Tad Lincoln’s Myriopticon

“Tad Lincoln’s Myriopticon” Diorama 12.5 in. wide x 11 in. high x 3.5 in. deep

“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, upon hearing about the death of his father on April 15, 1865


Imagine a home theater in the mid 1800s—long before movies. “Tad Lincoln’s Myriopticon” is just that. The original 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 version shows only one scene, which is a conglomerate of several. When I added the drummer boy in the lower left, I thought 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. 

   The Civil War, fought in our country’s fields and towns, mpacted the play of all children be they, Confederate, Union and slave. They imitated adult behavior that expressed the full gamut from kindness to cruelty. No matter how young, everyone offered sustenance to the exhausted, starving and wounded soldiers; many were billeted in local homes.

Tad LIncoln  Susan Bercu, watercolor

It was not unusual for brethren to battle 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 for 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 witnessed the Civil War so it makes sense that he sought out war games. On his 12th birthday, he accompanied his father to the burning Confederate capital of Richmond marking the end of the war. Just three years earlier, on the night of Lincoln’s second inauguration, Tad suffered a terrible loss when his brother Willie became ill and died at age 11.

   By the time the Lincolns entered the Executive Mansion, their son Eddie had died at age four. Tad was the youngest of the four boys born to Abraham and Mary Lincoln. He was named Thomas after Abraham’s father and was soon 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, that he was enrolled in a school where he applied himself to his studies. Tad died from illness at age 18, when living with his mother in Chicago.

Civil War Toys  Susan Bercu, watercolor

Topsy-Turvy 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 doll is in my collection. The 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 made 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

Much has been written about Abraham Lincoln’s permissiveness with his sons who ran amok in his Springfield law office and later, in the Executive Mansion. Tad even drove his pet goat cart through one of the formal receptions. Long before the deaths of their young sons Eddie and Willie, Mary and Abraham suffered trauma 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 young 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”. To discipline them, Sally would resort to 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.”