THE NEWS is sensational. New York City is abuzz with the excitement of owning a piece of history. Curiosity seekers are clamoring to see personal items of the former first lady, a well-educated, privileged young woman whose wealthy father sent her to the best schools.
Her time in the White House included extensive redecorating and the careful raising of her children in the fishbowl of public life. And when her husband's life ended with an assassin's bullet, a nation mourned.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis?
Try Mary Todd Lincoln, more than 100 years ago.
But unlike the gaiety and excitement surrounding Sotheby's auction of the Kennedy estate items, the selling of Mary Lincoln's personal effects became a vulgar sideshow to history known as "The Old Clothes Scandal" of 1867.
It turned out this way because Mary Lincoln -- after the death of two of her four sons, then her husband -- became increasingly depressed and mentally disturbed.
While her financial situation at the time allowed her to live comfortably, the former first lady became fixated on the notion that she could suddenly lose everything.
In 1867, she decided to travel to New York, planning to surreptitiously sell some of her old clothing and jewelry on consignment. Hoping to hide her identity, she assumed a disguise and introduced herself to New York shops as "Mrs. Clarke."
Only she was found out by two unscrupulous dealers, William Brady and Samuel Keys, who recognized her when she walked into a store on 609 Broadway. After some persuading, the two dealers convinced her that revealing her identify would only enhance the sale price of the clothes, jewelry, even undergarments she had in tow.
Instead of a handsome Sotheby's catalogue lovingly describing the personal effects, however, Mary Lincoln's list of goods ran only in The New York Evening Express newspaper. The dresses and other items were described in explicitly humiliating detail, referring to torn linings and perspiration stains; some items were described flatly as "rags."
The resulting uproar and embarrassment led the former first lady and her son Tad to go abroad, but shortly thereafter, Tad died and her depression worsened.
Her sole surviving son, Robert, eventually had his mother committed to a sanitarium, though she was released within a year. In 1882, Mary Todd Lincoln died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 64, not in poverty, but at the home of her sister in Springfield, Ill. Deborah Jones Sherwood is a lecturer and writer specializing in the history of America's first ladies.