An Unlikely Escort: The Dentist Who (Maybe) Helped Mary Lincoln Out of Frankfurt

In 1870, the widowed Mary Lincoln and her son Tad, who had already been in one war zone in Washington, D.C., found themselves in another as France and Prussia faced off.

Mary Lincoln in mourning after the death of her son Willie (my collection)

After her husband’s assassination, Mary refused to return to Springfield, Illinois.[1] Although the Lincolns owned a home at Eighth and Jackson Streets there, and three of her married sisters lived nearby, Mary was on chilly terms with many of her former neighbors. She decided instead to make her home in Chicago. Accompanied by her sons Robert and Tad, she moved to that city in May 1865. There, with Robert working for a law firm and Tad enrolled in school, she had little to do but to brood and await the division of the estate of her husband, who had died intestate. Having bought heavily on credit during her years as First Lady, she owed thousands of dollars to merchants.

 To clear her debts, Mary hit on the idea of selling her wardrobe, no longer needed now that Mary was perpetually in mourning garb. Enlisting the help of Elizabeth Keckly (also spelled “Keckley”), a former slave turned dressmaker who had created many fashionable garments for Mary in Washington, Mary traveled to New York in September 1867 under the name of “Mrs. Clarke.” What followed was an unmitigated disaster. Mary’s identity was quickly discovered. Aside from the sale being regarded as in poor taste, prospective buyers were unimpressed by the clothing, which of course was no longer in the height of style and not in the freshest condition. Those who could afford the asking prices did not need to buy secondhand garments anyway. The press, never well disposed to Mary, were merciless, and Robert Lincoln was humiliated and worried. Referring to money, he confided to his fiancée, Mary Harlan, “The simple truth, which I cannot tell anyone not personally interested, is that my mother is on one subject not mentally responsible.”[2]

Soon afterward, journalist James Redpath persuaded Elizabeth Keckly, who had been a frequent companion and confidante of Mary in Washington, to publish an account, Behind the Scenes, or; Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Keckly meant well, but this time it was she who took a drubbing at the hands of the press, which was appalled by the notion of a black woman presuming to write about a person who in some respects had been her former employer. Mary herself was furious with Keckly, who had included some letters from Mary in the appendix. (Keckly blamed Redpath, claiming he had not had her permission to do so.) In a letter to a friend, Mary referred to Keckly sneeringly as the “colored historian.”[3] Their friendship was over, at least as far as Mary was concerned. (Keckly retained a photograph of Mary into her old age.[4])

Frontispiece from Behind the Scenes (Library of Congress)

In all this there was one bright spot: the Lincoln estate was at last settled, leaving Mary reasonably secure, and her debts were paid. Mary decided to travel to Europe, which she and Lincoln had planned to visit after his second term as President ended. Her physicians had recommended travel abroad—a common prescription for those who could afford it—and she was eager to escape the American press. Having remained in America long enough to attend Robert’s wedding to Mary Harlan in Washington, D.C., Mary and Tad set sail for Europe in October 1868. After arriving in Bremen, they moved to Frankfurt, where Tad was enrolled in school. Although Mary and Tad traveled elsewhere, Frankfurt would remain their base for some time.

Meanwhile, a young dentist with the splendid name of Isidor Mordaunt Sigismund (he sometimes gave his first name as “James”) had also settled in Frankfurt. A younger son of a rabbi, Isidor had been born around 1840 in the Polish town of Praszka, near the Prussian border. His half-sister Ernestine Louise Rose, over thirty years his senior, had arrived in the United States with her English husband in 1836. An abolitionist and outspoken atheist, she became prominent in the women’s rights movement, and in her day was nearly as well known as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.[5]

Isidor first appears in American records in 1857, when he completed a form in Boston declaring his intent to become an American citizen.[6] He was not, however, a man who liked to stay in one place. Soon he was in England, where he and an older brother patented a dental apparatus, but he returned to the United States in time for the Civil War.[7] He served briefly in the Union Army before returning to Europe, after which he enlisted once more and quickly deserted.[8] In 1867 in London, he married Caroline Gregory, the daughter of an English gentleman. (The marriage seems to have been a miserable one, and ended in divorce in 1877.)[9] By 1869 Isidor was in Frankfurt, where he brought a defamation suit against a merchant who claimed that he had drilled into a healthy tooth.[10] From 1869 to 1871 he regularly advertised himself as an “American Dentist” based in that city.[11]

As Isidor plied his trade in Frankfurt, Mary alternated between gloom and some measure of content. She had a new obsession: trying to get Congress to grant her a pension, a reasonable enough desire under the circumstances, but Congress was dragging its feet. Mary could do nothing but urge her loyal friends, like Senator Charles Sumner, to keep the issue alive. In the summer of 1869, however, she got a respite in the form of a tour of Scotland, and more good news came in October when Robert Todd Lincoln and his wife provided Mary with her first grandchild. Finally, on July 14, 1870, Congress awarded Mary a pension of $3,000 per year. Mary was with Tad in Innsbruck, Austria, when her friend James Orme sent a telegram carrying the happy tidings.

Mary mailed a letter of thanks to Orme from Innsbruck on July 16, 1870, but she was not in a position to bask in the good news for long. As Mary told Orme in the letter, war between France and Prussia was imminent, and she had been warned by someone in Frankfurt “that the French were on the Rhine, and if we wished to secure our baggage . . . we must return & see after our effects—also, to entirely arrange our affairs in Germany.” She added, “You can well believe that when my funds will be placed before me, and we have quiet times again (for the agitation in Europe is very great[)], the obligation will be remembered.”[12]

Three days later, France declared war on Prussia. Despite all the agitation, Mary stayed put in Frankfurt for several more weeks. On August 17, she wrote to Sally Orme, James’s wife and Mary’s friend, that she planned to leave for London in four or five days. She added that Tad had gone to see General Philip Sheridan, who had come to observe the Prussian field armies, and that she was not using her accustomed mourning stationery because it was packed up.[13] On September 7, she wrote to Senator Sumner from York, England. After thanking him for his efforts on her behalf, she concluded, “My heart has been made sick the past summer, by being almost in the middle of the fearful war, which has convulsed the Continent.”[14] That would be Mary’s last known comment on the Franco-Prussian War.

Tad Lincoln in Frankfurt (Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection)

Mary did not detail how she and Tad got out of Frankfurt safely, but recently, while researching the family of Ernestine Rose, I stumbled onto a document that may shed some light on the matter. It comes from Isidor Mordaunt Sigismund, the dentist mentioned above.

In 1903, just before preparing to leave New York for Europe again, Isidor, a naturalized citizen of the United States, found that he had lost his papers. Applying for a passport, he attached a letter to the Secretary of State, dropping name after name. After claiming to have been a friend of the late President Hayes, he added:

It was I who was requested to take charge of the late Mrs. Lincoln & her son, “Tad” (wife of President Lincoln) soon after the outbreak of the Franco-German war from the South of Germany to Antwerp, where she was—if I mistake not—she was taken to the States in an American man-of-war.[15]

Was Isidor telling the truth? He is not entirely trustworthy, for his behavior in his later years had become increasingly erratic. In 1901, he had been tried at London’s Old Bailey for libel after sending a series of unpleasant letters to his half-niece, whom he believed had connived to have him excluded from Ernestine Rose’s will.[16] He had a gambling problem, and perhaps a drinking problem as well.[17] He quarreled with his landlady, with fellow steamship passengers, and (rather self-defeatingly) with the owners of the gambling dens he frequented.[18] A relative believed that he had kidnapped his son by his second marriage.[19]

On the other hand, his story is plausible. Isidor was living in Frankfurt at the same time Mary and Tad were and directed his dental services toward Americans. He was well-traveled. Having grown up near the Prussian border and practiced in Frankfurt, he probably spoke fluent German, and his years in England and the United States make it likely that his English was good as well. As a dentist who also studied medicine, he would have probably been reassuring company for Mary, who suffered from a number of ailments.[20] All this would have made him a suitable escort for Mary and her son.

On balance, I am inclined to give Isidor credence. While Mary and Tad were no longer alive to contradict his story, Isidor did not have much to gain from its telling, as he had traveled abroad for so long and so often that it was unlikely he was in any real danger of having his passport denied. It appears that he never told his story for financial gain and did not exaggerate his importance, although he had plenty of opportunities to do so, given that he frequently wrote articles for Jewish newspapers and lectured in the early twentieth century. Few people in 1903 would have remembered that Mary Lincoln had been abroad in 1870. The fact that he got a detail wrong—Mary did not go to the United States from Frankfurt, but to England—suggests a faulty memory after thirty-three years rather than a fabrication. And poor Mary’s name probably did not carry much weight in 1903. All in all, while his account has not been corroborated, there is no reason to dismiss it out of hand.

Mary and Tad finally returned to the United States in 1871, where yet another tragedy awaited—the death of eighteen-year-old Tad, who had matured from the rambunctious boy of the White House years into a thoughtful, considerate young man. The rest of Mary’s story—her commitment to an insane asylum at the instigation of her only surviving son, Robert, her successful campaign to be released and declared “restored to reason,” a second flight to Europe, and her death at her sister Elizabeth Edwards’ house in Springfield in 1882—is well known. Isidor, meanwhile, helped treat wounded troops during the war (at least, he recalled that he did), and then went back to his restless life.[21] Just weeks after making his final voyage from England to New York, he died in his Manhattan lodgings on September 24, 1913.[22] Although it was said he had once been wealthy, he was given a pauper’s burial. If his story about escorting the former First Lady is true, one can only wonder what these two highly-strung people made of each other.


[1] My summary of Mary’s postwar life is based on Catherine Clinton, Mrs. Lincoln: A Life (New York: Harper, 2009) and Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, eds., Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters (New York: Fromm International Publishing Company, 1987).

[2] Jason Emerson, Mary Lincoln’s Insanity Case: A Documentary History (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2012), p. 4.

[3] Turner and Turner, Life and Letters, p. 476.

[4] Jennifer Fleischner, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave (New York: Broadway Books), p. 324.

[5] For a good overview of Ernestine Rose’s life, see Carol A. Kolmerten, The American Life of Ernestine L. Rose (Syracuse University Press, 1999). I have documented the ties between Ernestine and Isidor in Susan Higginbotham, “The Early Life and Family of Feminist Ernestine Rose: New Findings and an Old Secret,” Journal of Genealogy and Family History, Vol. 7, No. 1 (March 2023). For a passport application in which Isidor specifically mentions Ernestine as his sister, see note 15.

[6] Ancestry.com: Massachusetts, U.S., State and Federal Naturalization Records, 1798-1950 (Isidor Sigesmond), declaration of intention dated February 2, 1857. All Ancestry records were last accessed on March 2, 2023.

[7] Specification of Isidor Sigismund: manufacture of artificial teeth. Patent No. 815, April 1, 1859 (Wellcome Collection), https://wellcomecollection.org/works/sfhft8qe/items?canvas=3, accessed on February 12, 2023.

[8] The Index, September 22, 1864, p. 599; Patrick A. Schroeder, We Came to Fight: The History of the 5th New York Veteran Volunteer Infantry, Duryee’s Zouaves (1863-1865) (Brookneal, Va.: Patrick A. Schroeder, 1998), p. 491.

[9] General Register Office for England and Wales, Marriage of Isidor Mordaunt Sigismund to Caroline Elizabeth Gregory, January 5, 1873; Daily News (London), May 17, 1877, p. 2.

[10] Juristische Gesellschaft in Frankfurt am Main, Dritter Jahrgang 1869, pp. 363-67,

[11] Kölnische Zeitung, November 3, 1869, p. 8; July 20, 1870, p. 4; July 1, 1871, p. 3 (among other issues).

[12] Turner and Turner, Life and Letters, pp. 574-75.

[13] Thomas F. Schwartz and Anne V. Shaughnessy, “Unpublished Mary Lincoln Letters,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association (1990), http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.2629860.0011.105, accessed March 2, 2023.

[14] Turner and Turner, Life and Letters, pp. 576-77.

[15] Ancestry: U.S., Passport Applications, 1795-1925 (I. Mordaunt Sigismund), April 2, 1903.

[16] The Times, November 7, 1900. p. 14; The Morning Post, November 1, 1900, p. 7; The Proceedings of the Old Bailey (ref. no. t19010107-110), January 7, 1901, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/, accessed February 12, 2023.

[17] The Weekly Dispatch, August 13, 1865, p. 4; Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 17, 1904, p. 1; Westminster Gazette, August 25, 1908, p. 8; Evening World, November 10, 1908, p. 16.

[18] Westminster Gazette, August 25, 1908, p. 8; Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 17, 1904, p. 1; The World, May 3, 1904, p. 7.

[19] Notes in Yuri Suhl papers, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University. Yuri Suhl was Ernestine Rose’s first modern biographer.

[20] He and his brother are mentioned as 1872 graduates of the Eclectic Medical College of Philadelphia in Harold J. Abrahams, Extinct Medical Schools of Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1966), p. 322.

[21] The Hebrew Standard, October 23, 1903, p. 1.

[22] New York Times, September 26, 1913, p. 11; The Sentinel (Chicago), October 10, 1913, p. 23; American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger, October 10, 1913, p. 662; death certificate, James Mordaunt Sigismund, Department of Health of the City of New York, N.Y., No. 28301.

Susan

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