Mariah Vance (1819-1904) is believed to have been a maid and housekeeper for Mary and Abraham Lincoln in Springfield from 1850 to 1860. She also was the alleged source of an inside look at the Lincoln family, published in 1995 as Lincoln’s Unknown Private Life: An Oral History, as edited by author Walter Olesky and Lincoln illustrator and collector Lloyd Ostendorf.
Among other startling claims, Private Life claimed Lincoln was secretly baptized in the Sangamon River after winning election as president.
Scholars are extremely dubious of the validity of Vance’s supposed recollections. Cullom Davis summed up their doubts in an essay done for the Illinois Humanities Council in 1998.
The owner and editors spent nearly 20 years seeking a prestigious publisher for this intimate portrait of domestic turmoil, first under the title ‘Mistah Abe’ and later “A House Divided.” Failing in that, they did release it in two hefty volumes … in 1995, called Lincoln’s Unknown Private Life. Judging from today’s obsession with peephole politics, choosing that title three years ago was an act of great prescience, but that has not satisfied reviewers, who generally have dismissed the memoir as a fraud.
Charles Chapin’s 2002 review, “That Mariah Vance Book Has No Place in My Library and Shouldn’t Be in Yours,” has an informative chronology of the Private Life phenomenon.
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Black history is frequently oral history. Less we forget it was against the law to teach Blacks to read. Mariah Bartlett Vance’s mother was a slave and couldn’t read herself. Slaves were sold off as were their children. Slaves were used as sexual objects by white men and a women. Slaves had no say and was not allowed liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Mariah became an indentured servant at the young age of 8 to William May, an attorney. May did not see to Mariah ‘s education. He was apparently a womanizer according to one author.
Mariah was with this man, who became mayor of Springfield until he left Springfield. Although May is said to have married, I haven’t found evidence of his marriage. I did find the death of a baby May in the Sangamon County Vital Statistics records, but couldn’t identify the father.
What did a womanizer do with an eight year old child? Her informal education came from living with him for at least 8 years. Wayne Temple is very critical of Mariah Bartlett Vance but all we have is her oral history.
Mariah Bartlett Vance was one of the founder of the Colored Church which became the Zion Baptist. Temple even questions that. The Zion Baptist Church’s history confirms this fact as does other records. Although the august Mr. Temple has cause some of us to question whether she did. What does he know about indentured servant? And her abilities.
Wayne Temple and others that would question Mariah Vance’s recollection should
look closer at early upbringing, her time with William May.
Ms. Collins: Wow, thanks for all the additional information.