Not all anniversaries are cause for celebration. Many of us have dates on our calendar that trigger unpleasant memories. Today was one of those days for Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln was seven years old when his father moved the family into the southern Indiana wilderness. He helped his father clear enough land to build a cabin and plant a few acres of crops. But it wasn’t enough to prevent disaster.
Just two years later, their cows ran out of grazing land. They wandered into the woods and began feeding on a green plant with small white flowers called “white snakeroot.”
Today, researchers are familiar with the devastating results. After digesting the plant, cattle produce a chemical called “tremetol,” which causes them to “shake and tremble.” Infected cows can pass along the poison through their milk. “Tremetol poisoning,” also known as “the milk sickness,” claimed the lives of thousands of Midwesterners in the nineteenth century.
Lincoln’s mother began to tremble with the disease. Without a doctor to offer hope or a hospital room to provide comfort, she lingered in the cabin for about a week. “She knew she was going to die,” Dennis Hanks recalled, but before she lost consciousness, she “called up the children to her dying side and told them to be good & kind to their father—to one another and to the world.”
Nancy Hanks Lincoln died on this day 189 years ago.
Lincoln helped his father build his mother’s coffin. Using a leftover log from the cabin, they sawed it into planks and, in the absence of nails, the nine year old whittled the small pegs that held the boards together. Without much ceremony, they buried Nancy on a small hill about a quarter mile from the cabin.
Not all anniversaries are cause for celebration.