Who was “Miss Owens?”

July 6, 2012

An example of my work to avoid confusion in The Hypo comes in the first chapter of the book; in the year 1837. Abraham Lincoln is 28 years old and has just moved from  the small village of New Salem (where his business as a store owner has failed and left him with debt) to Springfield. Lincoln and his political party, The Whigs, have  claimed victory and have successfully relocated the state’s capitol from Vandalia to Springfield. Lincoln is on his way to study law under his friend from The Black Hawk War, and prominent lawyer, John Todd Stuart.

In 1837 Lincoln is already engaged to the sister of a friend in New Salem named Mary S. Owens. Whom he had met in 1833, while she was visiting her sister from Kentucky. It was during that visit that he began a relationship with Mary, and told her sister that he “would marry Miss Owens if she came a second time to Illinois.” Shortly after proposing marriage to Mary Owens in 1836,  she returned to New Salem, and Lincoln’s feelings towards her had changed. Upon seeing her again his enthusiasm soured. Later he would write to his friend, Eliza Caldwell “I knew she was over-size, but she now appeared a fair match for Falstaff; I knew she was called an ‘old maid,’ and I felt no doubt of the truth of at least half of the appelation [sic]; but now, when I beheld her, I could not for my life avoid thinking of my mother; and this, not from withered features, for her skin was too full of fat to permit its contracting in to wrinkles; but from her want of teeth, weather-beaten appearance in general, and from a kind of notion that ran in my head, that nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy, and reached her present bulk in less than thirty five or forty years; and, in short, I was not all pleased with her.”

Now, he was in a predicament. Hooked up with a woman he found repulsive. He responded to this situation by moving away and writing to her letters that hopefully would turn her off to the whole idea of a marriage to him, while at the same time let her know that he was a man of his word and would keep up his end of the bargain he had with Mary’s sister. I chose one of these letters to open The Hypo with.

In earlier drafts of The Hypo, this relationship was featured only a little more prominently, but when the chopping block came out I found it an easy piece to slice off. In addition I decided to refer to her when mentioned in the book as “Miss Owens” so that the reader would not confuse Mary Owens and Mary Todd, whose story I was more interested in writing. So there it is. The story of the other Mary from Kentucky in Abraham Lincoln’s life.

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