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Six more books on Lincoln

Of the 60-plus Lincoln books released this season, several stand out.

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Other recent books have covered some of the same ground. But “They Have Killed Papa Dead!” provides an excellent overview, bringing thoughtful analysis to one of the most sensational events in American history.

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Chief among the victims of Lincoln’s assassination should be counted his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. She lived another 17 years after his death but never recovered from her grief and shock.

Mary Lincoln has been called “First Lady of Controversy” and is generally remembered in a less-than-flattering light. In Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, academic and author Catherine Clinton argues – more convincingly in some places than in others – that history has been unfair to this complex, “brilliant,” yet “flawed” woman.

Like her husband, Mary Todd was born in Kentucky, but reared in the luxurious mansion of her socially prominent family. When Abraham Lincoln met her in Springfield, Ill., she was the belle of the ball. The exact circumstances of their courtship have been lost but it would seem that Mary deserves some credit for seeing potential in the awkward, unpedigreed Abraham.

As a wife, Mary was often demanding and always emotional. But her husband expressed great respect for her intellect and she was said to possess a special ability to soothe and bolster his spirits.

Both the Lincolns doted on their children and suffered grievously at the deaths of two of them.

But when her husband was slain in 1865 Mary tumbled into a seemingly endless sea of troubles. It was five years before the US government would grant her a pension. One year after she finally became financially secure, her son Tad died. Four years after that, her one remaining child had her committed to a mental institution.

She was eventually released and lived abroad for some years but there was little joy in the days of her widowhood.

Where Mary Lincoln’s unhappy story leaves off, Charles Lachman picks up with his book The Last Lincolns: The Rise & Fall of a Great American Family. Lachman, executive producer of the TV show “Inside Edition,” tracks the epic history of the Lincoln family from the 1860s to 1985, when the president’s alleged last descendant, a great-grandson, passed away.

At first glance, this is a very grim tale. As Lachman tells it, the Lincoln descendents dissolved into “scandal and a sense of entitlement,” becoming a “symbol for dishonor and decadence in the upper class” and an inverse image of the beloved president.

The trouble began with the unhinged Mary Lincoln, and Lachman tells her sad story in both gripping and suspenseful terms, including a careful account of the injustices she faced as she battled insanity charges.

Lachman paints Robert Todd Lincoln, the Lincoln’s only surviving son as a grump who somehow managed to be on the scene at two more presidential assassinations. The next two generations – including an eccentric spinster, a playboy, and a wild-child divorcée – became mired in scandal.

Throughout the book, Lachman expertly explores the times in which the Lincoln descendents lived and the choices they made regarding religion (several turned to Christian Science), marriage, and wealth.

Today, a Florida prosecuting attorney in his 40s may – or may not –  be the last Lincoln. Only a blood test will tell for sure and he hasn’t offered to take one. Greatness, it seems, runs in some families while running from others.

The good news is that greatness, in the form of one Abraham Lincoln, struck at the right time and in the right place.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego. Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

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