The Death of Tad Lincoln

Tad Lincoln and his Father, President Abraham Lincoln.

Tad Lincoln had just turned 18 when he died.

Tad in Springfield, IL

Tad Lincoln when he was around three.

Thomas Lincoln, (1853-1871) named for his paternal grandfather, was called Tad from the outset.  It was a hard birth, and Tad was born with a cleft palate and its resulting speech impediment.

His early years were happy. His brother Robert was older by ten years.  Three-year-old Eddie died six years before Tad was born. But Willie, older by only two-and-a-half years, was Tad’s best friend and boon companion.

The Taft Brothers, Lincoln playmates and best friends.

Abraham and Mary Lincoln were loving parents, considered permissive for the Victorian Age. Keenly aware of Tad’s handicap, and perhaps some (unknown to them) childhood dyslexia that kept him from learning at the usual pace, the parents Lincoln encouraged him to “remain a boy” as long as possible.

Tad in the White House

Tad Lincoln was only seven, the youngest presidential child to live in the White House up to that turbulent time.

Union soldiers were camped in and around the White House – a heady sight for young boys.  Willie and Tad made friends; the staff loved them, the soldiers loved them, they had the run of the White House and a grand time of it!

But in 1862, 11-year-old Willie died, and the Lincolns were devastated. Tad was eight. He lost his brother, best friend and playmate. He could barely deal with his own loss or grief. His distraught parents, distracted by their own problems, had little time to comfort him.

Tad Lincoln in his “soldier’s uniform” when he lived in the White House.

Three years later, Abraham Lincoln (the boy’s new best friend) was assassinated, and Tad, just twelve, somewhat babyish and still unable to read, had to grow up quickly.

Tad in Chicago and Europe

Tad’s mother, the Widow Lincoln.

Barely able to cope, former First Lady Mary Lincoln refused to return to Springfield and its memories. Instead, she and her two remaining sons went to Chicago. Despite her own cares, she realized Tad’s education had been woefully neglected, and it became a priority.

Tad was also approaching puberty. While he was unschooled and still juvenile, he definitely understood that he was an ordinary boy now.  He had to learn to do things for himself. Mary enrolled him in school, but since he was so far behind  other boys his age, private tutoring was essential. His speech impediment made things even harder. But he tried.

In 1868, Robert Lincoln, now 25, got married. Mary and Tad went to Washington for the wedding – and then sailed to Europe.  Pathologically concerned about finances, the Widow Lincoln believed it was cheaper to live abroad and Germany offered the best educational opportunities in the world. They remained off-and-on there for three years, with Tad either with tutors and classes, or as companion to his mother.

Then Robert and his wife, also named Mary, had a baby daughter – yet another Mary Lincoln.

Tad Comes Home to Die

Tad Lincoln as a young man.

Tad was delighted with his new title: Uncle. He always idolized his big brother, but the ten years between them had been a chasm. Now the chasm was closing. He wanted to go home. Mary booked passage in mid-May, 1871.

The arrival of the Widow Lincoln in New York was of modest interest, and one of the newspapers sent a reporter – none other than John Hay, who had been one of Lincoln’s private secretaries, and who knew the family intimately. Hay was particularly interested in seeing Tad, who he remembered as a somewhat spoiled child. He was delighted by the progress of young “Mr. Thomas Lincoln”, including his improved speech, albeit now with a German accent.  Even before he filed his story, Hay wrote his good friend Robert Lincoln with glowing praise for Tad, who had made such great strides.

Robert Lincoln was ten years older than Tad.

Robert was now ready to be a big brother. Married, a father with a growing law practice, he wanted to help guide Tad in his future plans.

But Tad had caught a cold en route, and when they reached Chicago, it had worsened. Their stay as guests of the young Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln was brief, and also worsened. The two Mary Lincolns saw their once-cordial relationship deteriorate to a point that Robert’s wife packed up the baby and left to care for her own ailing mother.

Robert’s wife – another Mary Lincoln. This one was Mary Harlan Lincoln.

The tensions created sufficient turmoil for the Widow to pack up as well, and move with Tad to the Clifton House Hotel on Wabash Avenue.

Tad’s Decline and Death

Tad’s cold had become serious and required Dr. C.G. Smith’s medical attention. He had trouble breathing, and was feverish. The diagnosis was (by various sources) dropsy, or pleurisy, or tuberculosis. Whatever the actual cause, all aforesaid possibilities were extremely serious without modern antibiotics.  He suffered horribly, and was confined to a chair with an iron bar across it to prevent him from falling forward or lying down, a position that made breathing impossible.  Mary Lincoln hovered by his side. Robert came daily.  Doctors came daily.  So did a few old Lincoln friends who could extend words of sympathy, but little more. Tad died on July 15.

According to the obituary in the Chicago Tribune (generously provided by Jane Gastineau of the Allen County Public Library, Ft. Wayne, IN), a private funeral service was held at the home of Robert Lincoln, but Mrs. Lincoln (Sr.) was too distraught to attend. Mrs. Lincoln (Jr.) was still with her mother. The small service, officiated by Dr. Everts of the First Baptist Church, was attended by some Lincoln friends, and some of Tad’s old Sunday School classmates.

Once again Robert Lincoln rode a train with a coffin to Springfield, along with his father-in-law Senator James Harlan of Iowa, Judge David Davis, and other Lincoln friends. Another private service was held at the home of his aunt and uncle, Elizabeth and Ninian Edwards, Jr. before final interment in the Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery, where his father and two older brothers had been laid to rest. There were a few obituaries in the newspapers marking Tad’s passing.

Thomas Tad Lincoln

Tad Lincoln is buried in the family crypt.

In honor of the son of Abraham Lincoln, the flag at the Illinois State House in Springfield was flown at half-mast.


Epstein, Daniel Mark – The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, 2008, Ballantine

Painter, Ruth Painter – Lincoln’s Sons, 1955, Little, Brown

The Chicago Tribune, July 16 and July 17, 1871, generously provided by Jane Gastineau, Lincoln Librarian, Allen County Public Library, Ft. Wayne IN



About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
This entry was posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Abraham Lincoln, Nifty History People and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Death of Tad Lincoln

  1. energywriter says:

    The Lincoln’s were a tragic family. You handle their grief with such dignity. sd

  2. Linda Baver says:

    “. . .before final internment in the Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery,” Please note: the correct word is “interment.”

  3. Loyston Njeru says:

    why should good people suffer so much in life?

  4. Mark Sloggett says:

    The picture captioned as Willie and Tad is actually Bud and Holly Taft, friends and playmates of the Lincoln boys.

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