Tragedy in the White House: Willy Lincoln's Death

Who Was Willie Lincoln?

The only child of a first family to die while living in the White House, William Wallace Lincoln made tragic history. He was the cherished middle son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. By all accounts, Willie Lincoln shared many of the traits of his famous father. Like Abraham Lincoln as a boy, Willie was a sweet, noble lad who liked to read and write. Losing him at such a young age was a blow that both parents struggled to overcome with varied degrees of success.

How Did Willie Lincoln Die?

At the time of his death in February 1962, those around him believed he suffered from a severe cold. According to an 1868 account by Elizabeth Keckley, a dressmaker who spent much of her time with Mary Todd Lincoln, Willie had caught cold while riding his pony in changeable weather.

The cold brought on a fever, and the boy was very sick for several days. He was so ill that his mother wanted to postpone an upcoming White House reception, but on their doctor's word that the boy was rallying, she went ahead with the event.

The evening of the reception, her son took a turn for the worse. Over the next few days, Willie's condition deteriorated, and he died. Willie was just eleven years old.

What Did Willie Lincoln Die Of?

Looking through the lens of history, scholars speculate that Willie died of typhoid fever. They believe he and his brother had contracted the bacterial disease from the contaminated White House water supply. A few years earlier, the ninth president, William Henry Harrison, had similarly died of typhoid fever after serving just one month as the nation's leader.

How Did the Death of His Son Affect President Lincoln?

The President did not have the luxury of indulging his grief after Willie's death. He certainly mourned, sobbing as he viewed the lifeless body of his young son. Nevertheless, he could not surrender himself to sorrow as the boy's mother did. Mary Todd Lincoln's mourning often verged on the edge of insanity.

President Lincoln attended Willie's funeral without his wife, who was incapacitated. The ceremony took place in the East Room of the White House where the mirrors were covered in black drapery. Afterward, two white horses drew Willie's hearse to Oak Hill Cemetery for temporary interment.

Where is Willie Lincoln Buried?

Abraham Lincoln's Tomb
Abraham Lincoln's Tomb

After President Lincoln died three years later, the family had the bodies of both father and son sent to Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Ill. They are laid to rest in the Lincoln family tomb beside Willie's siblings and his mother.