One hundred fifty years ago today the tragic story of the Lincoln family met with yet another heartbreak.

Thomas Lincoln III was born in Springfield on April 4, 1853, the fourth son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. He was named for his grandfather who had brought the much younger Abraham Lincoln to Illinois in 1830 before settling in Coles County, where he died just two years before his namesake grandson was born.

Upon seeing his active new son for the first time, Abraham Lincoln noted that the infant was as “wiggly as a tadpole,” with a large head to match. It wasn’t long before he affectionately nicknamed his youngest son “Tad,” a name that would stick with him for the rest of his short life. To his mother he would always be “Taddie.”

Tad’s arrival came just after a time of great sadness for the Lincoln family. Not only had his grandfather passed away in 1851, but Tad’s would-be older brother Edward had also died in 1850, officially of tuberculosis, though some medical evidence suggests his cause of death was a kind of cancer difficult to diagnose in the mid-19th century.

Of his two surviving brothers, Robert was ten years older than Tad, and William or Willie was three years older. Soon Tad and Willie would team up to cause their share of mayhem. The two rambunctious young boys were the terror of the Lincoln home and elsewhere in Springfield.

Their adoring father did little to restrain them, perhaps seeing a little (or a lot) of himself in the boys. Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, constantly frustrated by the duo’s wild behavior while visiting their father at work, was known to refer to them as “the little devils.” An exhibit in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield depicts the pair having a grand time misbehaving in the office – throwing papers and even an ink bottle at each other as their father reclines on a sofa nearby, engrossed in his work.

Willie and Tad with their cousin
Lockwood Todd.
Their father’s election to the presidency gave the boys a series of new opportunities for mischief. They moved into the White House in 1861 and soon continued their shenanigans on a much grander stage with a much broader audience. The staid easterners who were already inclined to look down their noses at the plains family in the White House were shocked at the boys’ conduct.

Abraham, as usual, was amused by their tomfoolery and did little to inhibit their spirited behavior.

But as with any story about the Lincoln family, a catastrophe was always just around the corner, and less than a year after moving to Washington it struck. Early in 1862 both Willie and Tad came down with typhoid fever. Tad survived. Willie did not. Strained by the crushing pressures of running a country in the midst of a civil war, their father could spare little time for mourning, but both Tad and his mother were deeply depressed. Mary never really recovered, even banishing Tad’s other playmates from the White House because their presence was a never-ending reminder of the son she had lost.

Now the only child in the White House, Tad became even more boisterous. Fascinated by the ornate dress uniforms of the military officers always around his father, he had his own Union Army livery made. He was not enrolled in school while in Washington, instead utilizing the services of a series of private tutors, most of whom were driven to quit by his behavior. Stories abounded in the capital of the First Son storming into Cabinet meetings and bringing animals he had found into the White House, including goats and horses.

In his father’s eyes, Tad could do no wrong. Accompanying his father to the telegraph office where the President sought the latest news from the battlefront, Tad soon became bored and began finger-painting on an expensive marble tabletop. A telegraph operator named Madison Buell grabbed Tad and presented the ink-stained child to his father along with the news that he had ruined the expensive table. Lincoln scooped Tad up and moved toward the door. “Come Tad,” he said. “Buell is abusing you.”

On another occasion Tad interrupted one of his father’s meetings to request a Presidential pardon for his soldier doll, Jack, who had apparently gotten himself into some kind of trouble in the child’s imagination. Lincoln stopped the meeting while Tad made his case for the pardon, then picked up a piece of paper and scrawled, “The Doll Jack is pardoned by order of the President. A. Lincoln.”

By his 12th birthday, Tad had the run of the White House and was the apple of his father’s eye. With his only surviving brother, Robert, away at school in Boston, he and Abraham seemed attached at the hip. One of the most famous portraits of Lincoln’s presidency depicts father and son together reviewing a book. The picture was later reproduced on a U.S. postage stamp to encourage literacy.

But once again, disaster was looming.

Just ten days after his birthday, as the city of Washington continued to celebrate the surrender of the confederate armies in Virginia, Tad went to see Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp at Grover’s Theatre just three blocks from the White House. His parents had gone a few blocks farther down E Street to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre.

As the show at Grover’s neared its climax, the production was suddenly interrupted by an announcement from the manager with news which sent the building and the nation into turmoil. Tad ran from his box screaming, “They have killed papa!” before he was hurried back to the White House.

At the bedside of the dying President a frantic Mary Lincoln pleaded with doctors to summon her young son to help her husband recover. “He will speak to Tad. He loves him so.”

It was not to be. Back at the White House the staff which had been so harried by his exploits, yet who deeply loved the boy in spite of them, had put Tad to bed and kept watch over him through the night. His father died early the next morning.

“I can hardly believe that I shall never see him again,” Tad said. “I must learn to take care of myself now.”

He spent much of the rest of his life consoling his devastated mother.

“I press the poor little fellow closer, if possible, to my heart, in memory of his sainted father, who loved him so very dearly,” Mary wrote a few months after the assassination.

Leaving the sadness of Washington behind, Mary and her two surviving sons came back to Illinois, living in Chicago for a time, where Tad was enrolled in the Elizabeth Street School. Other students sometimes mocked the lifelong difficulty he had articulating words due to a cleft palate which led some of them to call him “stuttering Tad.”

After three years in Chicago Mary and Tad left for Europe, living in England and Germany. Ironically while he struggled with English pronunciations, his difficulty did not follow him to Germany. Mary Lincoln wrote in a letter to a friend that, “Taddie in Germany became quite proficient in the language, but in the meantime, his own mother tongue was so much neglected that it has become necessary to place him with an English tutor.”

They returned to Illinois in May 1871, moving in with Robert at his home on Wabash Avenue in Chicago. Soon after returning from Europe Tad became ill. Doctors were mystified as to what was happening to the boy and helpless to halt the unknown disease. He died on July 15, 1871. Everything from tuberculosis to pleurisy to heart failure has been cited, but a cause of death was never firmly determined.

The next day’s Chicago Tribune carried the story of his decline.

“The cause of his death was dropsy of the chest. The first symptoms showed themselves while he was abroad, but it was not until his return, the middle of May, that his condition became alarming,” the paper reported.

Tad’s death occurred just as he reached adulthood, a few months after his 18th birthday. Where his life would have taken him is forever unknown. Over the century and a half since that day, much Lincoln scholarship has turned up artifacts from the short life of Abraham and Mary’s youngest son. They include the 2010 discovery of a portrait of Tad taken just as the Lincoln family arrived in Washington, and Tad’s ring; given to the wife of a Union Army officer from Effingham; which was donated to the presidential museum in 2017.

Tad Lincoln’s funeral was held in his brother’s home and then his casket was taken by train to Springfield. He is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery alongside two of his brothers and his loving and devoted father and mother.