The new film “Lincoln” has opened to near-universal rave reviews and Oscar buzz is already swelling for Daniel Day Lewis’s astonishing performance of “Father Abraham.”
A look back shows a Dorchester connection – two of them, in fact – with the man many historians deem our greatest president save for George Washington. Residents of the town got a close-up look at Lincoln the politician long before he was president, and the local views on the Midwesterner were mixed.
To prepare for an 1848 campaign swing through Massachusetts on behalf of the Whig Party’s presidential candidate, Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican-American War, Lincoln, then a member of the US House of Representatives from Illinois, had asked William Schouler, the editor of the Boston Atlas, to give him an “undisguised opinion as to what New England generally, and Massachusetts particularly, will do [in the upcoming presidential election.”
On September 16, the tall, angular thirty-nine-year-old congressman with dense, slightly unkempt, dark hair strode to the podium in Richmond Hall in the Lower Mills section of the town, fully aware of the strong abolitionist stance of many of the town’s Whigs, who had streamed into the hall intent on taking a measure of the man.
Lincoln opened his speech with an assurance “that the people of Illinois agreed entirely with the people of Massachusetts on this subject.” Injecting what he hoped was a bit of humor, he cracked that the difference was that his home state “did not keep so constantly thinking about it” as did people in Dorchester and the rest of Massachusetts.
The jest fell flat, and he shrugged and launched into the heart of his speech, offering that “slavery was an evil, but that we were not responsible for it and cannot affect it in the states of this union where we do not live.”
He cited his, and Taylor’s, strong opposition to any extension of slavery to new US territories, including those that the nation had just seized from Mexico. That opposition mirrored the views of the majority of Massachusetts’ voters and made him a logical, if largely unfamiliar, choice to line up the state’s Whigs behind Taylor.
During his appearance, Lincoln’s physical appearance and mannerisms caught the audience’s attention as much as his oratory. Watching the visitor towering above the podium, one observer noted that he kept “leaning himself up against the wall ... and talking in the plainest manner, and in the most indifferent tone, yet gradually fixing his footing, and getting command of his limbs, loosening his tongue, and firing up his thoughts, until he had got entire possession of himself and of his audience.”
Local listeners were divided over Lincoln’s style. One Whig who liked his delivery complained nonetheless: “It was a pretty sound, but not a tasteful speech.”
In local newspapers, reactions ran along party lines. The Boston Daily Advertiser, a Whig paper favored by such prominent Dorchester citizens as William C. Codman, called his talk “one of the best speeches ever heard [in Massachusetts].” In the Boston Herald, Lincoln earned plaudits as “a tremendous voice for Taylor.” Democratic-leaning newspapers either ignored Lincoln’s speech or assailed it. “Absolutely nauseous,” stated the Norfolk Democrat. Equally harsh was the Roxbury Gazette’s assessment: “A melancholy display.”
As the Whigs were leaving the hall on that September day, it’s likely the few thought they had just seen and heard a future president. Lincoln himself later recalled that he “went with hayseed in my hair to Massachusetts to learn deportment in the most cultivated State in the Union.”
Some thirteen years later, when that same voice appealed for volunteers from Massachusetts to fight the Confederates, scores of the Dorchester men answered the call and joined the ranks of the Union Army.
Dorchester’s other Lincoln connection had nothing of the flavor of the event at Richmond Hall. In the winter of 1863, with the Civil War ravaging the nation, America’s most famous actor – “the Prince of Players,” one of the greatest Shakespearean thespians in history – was living with his gravely ill wife Mary and their young daughter Edwina in a small house on Washington Street in Dorchester.
Edwin Booth was the toast of Boston’s theater community with his astonishing lead performances in Shakespeare’s memorable plays. Among the society types who opened their hearts and purses to the famed actor and his family was the Bostonian Julia Ward Howe, of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” renown.
A Boston doctor had urged Mary Devlin Booth to find a quiet setting from which to deal with her consumption, someplace far away from the clutter, filth, and fast pace of Manhattan. She and Edwin chose Dorchester partly because of its “healthful country setting” but mainly because Dr. Erasmus Miller, one of the area’s most noted consumption specialists, lived nearby.
Of the Booths’ diminutive Dorchester lodging, the biographer Eleanor Ruggles wrote in Prince of Players: “Its little windows at the back overlooked a snow-covered slope undulating down toward Dorchester Bay; you could see ice-skimmed water from the bedroom window.”
Edwin Booth packed in crowds at the Boston Theatre in late 1862, earning the stunning sum of $5,000 in his two weeks there. Still, his bills were immense, and his money always “seeped out again in a dozen directions.” His worry about his wife’s condition made him “sick as hell.” He and Mary also quarreled over his upcoming February 1863 performances in New York. She insisted that she would go; he was dead set against the idea.
In mid-January 1863, she got out of bed and accompanied her husband to the Boston Museum, where the play “The Apostate” was in the midst of a triumphant run that was shattering the records that Edwin had just set at the Boston Theatre. The “extraordinary” actor packing them in as “The Apostate’s” villainous Pescara and whose “hot breath was on Edwin’s neck” was Edwin’s younger brother John, a frequent visitor to the house on Washington Street.
In February 1863, John stepped off a train in New York on his way from Boston to Philadelphia and rushed to his brother’s apartment to warn him that Mary was “ill with a feverish cold.” She passed away on February 21, 1863, before Edwin reached Boston.
The funeral services were held at Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge, and Julia Ward Howe noticed not only the sorrow-wracked husband, but also the man at Edwin Booth’s side throughout the service: His brother John Wilkes Booth, “a young man of remarkable beauty.”