slavery and with those who are waging war.”

All the while, her son grew weaker. At five in the afternoon on February 20, Willy Lincoln died.

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