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Tad Lincoln’s Myriopticon

“Pa is dead. I can hardly believe that I shall never see him again. I must learn to take care of myself now. Yes, Pa is dead, and I am only Tad Lincoln now, little Tad, like other little boys. I am not a president’s son now. I won’t have many presents anymore. Well, I will try and be a good boy, and will hope to go someday to Pa and brother Willie, in Heaven.” 

--Tad Lincoln, April 15, 1865


Imagine a home theater in the mid 1800s—long before movies. “Tad Lincoln’s Myriopticon” is just that. The tabletop theater displayed 22 scenes of the Civil War accompanied by a script and tickets. Invented by toymaker Milton Bradley, his color lithographs were printed on a long scroll affixed to wooden dowels. With the turn of a hand crank, Tad, the son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, could present the “movie” in the Executive Mansion. The toy came with a script and tickets.

My theater painting is a conglomerate of several scenes. My watercolor of a drummer boy is from a photo of Tad playing in his Union Soldier uniform. Drummer boys, as young as 10 years old, were on the battlefields even though this was forbidden by President Lincoln. 

Tad LIncoln

Susan Bercu, watercolor

The Civil War, fought in our country’s fields and towns, impacted the play of all children be they Confederate, Union and slave. They imitated adult behavior from kindness to cruelty. No matter how young, everyone offered sustenance to the exhausted, starving and wounded soldiers; many were billeted in local homes. Even brethren battled each other. Mary Lincoln, born in the slave-owning Todd family of Lexington, Kentucky, had three brothers and a brother-in-law who were killed fighting on the side of the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln’s impoverished Kentucky childhood is legendary. His parents were abolitionists. He risked public scorn when he invited Emilie, Mary’s newly widowed half-sister to stay in the Executive Mansion. After a week, she left and severed ties with the Lincolns, blaming the President for her husband’s death. This was devastating for Mary who adored Emilie.

   Tad Lincoln, who witnessed the Civil War, played war games. On his 12th birthday, he accompanied his father to the burning Confederate capital of Richmond marking the end of the war. Three years earlier, on the night of Lincoln’s second inauguration, Tad suffered the loss of his brother Willie who died at age 11 from illness.

    By the time the Lincolns entered the Executive Mansion, their son Eddie had died at age four. Tad was the youngest of the Lincolns' four sons. He was named Thomas after Abraham’s father and nicknamed Tad because he wiggled like a tadpole. A cleft palate severely limited the highly intelligent boy’s ability to speak clearly, which may have slowed down his learning. After the death of Willie, the Lincolns, who were exceedingly permissive, were even less inclined to rein in Tad’s wild behavior. At the age of 12, he still could not read. It wasn’t until after the assassination, when the widow Mary took Tad to Europe, where he applied himself to his school studies. Tad died from illness at age 18, when living with his mother in Chicago.

“Tad Lincoln’s Myriopticon” Diorama

12.5 in. wide x 11 in. high x 3.5 in. deep

Civil War Toys

Susan Bercu, watercolor


Susan Bercu, watercolor

Artist Notes

“Civil War Toys” (watercolor) left to right

Top row

  • Tad in his Union soldier uniform

  • Tad’s Myriopticon theater

  • Toy cannon

Row two

  • Wood toy soldiers made by Mr. Stuntz

  • Toy drum

Row three

  • Mr. Stuntz’s store near the Executive Mansion, frequented by the Lincoln sons

  • Southern white girl with Golliwog doll—a racist stereotypic caricature

  • Political campaign child’s apron

Bottom row

Smuggler Dolls were carried (to avert suspicion) by mothers and children to Confederate prisoners. It is believed that illegal life-saving drugs were hidden inside the doll heads.

  • X-ray of doll Nina, revealing cavity inside the head

  • Nina (doll)

  • Lucy (doll)

“Topsy Turvy Doll” (watercolor) This post–Civil War double identity doll—its dress hiding a black persona and flipping over to the white one—originated in the South before the Civil War. Likely originated  by the slave mother, it expresses the complex relationship between master and slave in a topsy-turvy world. It may have been named after the Topsy and Eva characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” This painting appears on the diorama, “Malice Toward None”, South Façade.


Historical Notes

Abraham Lincoln was famously permissive with his sons who ran amok in his Springfield law office and later, in the Executive Mansion. Long before the deaths of their young sons Eddie and Willie, Mary and Abraham suffered from the loss of their parents and siblings.

   Mary was six years old when her mother died in childbirth. Her father, Robert Todd, overwhelmed by the care of six children, remarried. His wife was constantly either pregnant or nursing as nine more children were added to the brood. The mostly unsupervised children taunted their surrogate mother, the slave “Mammy Sally”. Sally would discipline them with the African tradition of the “Jaybird”, the snitch who gave black marks to the devil.

    Abraham was nine when his mother died. His  father, Thomas Lincoln soon married  Sarah. Although illiterate, she recognized and nurtured the genius of Abraham. They formed a strong and loving bond, with Sarah saying, “His mind and mine, what little I had, seemed to run together, move in the same direction.”

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