by Tim Gilmore, 9/19/2020
1. Far Stranger Lengths, an Introduction
The house watches over the river, its French Second Empire-style windows perched from its head like the eyes atop a frog. Like it’s always been here. Even before it traveled, long ago, the St. Johns River from the adjacent neighborhood called Brooklyn, up from its hotel years. Indeed the house is amphibious. It lurks upon the floods of the last hurricane like it once walked the St. Johns.
Most recently the River House Apartments, the old house once operated as a hotel called both River House and Rochester House. It’s a storied building, like every old structure in a city, and the characters who populate the stories of this old house include the widow of the 16th president and the nephew of a canonical Southern writer.
Mary Todd Lincoln had begun to lose her mind well before staying in the old hotel. Already the “Indian spirits” were taking bones from her face. Besides, grieving is mental illness, and the loss of a child might send a parent to far stranger lengths than bringing psychic mediums to the White House.
When Rachel Rippey lived in a downstairs apartment, a loud crash woke her one night when a heavy wind, seemingly from inside the apartment, blew the heavy burlap curtains across the kitchen. Next morning, one of her high school students told her it was Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
A century later, four decades of quiet living while treating patients for problems of the heart might counteract the great loss expressed by your uncle’s most famous novel, The Moviegoer, which won the National Book Award in 1962, whether or not these ever could have been your words:
“Three o’clock and suddenly awake amid the smell of dreams and of the years come back and peopled and blown away again like smoke. A young man am I, 29, but I am as full of dreams as an ancient. At night the years come back and perch around my bed like ghosts.”
I’ve been pursuing this story for more than a year. Two months ago, it spanned close to 10,000 words; now it’s closer to 3,000. Any story can tie itself in knots and every story says things it cannot. Still, this isn’t just any story. I hope you’ll forgive me the circumlocutions.
2. Mary’s Madness
Historians have often dated the onset of Mary Todd Lincoln’s insanity to March of 1875, when the president’s widow left her hotel in Jacksonville to travel back home to Illinois. Just more than a year earlier, as Jason Emerson writes in his 2012 book The Madness of Mary Lincoln, she’d written that so many of her “ties to this world” had been “severed,” she sometimes felt she had “no right to remain upon earth.”
Rochester House, as the Jax hotel was known, now a recently renovated apartment building, still stands, though not where it did when Mary looked out its window at the end of February and wrote, “I am now looking down upon a yard with its roses, white lilacs and other flowers. (Although it is raining and we have had a good deal of rain in its soft, dreamy, light fashion.) Since the middle of January, I remained too much out, on my balcony, took a severe cold, had much inward and outward fever for three weeks and one day when it was raging at its height I told my nurse to pack up a small trunk and valise and we would leave town.”
That year, Rochester House was described as offering “facilities” for “fishing and boating” and “comfortably accommodat[ing] from 30 to 40 guests.” It stood near the junction of McCoys Creek and the St. Johns River.
Whatever the First Lady did between sending that letter and the 12th of March, no documentation suggests, but on the latter date, she suddenly “knew” her son Robert was dying and fled Jacksonville, sending him telegrams imploring him to “rouse yourself and live for my sake all I have is yours from this hour [sic].” Robert, perfectly healthy back in Chicago, telegraphed the station, asking “if Mrs. Abraham Lincoln now at Jacksonville is in any trouble mentally or otherwise.” When she arrived in Chicago, things came to a head.
3. Winter City in Summer Land
Oh but what a flight of stairs this is! It wraps gracefully around an arc, spirals up to the next floor, languishes lightly before slinging upward once again. And so on up.
At the end of the Civil War, Confederate veteran Miles Price purchased Dell’s Bluff Plantation, sold off the southern portion, which became Riverside, and platted the remainder for former slaves and United States Colored Troops veterans. Why a Confederate developed a neighborhood for black people and named it Brooklyn remains a mystery, though it’s clear that around 1870, Isaac Jameson named this Second Empire style hotel in Brooklyn, Florida after his hometown of Rochester, New York. Much of Jacksonville had supported the United States against the Confederacy during the Civil War and remained loyal afterward.
In the 1870s, Jacksonville was a frontier terminus, the sounding of a southern depth, “the Winter City in a Summer Land.” Northerners suffering from tuberculosis were still prescribed vacation time in Florida swamps infested with yellow fever and malaria as a cure. According to several histories like T. Frederick Davis’s in 1925 and Richard Martin’s 1972 The City Makers, 14,000 Northern tourists wintered in Jacksonville in 1870 and 100,000 in 1885. Hotels and rooming houses and tourist homes rose in every empty space in the city. Some of them occupied whole city blocks. Only Rochester House remains.
By 1885, James Esgate, in his book Jacksonville, the Metropolis of Florida: A Description of its History, Industry, Churches, Schools, Hotels, Hospitals, and Other Institutions, with Sketches of Some of Its Business and Professional Men, described Rochester House, where Mary Todd Lincoln had stayed four months a decade prior:
“A large and spacious villa, with airy balconies suggestive of cool and comfort on a warm summer day, faces the river and commands a fine view of that noble waterway and the surrounding country. The grounds are prettily laid out in walks and a fine grove of orange trees lends its dark foliage and golden fruit to the beauty of the scene. A flight of stairs leads down the terraced lawn to the river, which is the common rendezvous of people of leisure who seek pleasure or health in Florida’s metropolis.”
And that spiral of stairs is like none other in the city. It wraps itself tight, then springs loose, releases itself up into the next several apartments, the next set of stories, the following flights of fancy through history.
4. Comes to Me Every Night
While she was living at River House, Rachel Rippey heard about a Riverside walking tour that featured the building she lived in. Somehow she hadn’t known of it. So she and her roommate checked it out. River House regularly appears on lists of “the most haunted buildings” in Jacksonville. “The tour mentioned Mary Todd Lincoln,” Rachel says, “something about her paranoia about closing the window shutters.” Though “it may be a stretch,” she says, she fondly considers her experience her “River House ghost story.”
It was during the Civil War that Mary Todd Lincoln brought psychic mediums into the White House where the Lincolns’ 11 year old son Willie had died of Typhoid Fever. Abraham Lincoln compassionately attended at least one White House séance with the First Lady. The spirits of Willie and Eddie, who’d died a month before his fourth birthday in 1850, visited their mother in the White House bedroom.
Mary knocked one night at the Prince of Wales Bedroom, where her half-sister Emilie Helm was sleeping, telling her that Willie “comes to me every night and stands at the foot of my bed with the same sweet, adorable smile he has always had.”
It was a few years after her husband’s assassination, and a year after their 18 year old son Tad died, that Mary’s behavior became truly bizarre. In 1872, Mary visited William Mumler, a spirit photographer, who produced a photograph of the widow dressed in black with the spirit of her dead husband standing behind her, looking down at her lovingly, his hands on her shoulders.
On the train from Jacksonville to Chicago, she thought someone tried to poison her and that the Wandering Jew, the mythical person who cursed Christ before the Crucifixion and was cursed in turn to walk the earth undying, had stolen her pocketbook.
Mary’s son Robert began proceedings to have her institutionalized, which started with a trial to determine her state of mind. At the trial, the Mary Lincoln said she’d been haunted by an Indian spirit who took bones from her face and removed wires from her eyes. Spirits visited her, rapping on the table to communicate the time of her death.
“Poor, poor Mary,” you think, spiraling up these stairs, imagining the apartments as hotel rooms, and you stand over a table by windows looking out on the water and think you feel the vast house pitch. Did the First Lady feel any such thing in this room, when the house stood well upriver? It’s disorienting, as are those tight spiral stairs that seem to yaw you out over the trees but envelop you instead in old walls. Near the top of the house, you feel you’re on a houseboat, top-heavy on time.
Robert’s betrayal was the last great sorrow in Mary’s life, which seemed to her nothing but a long train of death and grief. Now she had also to mourn Robert, though he remained very much alive, a successful Chicago lawyer. She would always believe, though records said otherwise, he’d had her committed “on false charges” so he could steal her money.