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Mary Lincoln's Body

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

One of the best-known portraits of the Lincoln family shows Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, seated at opposite ends of a library table with their two children standing in between. It was reproduced as an etching in 1866 after Lincoln's assassination and sold widely throughout the United States.In the painting, Abraham Lincoln is his usually sober and dignified self, but Mary Todd Lincoln seems to have a slight scowl. As well she might. The body in the painting is not hers.

Its rightful owner is Mrs. Harriette Judd of Rock Island, Illinois.

The painter commissioned to do the Lincolns was S. B. Waugh, a widely respected portrait painter. As he painted the Lincoln’s, he was also finishing a portrait of his sister, the very same Mrs. Harriette Judd, wife of a Rock Island physician. She was seated at a desk in her home.

What happened next one can only guess. But at some point, S. B. Waugh put his sister's body atop Mary Todd Lincoln's head. Was he rushed for time? Was Mary Todd herself too fidgety to sit still for long? Did she request the painter to find a less lumpy body?

Or was this his idea of artistic license? A sort of practical joke those artist types play? Or was it just that his sister happened to be wearing a nicer outfit?

However, it happened, I do find it comforting to us mere mortal males that the great and wise President apparently never noticed the switch.

And as for Mrs. Harriette Waugh Judd, there are questions to be asked there, too. Did she end up with Mary Todd Lincoln's body attached to her portrait? Did she give her brother permission to borrow her body?

All we can say for sure is that in 1866, a very great part of Mrs. Harriette Judd of Rock Island became famous.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.