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Lincoln Still Rocks

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 9, Number 3

Submitted by an anonymous Resident Associate volunteer

Abraham and Mary Lincoln purchased their only home in 1844. It was a one-and-a-half story cottage at the corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets, not far from Lincoln's law office in downtown Springfield, Illinois. The Lincolns lived there until they left for Washington in 1861. Just down the road at the Great Western Railroad depot, Lincoln made his famous “Farewell Address” to the people of Springfield. Some said then it was a prophesy, an omen that he would never return alive.

The house, built in 1839 for Reverend Charles Dresser (who married the Lincolns three years later), was designed in the Greek Revival Style. The original structure was made with pine exterior boards, walnut interiors, and oak floors with wooden pegs. Hand-made nails held everything else together. In 1850, Lincoln added a brick wall and fence. In 1856, the Lincolns dramatically enlarged the house, expanding it to two stories. Construction took place that summer while Lincoln was away on the court circuit, prompting him to ask a neighbor on his return, “Do you know where Lincoln lives? He used to live here.”

While there are no original furnishings, today the house appears as it might have during the Lincoln years. Owned and operated by the National Park Service, they downplay its growing reputation as a "haunted" site, insisting there are no ghosts. However, those who say they have witnessed supernatural events are Park Service employees who served as tour guides or managers at the house.

A number of years ago, the Springfield State Journal-Register newspaper interviewed then-current and former staff members, all of whom claimed supernatural experiences while working in the house, especially with a lone woman who lurks throughout. When Shirlee Laughlin was employed at the house as a custodian, her superiors were very suspicious of her "vivid imagination." Ms. Laughlin claims, "I don't see the images as such, I see things happening."

Among the things she witnessed were toys and furniture moved to different rooms of the house at different times, seemingly on their own; candles that melted without being lit; and, Lincoln's favorite rocking chair, rocking back and forth under its own power. "At times that rocking chair rocks," she said, without regard to "the wind rushing down the hall, even when the windows are shut tight."

Besides being a custodian, Ms. Laughlin also was an expert on historic home restoration. She would often attempt to recreate the layout of the household furniture as she thought it might have looked when the Lincolns lived there. Once, while rearranging furniture in Mary Lincoln's former bedroom, she felt a tap on her shoulder. Thinking it was another employee she hadn’t heard enter, she nonchalantly turned and looked around the room, but there was no one there. That’s when she decided to leave the decorating to the previous owners, and left.

Another anecdote concerned a missing key to a wooden chest in Mary's room. "We looked everywhere for it," Ms. Laughlin reported, "then one morning it just showed up in the lock with a piece of pink ribbon." There was no explanation for where the key had been or who might have tied the new pink ribbon around it.

One former guide tells about when she was on duty at the front door and heard music coming from the piano in the parlor. She rushed to investigate, ready to scold the musical tourist who dared to play it. But when she got to the parlor, no one was in the room. Another ranger recalled several occasions when strange feelings, sounds, or the touch of invisible hands, caused her to close up the house early.

One ranger, speaking anonymously, tells of a late afternoon when she was working alone in the front parlor, close to a display of common period household items, including children's toys. She caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. As she approached, she saw a small, wheel-less toy propel itself across the floor on its own.

Many tourists report similar experiences at the Lincoln House. These include voices emanating from empty rooms; the rustle of silk dresses in hallways; sensing cold and hot spots; visions of a small, plump woman with flowers in her hair chatting in the parlor; and most often, Mr. Lincoln’s empty chair rocking back and forth.

Was the chair just moving in the breeze? Was the ghost really Mary? For those who believe in ghosts, some say the lady here is not Mary--everyone knows she haunts the White House gift shop--but Mrs. Lucian A. Tilton. Mrs. Tilton and her husband, president of the Great Western Railway, rented the Lincoln home from 1861 to 1869. During the period of national mourning, Mrs. Tilton allowed people to take grass from the yard, flowers from the garden and leaves from the trees. It wasn’t long before the lawn and gardens were stripped bare of flower and leaves, much of the paint was scraped off the house, and most of the bricks were yanked from the retaining walls, taken as souvenirs. Even after the Tiltons left, people continued to visit the home, ringing the bell day and night and asking for tours and relics.

Some say Mrs. Tilton never left. Some say her ghost lingers here at Eighth and Jackson. Some say it is she who is seen straightening the house and cleaning up after the many guests who continue to visit. Some say she does it in order to preserve the aura of the times and the spirit of the president we so greatly miss.