Essay

Native Ghosts

Genocide and madness collide in a reinterpretation of Mary Todd Lincoln.
Mathew Brady studio portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882), wife of Abraham Lincoln.

In May of 1875, a Chicago court determined that Mary Todd Lincoln, the former first lady, was insane and should be institutionalized in a private women’s sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois. Lincoln’s son, Robert, testified against her, worried that his mother’s erratic behavior—refusing to change her tattered bedclothes, clutching a pistol in her gown, her opiate addiction—would endanger the family legacy if made public. Lincoln was already considered volatile. Her elaborate displays of grief after her husband’s assassination in 1865 were condemned as dramatic and unladylike. Even more troubling was the testimony she submitted to the court. “The Indian,” Lincoln said, referring to a phantom who visited her bedroom every night, “slits my eyelids and sews them open, always removing the wires by dawn’s first light.” The jury in Chicago needed only 10 minutes to reach a verdict.

Doctors were quick to link Mary Todd’s nervous temperament to a host of contributing factors: her history of migraines, depression, and mood swings; the deaths of three of her four children; the pressures of being first lady; and, perhaps most crucially, the point-blank assassination of her husband as she held his hand in Ford’s Theatre. Her visions, however, began late in life. She was visited not by the spirits of her children or her murdered husband of 23 years, but by a mysterious Indian spirit.

That spirit was a brutal reminder of President Abraham Lincoln’s racial violence. At 10 AM on December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota Indians were hanged together in Mankato, Minnesota, at President Lincoln’s order. It was—and remains—the largest mass execution in United States history. Rationalized as punishment for the Dakota War of 1862, this execution was one of many genocidal efforts to forcibly remove the Dakota from Minnesota after the territory was granted statehood. Though treaties exchanged Dakota land for food and money, the US government left the Dakota on the verge of starvation, with no choice but to raid for food. In November 1861, nearly 500 Dakota men went on trial, most of them without legal representation. More than 300 were sentenced to death after only a few minutes of deliberation. President Lincoln personally reviewed the convictions. He ordered the mass execution of 38 Dakota and commuted the other sentences to internment. In addition, nearly 1,600 Dakota women, children, and elders were sent to live in the Fort Snelling concentration camp, where poor living conditions and diseases such as measles killed hundreds. By April, Minnesota voided treaties in order to drive the Dakota out and enacted legislation making it illegal for Dakota to occupy the newly formed state. To ensure the Dakota didn’t return, a bounty was set for every scalp.

The execution was a spectator sport. Four thousand settlers attended, merry and bright, still full of sweets from Christmas Day. Together, they watched as 38 bodies dangled from ropes, stark against the stolen land.

***

In her new book Savage Conversations (2019), a sui generis collection of poetry and drama, the writer and filmmaker LeAnne Howe suggests that President Lincoln’s unacknowledged genocidal legacy haunted Mary Todd. Further, the country’s abandonment of the first lady after Lincoln’s death, and her family’s betrayal as she began to exhibit signs of mental illness, was an extension of this violent erasure. President Lincoln was memorialized as a martyr and a hero; Mary Todd was locked away when she began to speak of visions that threatened to erode Lincoln’s—and by extension, America’s—benign historical narrative.

Savage Conversations is a well-researched yet intuitive depiction of a history that’s too often omitted from textbooks and cultural memory. Conceived as a lyrical theater of the absurd, and written in the form of a play, Howe’s book puts the grotesque spectacle of American history in the spotlight. A member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Howe often engages Native life in her work, as in her novels Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story (2007) and Shell Shaker (2001). The title poem from her collection Evidence of Red: Poems and Prose (2005), which won the Oklahoma Book Award, may well have foreshadowed her latest explorations:

In the pulp of shadow and space,
water sucked our people from sleep.
That’s how it all began. At least
that’s all we can remember to tell.

Howe’s new text aims to reclaim and re-envision. Mary Todd is no longer the mad Mrs. Lincoln locked away and muzzled by her son, politicians, and history. Here, she speaks from center stage:

Arriving nightly without invitation,
You make my room a ceremony as
Nightjars sing, wing-clap, chirr the song.
Inhabited at dawn by God’s will, like we are.

When shall I tell them the truth?
Where shall I keep the truth?
Under my frayed petticoat,
It will not flower now.

Howe’s lyric fragments and rhythm (re)tells a story that’s often shunted through the linear, patriarchal lens of history. Mary Todd is recast as a poet and a prophet whose monologues aren’t delusional but documentary. In Howe’s version, Mary Todd’s hallucinations of an Indian cutting her face and sewing open her eyes becomes ceremonial, even spiritual, an act of God. Howe sees something holy in Mary Todd’s visions, and invites readers to revisit a history that once condemned the first lady’s madness.

“Gracious, the lies they tell about me,” Mary Todd whispers, her predicament as clear as her pedigree. Born in 1818 to a wealthy family of slaveowners in Kentucky, several of whom served in the Confederate army, Mary Todd grew up in a sprawling 14-room house, attended finishing school from an early age, and was well-versed in politics. Indeed, she nurtured and encouraged her husband’s political aspirations. Though she sought to be a fine first lady (the first “Western” woman in the office), she was also disparaged as unrefined and pretentious. She was criticized for spending exorbitant sums to redecorate the White House and host social functions during wartime.

From a contemporary reader’s perspective, Mary Todd’s privilege is on full display in Howe’s text. Even as she grieves her husband, Mary Todd also mourns the loss of her status: the money and respect that Lincoln’s presidency conferred, as well as the material luxuries of gloves and gowns, chiffons and silks. Howe is careful not to glorify Mary Todd, who views the Dakota with contempt. “Savage, be gone from my head!” she cries to her tormentor, known in the text only as Savage Indian. As the book progresses, however, Mary Todd seems to recognize her own privilege and admits to Savage Indian: “Freedom will never be yours, not in this land. Soon I will be absolved of this place. Free. Unlike you, who can never escape the past.”

Mary Todd’s asylum stay was indeed brief. After three months, she smuggled letters about her imprisonment to her lawyer and to the editor of the Chicago Times. Her son and the director of the asylum agreed to release her to her sister’s custody to avoid further public damage to the Lincoln family. Mary Todd’s abbreviated imprisonment contrasts starkly with that of Savage Indian, who is held forever captive by the first lady’s visions, and by the exploitation of unscrupulous men. After the 1862 hangings in Minnesota, a doctor dug up the Dakota’s mass grave and used the bodies as medical cadavers. The skull of Little Crow, who first led the raids to feed his people, was kept as a relic for more than century. It was finally returned to his family in 1971.

The Savage Indian is both a caricature and a collective symbol in Howe’s book. He’s the oversimplified foil to Mary Todd’s family legacy and white privilege, and he’s also the collective voice of indigenous genocide. He exists to remind Mary Todd—and by extension, contemporary readers—that erasure leaves traces, and that even the innocent bear responsibility. “If you have no guilt, why conjure me to torture you? Why not conjure John Wilkes Booth?” he asks Mary Todd. Savage Indian is an agent of the long-standing marginalization of the Dakota Wars and of Native genocide, as well as of President Lincoln’s often overlooked crimes against indigenous people.

Howe gives Savage Indian a platform and a voice that allows him to embody his own history rather than a sanitized myth:

Because the wind refuses your touch
Because the insects abandoned the ground where you slept
Because your prayers wilt the prairie grasses
Because at dawn every breath is a trial
Because with your eyes sewn open you still see nothing

Because everything you touch leaves a bruise.

The muskets are being reloaded
The carbines are being reloaded
The large bore rifles are being reloaded
The Gatling guns are being reloaded
Emancipate me.

Fire!

Howe presents Savage Indian’s monologue as a metronome of cultural culpability. Because, he repeats, to prevent erasure. Because, he repeats, as his natural pulse, and later, as a military march. In Savage Indian’s words, Howe juxtaposes the natural elements of the plains—wind, insects, grass, breath, prayer—against America’s relentless violence (muskets, carbines, rifles). Lyric fragments run together like history, while moments of human hurt are punctuated as sharp reminders of the brutality of execution instead of emancipation. The natural world is active compared to the passive voice that describes machines of war. Howe compresses time here, with your denoting both the historical figure of Mary Todd and contemporary Americans in general.

Still, Savage Indian endures only because of Mary Todd. “In this dream I live,” he says, his existence made manifest by her madness. Savage Indian is a byproduct of Mary Todd’s revisionist remorse—a revision that seeks to establish her private madness as a reflection of national conscience. While Mary Todd is sympathetic in Howe’s narrative by virtue of her illness and gender (contexts that marginalized her in 1875 and would still marginalize her today), her privilege leads to fear of, and hostility toward, Savage Indian. He is her own (re)vision, a spirit who shows little respect for her high station and who violates her body without consent. Howe constructs this power dynamic in such a way that it exists simultaneously across time. The terms savage and mad, violence and erasure are complicated depending on their cultural context, and yet the definitions are hauntingly similar despite the centuries between them. “Hear me now, woman, now and forever,” Savage Indian commands as the book concludes, “Everywhere you are, I am.” It’s a proclamation that what ails a nation in 1875 will continue to resonate in 2019.

Operating as a Greek chorus in this American tragedy is The Rope, depicted in the stage instructions as both a hangman’s noose and the hangman himself. Seething throughout the book, The Rope is not yet another mad delusion but an artifact. As the novelist Susan Power writes in her introduction to Savage Conversations, one of the original execution nooses from the 1862 hangings was unearthed the same week that Howe added The Rope character to the book. Howe suggests that the lynching rope is an American relic with a legacy all its own. While Mary Todd represents familial shame and Savage Indian speaks for those erased, The Rope acts as the cruel voice of history:

I done it.
Done ’em all.
I come when I’m called
Like a dog,
A horse,
A lover.

This is how I make brothers and sisters.

As Howe notes in her stage directions, The Rope is gleeful and twirls like a dancer. This twisting—partly merry, partly malevolent—is echoed in the narrative. At first, The Rope is a silent presence, although his violent intentions are clear. Surrounded by empty space reminiscent of erasure, absence, starkness, indeed, whiteness, The Rope doesn’t speak but nonetheless interrupts Howe’s narrative. Like a lynching noose, he gains power through repetition, and ultimately comes into voice. Violence, he gloats, is the mechanism through which he connects with his American brothers and sisters. Eventually, The Rope hangs noose by noose from Mary Todd’s rafters, 38 synchronous swinging reminders that compel her to contemplate suicide, as she contemplated—and actually attempted with a dose of laudanum—after her insanity trial.

The Rope, too, searches for his legacy. He reminds readers how readily he has been summoned in the past, and how quickly the crowds assembled after that fateful Christmas Day in 1862. The Rope shifts from the consciousness of the hangman to that of the spectator: “I know the secret thrill of taut,” he says, in an eerie approximation of human pleasure, “I float in the wind like a flag on holidays. I inspire national pride.” The snapping sound of the rope in the wind is the soundtrack of a celebratory nation.

Absent here is Abraham Lincoln, whose death removes him from the book if not from national memory altogether. This is a deliberate erasure by Howe, and an ironic one: after all, Lincoln’s actions were the impetus for this history and for the narrative itself. Obfuscation is Howe’s intention. Savage Conversations is a reframing so that readers, too, might “see the world as it truly is,” in Mary Todd’s words. While Lincoln’s voice frames history, particularly his promise at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, “that all men are created equal,” Howe refocuses on voices that have been silenced. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” Lincoln assures America in his oft-quoted address, “But it can never forget what they did here.” But forgetting, Howe insists, is precisely what the country has done. History has focused on the myth instead of the terror that remains for marginalized bodies.

***

The absurdist reality that Howe envisions offers a more accurate history of the United States and a more honest assessment of President Lincoln’s legacy than most textbooks do. The ghosts of genocide are part of Lincoln’s legacy. So is Mary Todd’s torment. She’s a pitiable figure here as she cries out for affection. “Did you know when I left the White House after Mr. Lincoln was buried,” she asks, “not a single soul clasped my hands to bid me farewell or express sorrow for my fate. It was as if I were dead and buried with the president. Will no one touch me again?” There are few greater insults to the ideal of American exceptionalism than the fear of being forgotten.

Howe suggests that Mary Todd’s insanity is also a cultural madness. The first lady’s horror over history, her grief and depression, her desire for status, and her fears of poverty still inflict the country. Her 19th century contemporaries would hardly have considered her illness emblematic of historical consciousness. They saw, instead, hysteria, but Mary Todd is a prime target for revisionist history given a current culture reckoning with women’s trauma, mental health, and political violence. Though she was afforded little political power in her lifetime because of her gender, Mary Todd bears, in part, the burden of her husband’s actions. Her madness is reimagined as remorse so that readers may more accurately understand President Lincoln’s role. It is only in retrospect that Mary Todd becomes symbolic, and that her madness seems to stand for America’s larger madness, grief, and guilt.

Still, suggesting that Mary Todd’s illness is an extension of the historical erasure that facilitated President Lincoln’s whitewashed legacy also renders Mary Todd a symbol rather than a woman. Like Savage Indian, this revisioning casts her as a caricature and a counterpoint to her husband, her gender, political power at large, and wealth. Myth overshadows Mary Todd’s identity, just as the atrocities of the Dakota War were later overshowed by monuments honoring white Minnesota settlers or Lincoln’s placid face carved into the Black Hills of South Dakota. Savage Indian reflects on history’s cruelty and laments, “When I look at your world, I weep because in the end, even your life is a captivity narrative. Maybe we are all captives of one sort or another?” Imprisonment links Mary Todd and the Indian spirit, as does President Lincoln’s savagery. America is complicit in this captivity, Howe suggests, through its fascination with female suffering, Native suffering, and inaccurate cultural performances controlled by colonizers. “I still see my dress and bloody gloves from that night,” Mary Todd sighs, adding, “In the future they will one day be on display in the museum in Springfield. That is what they want of me. My sacrifices. And you, in the future I see your feathered headdresses, boxes of your people’s bones made ready for study. We are a pair, you and I, relics to be studied.” Indeed, the trials of Mary Todd, and the history of the Dakota Wars, are now curated, their histories tended by those who would have once erased them.

Savage Conversations posits an America whose collective insanity allows for the eradication of communities, the rewriting of shameful narratives, and the heroizing of villains. Mary Todd sees the truth, and as she descends into madness she discovers: “Tonight, your flint knife stumbles and draws conclusions. We languish in a room filled with betrayal.” In this sobering moment, she must grapple with her love for her husband and her love of country. Mary Todd turns her back on those who rejected her, welcomes both her madness and Savage Indian, and the truth she finally sees with her eyes sewed open. She allows The Rope the final word: a simple, seething “Yes.”

This reckoning isn’t exclusive to 1875, however. It has parallels with today, as the United States is still fraught with a cultural madness that allows those in power to write whatever narrative suits them and cast aside atrocities to render themselves as heroic symbols. Indeed, Mary Todd’s visions become prophecies of this modern America: “My husband’s spirit tells me that in the future, metropolitan police of the district will shoot black men and black children on the streets of Washington like moving targets,” she says. “I no longer have to worry. That doesn’t mean I am not suspicious of the living,” Savage Indian tells Mary Todd, for while history reframed President Lincoln’s legacy as one of benevolent glory, Howe refocuses on a national inheritance that is contradictory and even criminal. Perhaps the real ghosts here are in Howe’s portrayals of presidential power, the treatment of marginalized bodies, the erasure of shameful stories in favor of those that glorify a man and a nation; historical relics and monuments and walls, sanity and control—these are still what haunt us.

Originally Published: February 18th, 2019

Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press, 2018), and the poetry chapbooks Regenerate: Poems of Mad WomenLeaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide, and The Astronaut Checks His Watch. She is an assistant professor at Bridgewater State University.