Arts & Culture

Here lie Abraham Lincoln’s long-forgotten loves: Where to find them in the KC area

Young Abe Lincoln courted several women before settling down with Mary Todd.
Young Abe Lincoln courted several women before settling down with Mary Todd.

Would it surprise the dear reader to learn that not just one, but two women taking dirt naps in our region were asked to marry by a rough Illinois fellow named Abraham Lincoln?

In your mind, you’re quickly eliminating Mary Todd, who rests beside the martyred president in that great tomb in Springfield, Ill. And poor Anne Rutledge, whom Abe never got a chance to ask, lies in Petersburg, Ill.

To be honest, historians debate whether either proposal to two local women was all that serious — but then, they debate everything about the Great Emancipator.

One spurner was Sarah Barret, the subject of a fascinating 1907 feature in The Kansas City Star, based on an interview at her cottage at 2011 Indiana Ave.

When Abe had known her, she was Sarah Rickard, a brown-haired child living in the home of her older, married sister, Elizabeth Butler.

“I remember well the first time I ever saw Abe Lincoln,” Barret recalled. William Butler had brought him home to dinner without warning his wife, who sent the 10-year-old Sarah to fetch something from a cupboard, perhaps to set an extra place at the table.

sarah barret
Sarah Rickard first met Lincoln when she was 10 years old.

“I had to pass close to the visitor’s chair, and as I came within range of his long arms, he reached out and pulled me gently to his side. My name, my age and my status in my studies were asked about, and as I answered, the visitor suddenly lifted me to his knee. I though I was almost too big a girl to sit on the knee of anyone, much less a very young man who looked like a huge tall boy, so I wriggled down and hurried back to the kitchen, only to get a scolding from my sister for not bringing the dish she had sent me for.”

Since Butler let Abe board in a room with Joshua Speed, that meal would be the first of many over the years graced by his larder of amusing stories.

‘I thought he was very homely’

Remembering Abe’s poor dress, including “a long jeans coat, that came down below his knees” and lack of care in his appearance, Barret said, “I thought he was very homely.” He, on the other hand, later would remember her in pantalettes, the little-girl, calf-length underwear meant to be visible under their dresses.

“But after he got to going around to the courts and making speeches, and mixing up in society, there was a wonderful come-out in Abe, and he spruced up a good deal, and wasn’t behind the times. When I got to be sixteen years old, Abe and I got to thinking a good deal of each other.”

He took her to her first theater performance; the play’s title is lost to us, but she remembered that an actor sang the Scotch air “Oft, in the Stilly Night.”

The reporter, Nellie Crandall Safford, asked if Lincoln ever popped the question.

“Well, yes — at least he came mighty nigh it,” Sarah said. “He knew I was not thinking of marrying. I was too young and he was much older than I. (He was 31.) But he hinted marriage to me several times, and I knew I could have married him had I wished to. My name is Sarah, and one evening while Abe and I were alone together in the parlor, he became very serious and said to me: ‘Now, Sarah, you know your Bible well enough to know that Sarah was Abraham’s wife.’ 

She knew what was coming so got up and left the room.

This was confirmed in “Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life,” by William H. Herndon, a former law partner, and also an in-law of Sarah.

“If I’d known that he would have been President, I would have paid more attention to him,” she joked.

Fond memories

Sarah’s 86-year-old husband, Richard F. Barret, was present at the interview with The Star when she said Lincoln was “the gentlest, most honest man I ever knew …”

Richard claimed to have heard Abe’s first political speech, which involved being kicked by an ox. This is probably not true. He also said his brother James “stood up for Abe,” when he finally married Mary Todd. This definitely is not true.

What is fact, however, was that President Lincoln remembered Richard fondly enough to appoint him registrar of the U.S. land office in Brownsville, Neb.

Sarah presented herself as a close observer of Mary Todd’s eventual conquest: “She simply loved him and would have whether or no. She was a bright, fascinating girl, with an unusual gift of sarcasm. She had a way of saying sharp, brilliant and sometimes cutting things.” And, history makes clear, Mary was bitterly jealous of any woman who got close to her husband.

But Lincoln once famously jilted Mary, who was, by the way, 10 years younger. Sarah told the reporter of his lingering feelings for her, and how once, depressed over his treatment of Mary, he’d confided this to Elizabeth.

Sadly, we don’t have room here for all that, except to say that once Abe got over his cold feet, Mary agreed to a hasty wedding in 1842, so hasty that the cake hadn’t had enough time to cool and was sticky to cut.

Sarah, who died four years after giving her interview, is found today in Elmwood Cemetery at 4900 Truman Road.

sarah barrett grave
Sarah Barret is buried in Kansas City’s Elmwood Cemetery

The other Mary

The other lady who took a pass on the president-to-be was, like Miss Todd, well educated and from a comfortable Kentucky family. When Mary Owens first visited New Salem in 1833, something was said among friends that she’d be a good wife, and Lincoln had agreed, perhaps in jest. But not all heard it that way.

Mary Owens turned down two proposals from Lincoln.

We know Ann Rutledge was still around then, waiting to be released from a withered engagement with a man far away. She succumbed to typhoid in 1835. As president, Lincoln reputedly told a man that he’d loved her “dearly and soundly” and to another said his heart was in the grave with her. Not everyone accepts this as fact, but they were friends.

When Mary Owens returned, Lincoln was not charitable about her changed appearance over the last four years, noting not just her weight but a “want of teeth (and), weather-beaten appearance.” Still, he believed himself honor-bound. “I had told her sister I would take her for better or worse,” he would recall.

His letters were rather odd for a beau, basically advertising himself as a poor catch, that life in Springfield would be a “dull business,” and “You would have to be poor without the means of hiding your poverty. … What I have said I will most positively abide by, provided you wish it. My opinion is that you had better not do it.”

A girl can take a hint. She let him off the hook, and he promptly jumped back on. He felt guilty, believing no other man would have the “old maid” and worried about himself being seen publicly as a cad.

Again, Owens turned him down, which mortified him and made him wonder if he really was falling for her. Maybe she had a good brain? Still, he would be cross enough to say she’d be a fairer match for Falstaff, the fat knight of Shakespeare.

Long after, Owens told Herndon that “Mr. Lincoln was deficient in those little links which make up the chain of woman’s happiness — at least it was so in my case.” To another she would explain that “good manners superseded wealth, power and influence.”

Kansas City ties

In 1841, Owens married Jesse Vineyard (her brother-in-law) and with a third brother soon pulled up stakes for Pleasant Ridge outside Weston. The Vineyards began an academy there that burned down at some point.

Mary was sister to Samuel Combs Owens, a prominent outfitter with businesses in Independence, Lexington and Liberty, a wagon master of caravans into New Mexico and one of the incorporators of the first version of Kansas City in 1838. Dying in battle when his panicked horse delivered him into the guns of Mexican troops, he deserves his own story.

In 1859, Lincoln visited Leavenworth about four miles away. We don’t know if Mary was aware or even interested. But the once threadbare young man was now a national figure after his debates with Sen. Stephen Douglas against the spread of slavery.

Indeed, Mary probably sided with Douglas. Her husband and at least one brother-in-law had crossed the river five years earlier with hundreds of other “Missourian ruffians” to blatantly and fraudulently vote in Leavenworth to make slavery the law in the Kansas territory.

The family returned briefly to Kentucky and then shifted to Texas for a bit, supposedly because of Jesse’s declining health. He died in 1863.

A biographical sketch of Mary’s son, Benjamin Vineyard, claimed Lincoln had “offered his hearth and hand in marriage,” and to prove it, the Kansas City lawyer had those “love letters written by the Martyr President to his mother.”

mary owens grave 2
The Henry W. and Marion H. Bloch Foundation added this stone to Mary Owens’ grave near Weston.

She has lain in the cemetery near a little red Baptist church since 1877. In 1999, the Henry W. and Marion H. Bloch Foundation added a stone denoting “Lincoln’s other Mary.”

Somewhere, Mary Todd Lincoln is furious.