Thursday, July 14, 2011


Mary Lincoln "Peggy" Beckwith
On July 10, 1975, thirty-six years ago this week, Mary Lincoln “Peggy” Beckwith, Abraham Lincoln's only great-granddaughter, died in the hospital at Rutland, VT, age 76. When her younger brother Robert “Bud” Todd Lincoln Beckwith died ten years later, Abraham Lincoln’s direct bloodline came to an end.  Neither Peggy nor Bud had children to continue the line.

Peggy was born on August 22, 1898, to Jessie Harlan Lincoln Beckwith.  Her mother Jessie was the youngest of the three children of Robert Todd and Mary Harlan Lincoln, son and daughter-in-law of President Abraham Lincoln.  Jessie’s older siblings were Mary “Mamie” and Abraham “Jack.”

Mamie grew up and married Charles Isham, and had a son named Abraham Lincoln Isham. Although “Linc” married, he and his wife had no children. He died in 1971.

Jack, 16, died of blood poisoning in 1890, leaving no progeny.

Jessie married three times, first eloping with Warren Wallace Beckwith in Mount Pleasant, IA, where they lived. The marriage lasted ten years and resulted in three pregnancies. Jessie had Peggy in 1898; a still-born child in 1901, and Bud in 1904.  Neither Jessie’s second marriage to Frank Edward Johnson in 1915 nor third marriage to Robert John Randolph in 1926 produced children.

Peggy and Bud (who later preferred “Bob”) spent summers with their mother at Hildene, the estate that their grandfather Robert Todd Lincoln built in 1905 in Manchester, VT. Their father traveled extensively, absent from the household most of the time.  After Warren’s and Jessie’s divorce in 1907, when Peggy was only eight, Peggy never saw her father again. Grandfather Robert provided a father figure to Peggy and Bud, and both grandparents spoiled them lavishly. Peggy learned to play and love golf from her grandfather, and as a young woman participated in several women’s tournaments. Reports have it that she was a good player.

Jessie lived for a while in Washington, DC. While there, she sent Peggy to an esteemed private school there, a futile effort to instill in her daughter some of the social graces. Peggy had inherited her mother’s stubborn independence, however, and refused to submit to these norms. High society interested her not one whit. She was not cut out to be a social butterfly. She found much more stimulation in intellectual pursuits and the fine arts, in outdoors sports which included hiking, canoeing, fishing, and hunting, and, later, in aviation and farming. Although modern scholars have labeled her an eccentric recluse, Vermonters showed more than average tolerance for odd individuals, viewing Peggy as strong-willed and independent, which she indeed was.

(One magazine article states that Peggy spent many years in her late teens and early twenties in Provincetown, RI, where she became interested in painting and photography, but I can find no such place on any map. I don’t know if the author meant Providence, RI, or Provincetown, MA.)

Peggy with one of her airplanes
In the late 1920s, Peggy learned to fly airplanes, swept up in the new aviation craze that Lindberg’s trans-Atlantic flight and the exploits of Amelia Earhart spawned. Peggy had an airstrip built in the meadowlands at Hildene, and also assisted the Equinox Hotel in Manchester to develop a private airstrip for their flying clientele. Her first airplane was a Gypsy Moth, followed by a Fleet Model 1, then a Travelair, each plane successively larger.

Some time in the late 1930s or early 1940s, Peggy quit flying. Local legend has it that Grandmother Mary Harlan, who disapproved of the whole endeavor, bribed Peggy with $10,000 to stop this foolishness. How much truth there is in the legend is not clear. Mary Harlan died in 1937, and Peggy bought her last plane some time in the late 1930s. What is clear is that Peggy’s flying (along with her other unusual interests) defied the standards that the rest of the family held about how a lady should behave, to say nothing of the great-granddaughter of President Abraham Lincoln.

Robert Todd Lincoln’s widow, Grandmother Mary Harlan Lincoln, in preparing her will, left Hildene to her daughter Mamie (Peggy’s aunt), with granddaughter Peggy next in succession. Aunt Mamie died in 1938, only a year and a half after Mary Harlan died; thus Peggy inherited the estate. The will stipulated that if Peggy did not have children, the estate was to be left to the Church of Christ, Scientist, upon Peggy’s death.

Peggy settled quickly into life at Hildene. It had been more home to her than anywhere else. She studied farming and raising cattle, and began oil painting and sculpture. She lived there the rest of her life, amply provided for by her grandfather’s industry and success in the railroad business.

She remains something of an enigma. She never married, prompting some to believe that she was a lesbian. By some accounts, she was a recluse; by other accounts, she was involved in local civic activities. She was decidedly most comfortable surrounded by animals, and adopted many as pets, including native wildlife like raccoons, which had full run of the house. Although she managed Hildene as an active and successful dairy farm, and had more than passing interests in the new fields of ecology and preservation farming, she did little to maintain the house itself, and it was a shambles when she died.

Peggy’s cousin Linc was involved in founding the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester, VT. Peggy helped to organize the Center's art shows, in some of which she included her own artwork.

Peggy (center left) at submarine christening
Despite her disdain for high society, Peggy did happily accept an invitation in 1960 to christen the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, NH. She actually dressed up, very nicely and appropriately, in a blue and white polka-dot dress, even donning white gloves, a string of pearls, and a hat. She had experienced enough of the world to know that her signature dungarees would be out of place at such a function.

Upon Peggy’s death, Hildene and all of its effects went to her brother Bud, who recognized certain responsibilities and met a high civic standard in dealing with the vast mess.  He spent much of his remaining decade, despite his advancing years and compromised health, sorting out Hildene, his cousin Linc’s family memorabilia, and his own possessions.  He made significant donations to the Smithsonian Institution, released for publication hitherto hidden papers about the insanity trial of President Lincoln’s wife Mary, and otherwise made thoughtful and responsible decisions to make sure that the collection of Lincoln artifacts accumulated over a century or more were handled and distributed appropriately and with respect to the Lincoln legacy.

The Christian Science Church had no interest in managing real estate, so they put Hildene on the market. Defying the interests of a prominent developer, who wanted to raze Hildene for a subdivision, a group of Peggy’s friends organized The Friends of Hildene to rescue the site.  After two and a half years of negotiations, during which time the church reduced its asking price by 60 percent, an anonymous donor provided the monies in full. Hildene was saved. The Friends of Hildene restored the estate and grounds and maintain it today for visitors interested in this latter chapter of Lincoln lore.

Honoring her will, Peggy’s friends cast her ashes from the lookout near the gardens. Clearly, her spirit still roams her beloved Hildene.
Hildene, in Manchester, VT, 2009
There is not a wealth of information immediately available about Peggy Beckwith, as if she continues to maintain her privacy from beyond the grave. Hildene probably has the most information available about her, artifacts, artwork, papers, photographs, and so forth. One room in the estate is devoted to display her interests, hobbies, and activities.

Hildene, The Friends of Hildene  If you are in southern Vermont, be sure to visit Hildene for an informal visit into the lives of Lincoln’s descendants. The grounds and gardens are as beautiful as the house itself, which has been restored to its original, unpretentious elegance.

- King, C. J. Four Marys and a Jessie: The Story of the Lincoln Women (Manchester, VT: Friends of Hildene, Inc.) 2005.
- Connie Jo King, "Her Middle Name Was Lincoln: The Life of Mary Lincoln "Peggy" Beckwith," Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, 1995.
- Beschloss, Michael “Last of the LincolnsThe New Yorker, February 28, 1994.
- Lachman, Charles The Last Lincolns: The Rise & Fall of a Great American Family, (Union Square Press) 2008.
- Randall, Ruth Painter Lincoln’s Sons (Boston, Toronto: Little, Brown and Company) 1955.
- Neely, Mark E., Jr., and Harold Holzer The Lincoln Family Album (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press) 1990.
- Goff, John S. Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man In His Own Right (Manchester, VT: Friends of Hildene, Inc.) 1969.
- Top photo of Peggy: courtesy of Wikipedia
- Photo of Peggy with her airplane: courtesy of Hildene
- Photo of Peggy at submarine christening party: courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions .
- Photo of Hildene by
Sharon Wood of Claremont, NH.