Legh Kimball (1826-1865) is an interesting and somewhat mysterious footnote in the story of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. Even his name is mysterious — several 19th-century sources cite it as “Legh,” even though Lincoln’s own phonetic spelling of the name indicates that it was, indeed, pronounced “Leigh.” Nothing is known about Kimball’s origins, other than the fact that he was born in New Hampshire on Aug. 7, 1826.
His first mention in connection with the Lincolns comes in 1842. According to Caroline Owsley Brown’s Springfield Society Before the Civil War, “Mr. Leigh Kimball lived in Mr. Ninian Edwards’ family and said he frequently took Miss Mary Todd to the house of Mr. Simeon Francis to meet Mr. Lincoln, as Mr. Edwards was very much opposed to the engagement.”
Another mystery — why was Kimball living with the Edwards family? He was not enumerated in the 1840 census, so he must have showed up there sometime between 1840 and 1842. In 1842 he would have been 16 years old. Was he an apprentice? A friend of the family? Were his parents deceased? As a resident in the Edwards house, he would have been intimately acquainted with his housemate, Mary Todd, who perhaps looked on him as a younger brother.
He clearly had a personal as well as professional relationship with Ninian W. Edwards (and apparently some financial means), for in 1848 Kimball purchased the interest of John Cook (Ninian Edwards’ nephew) in the firm of Hawley, Edwards, and Cook, thereafter known as N.W. Edwards & Co. This firm had a store on the west side of the public square that sold “Dry Goods, Groceries, Hardware, & Queensware, Boots, Shoes, Hats, & Caps, etc.”
The year prior, 1847, also saw Kimball serve as a groomsman in John Cook’s wedding to Susan Lamb, daughter of a prominent local pork packer and businessman. John Cook was orphaned at a young age, and his uncle Ninian Edwards probably served as a father figure to him. Did Ninian serve as a father figure to Kimball, as well? Did the two men, only a year apart in age, have a relationship similar to that of brothers or cousins?
In any case, being a nephew by marriage to Elizabeth Todd Edwards made Cook a “connection” of the Lincolns, and they would certainly have been invited to this wedding. Whether they went or not is another matter, as they were a mere five days away from departing Springfield en route to Washington D.C., where Lincoln would take his seat in Congress.
Certainly Kimball was on Lincoln’s radar. Writing to William Herndon from Washington, D.C. in 1848 to drum up support for Whig presidential candidate Zachary Taylor, Lincoln instructed his partner to gather together young men in Springfield “and form a Rough & Ready club, and have regular meetings and speeches. Take in every body that you can get, Harrison Grimsley, Z. A. Enos, Lee Kimball, and C. W. Matheny will do well to begin the thing.”
By 1853, Kimball found new employment as an agent for the Chicago and Alton Railroad. He was still a warm friend of the Lamb family, for when Caroline Lamb married William J. Black in 1855, Kimball was again a groomsman. The Lincolns were definitely present at that wedding; a letter written at the time from John T. Stuart to his daughter Bettie described the scene and noted that “Close by are Cousins Mary Lincoln Lizzie Edwards and Mrs B. S. Edwards.” Stuart also noted that Kimball was looking unwell: “Lee Kimball is next to Black he looks pale – he has been shaking with the ague.” Ill health would trouble him the rest of his short life.
In the spring of 1862, rumors started to swirl that Kimball would marry Hannah, third of the four Lamb daughters. “Report say that Miss Hannah Lamb is to be married soon to Lee Kimble,” Mercy Conkling wrote to her son Clinton on May 24, and on June 16, “Miss Hannah Lamb is to be married on Wednesday, and leave immediately for the East (Saratoga I believe). She will have a private wedding.”
Legh and Hannah were married June 18, 1862. One can imagine the Lincolns would have attended this wedding, too, had they not been in Washington. Kimball and his wife had one daughter, Lucy, who was born in 1863 and lived just 21 days. Two years later, Kimball succumbed to tuberculosis at age 38 at the residence of his father-in-law, James Lamb. The newspaper provided the following account of his death:
He had been an invalid for some time, but during the last few weeks he had become apparently very much better, and on the day before his decease he was on the street conducting business and making arrangements for a trip to another part of the State. At the moment he was stricken with death, he was dressing himself for breakfast and pleasantly conversing with his wife. Convulsion after convulsion followed in rapid succession, and he died in about two hours.
Twenty-five years later, Kimball’s widow Hannah remarried John M. Palmer, former governor of Illinois.
Copyright The People Lincoln Knew, a blog by Erika Holst. Reprinted by permission.