— When I picked up a copy of “A Giant in the Shadows,” the worker at the Abraham Lincoln Home Visitor’s Center bookstore said, “That’s the first truly definitive biography of Robert Todd Lincoln.” I was checking to see if it mentioned Mariah Vance, the Lincoln laundress, cook and housekeeper whose grave our Civil War Roundtable group decorates each year at Spring Hill Cemetery.
As I flipped to the index, I saw that it did. The book received excellent reviews when it came out last year, but I had passed it by until that day. I’m glad that I stopped to look at the book, because it renewed my interest in Mariah Vance’s story and I also wanted to learn more about the Lincoln’s eldest son.
Almost as if by design, a couple of days later, I received a telephone call asking if I’d speak to the District 118 Retired Teachers group. I anticipated that they were going to ask me to speak about one of my usual topics. I was pleasantly surprised when Jennifer Skowronski, said, “You can choose your subject, but we’d really like for you to talk about Mariah Vance.” She had heard me mention Mariah at a meeting, and as I often do, when someone gives me an opportunity, I go into a discourse about her, and how I felt Mariah was a woman ahead of her time, whose real story had been treated unfairly.
The publication of a highly anticipated and then much-maligned book called, “Lincoln’s Unknown Private Life” almost blew Mariah Vance off the credibility chart. The book came out in 1993 and was based on scribbled shorthand notes taken in the early 1900s as the elderly “Aunt Mariah” told a young woman about her life with the Lincolns. It contained some stories that many scholars scoffed at as pure fabrication.