Did Lincoln sleep in Belleville? Local historian believes he has found the answer
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
It was an “aha” moment for Jack LeChien.
The Belleville historian and co-chairman of the Gustave Koerner House Restoration committee had heard people speculate for decades on whether Abraham Lincoln had slept in the city during his 1856 visit and, if so, where.
Then recently, LeChien stumbled on a 1936 column in the Belleville Daily News-Democrat, now the BND, which seemed to provide evidence that the future U.S. president did spend the night at the Scheel home in the 200 block of South Illinois Street, where the Downtown Belleville YMCA parking lot is today.
The column was written by Emilie Heber, a Scheel family friend who grew up in the neighborhood.
“Is it completely 100% accurate in every detail? Well, we don’t know because we weren’t there, and we have so few sources,” LeChien said. “But to me, there’s enough detail there, and it’s written by a schoolteacher (and published in a newspaper), so that gives it some credibility.”
In the column, Heber was recalling a conversation she had with “Mrs. Ernest Hilgard,” nee Mina Scheel, in the mid-1890s, when Heber was about 10 years old and Hilgard was in her 40s.
Hilgard was only 8 when Lincoln visited Belleville on Oct. 18, 1856, but she apparently had vivid recollections that may have been boosted by family discussions over the years.
Hilgard told of Lincoln touring the city with her father, dining at their home and participating in political activities that drew people from throughout the region. He had come to Belleville to campaign for Republican presidential candidate John Freemont and gubernatorial candidate William Bissell.
The national Republican Party had formed only two years earlier as an anti-slavery coalition. It found significant support in Southern Illinois on that Saturday, 17 days before the election.
“That night, Mr. Lincoln tarried under our roof,” Hilgard told Heber, according to the column. “He slept in the northeast corner room on the first floor of the main building. ... Mr. Lincoln left the next morning and I never saw him again.”
At that time, Lincoln was a Springfield lawyer and former state legislator and congressman. He would be elected U.S. president in 1860.
Historians, particularly those in Illinois, have a running joke that building owners love to claim “Lincoln slept here.” A home or hotel is automatically considered more historically significant if he did.
Of course, that doesn’t apply in the Belleville case because the Scheel home, which Heber described as a 14-room Colonial brick mansion with 10 fireplaces, was demolished and replaced by Central Junior High School. The YMCA opened on the site in 2006.
Hilgard’s father, John Scheel, was a German immigrant, surveyor, Koerner’s brother-in-law and personal friend of Lincoln.
Heber wrote in the 1936 column that one of her favorite things to do as a child was sit in the Scheel home’s Victorian parlor and listen to Hilgard tell stories. In the 1890s, Hilgard and her family lived on the second floor, and her brother’s family lived on the first.
Heber used the technique of writing in Hilgard’s voice, telling the story from her first-person view.
Hilgard remembered the family making “elaborate preparations” for their “distinguished guest.” She described how their housekeeper, Sanne, enthusiastically took charge of Lincoln’s care.
“She personally supervised the setting of the table, prepared certain dishes herself, and also baked the ‘Mandeltorte’ (German for almond tart),” Hilgard said, according to Heber.
“It happened that Mr. Lincoln’s best shirt needed laundering. Sanne wouldn’t allow any of the other servants to attend to that. She washed and ironed the shirt. It had a stiff bosom (detachable front panel) with many small tucks, and it was quite a job to iron.”
The housekeeper apparently also polished Lincoln’s boots after he left them outside the guest-room door.
The German-language newspaper Volksblatt reported that Lincoln had traveled by train to Belleville, where he was met about 11 a.m. by members of the Republican Club. They went to club headquarters at Klug’s Beer Garden (North Second and West A streets) before a procession with bands and 1:30 p.m. rally on Public Square.
Koerner wrote in his memoirs that he and John Scheel took Lincoln around town and introduced him to “Republican families.” Another rally was held that evening on Market Square, outside the former Belleville City Hall and Market House (now East A Street between North High and North Illinois).
Hilgard’s recollections, as told by Heber, focused more on a torchlight parade that preceded the rally.
“The torches were cans, swinging at the ends of long poles, with wicks fed by lard-oil,” Heber wrote. “At the head of the procession rode many men and women on horseback, the latter riding sidesaddle and wearing riding habits with tight bodices and long skirts.
“Mr. Lincoln, with Mayor J.W. Hughes and some prominent citizens, rode in an open carriage drawn by the finest span of horses Belleville could secure. The procession with several bands, wound through the principal downtown streets along which the houses were gay with flags, bunting, ropes of cedar, and lighted candles.”
Lincoln and other politicians spoke at the rally. Afterward, the crowd escorted him back to the Scheel home, where he stepped out on a small, second-floor balcony for a final address, according to Heber’s column.
Hilgard may have been too young to digest what Lincoln was saying, but she recalled a magical scene, with burning candles lining the balcony railing and fence below and people holding “hundreds” of lighted torches.
“It happened to be a beautiful October night, with not a breath of air stirring,” Heber wrote in Hilgard’s voice. “The candles burned steadily — there was not the slightest flicker. My father’s tall guest was speaking and I liked his clear, pleasant voice. And how the people were listening!”
Fellow historians weigh in
LeChien recently provided Bob Brunkow, historian for Belleville Historical Society, with a copy of Heber’s column. Brunkow characterized her claim about Lincoln spending the night at the Scheel home in 1856 as “plausible,” but he would have preferred a source with more direct knowledge.
“I don’t have a good way of judging the accuracy of that information,” Brunkow said. “It’s an account written many years after this lady, when she was a child, talked to this older lady about an event that happened 30 or 40 years before.”
Will Shannon, curator for St. Clair County Historical Society, echoed Brunkow’s caution while open to the possibility that Heber was right.
The historical society owns the Scheel home’s iron balcony railing, which is displayed at its Victorian Home Museum in Belleville. It’s considered one of the organization’s most important artifacts.
The railing was donated in 2009 by a family that had salvaged it during the home’s demolition, according to Shannon. Car dealer Oliver D. Joseph paid to have it refurbished on the condition that it be displayed in his showroom before heading to the museum.
Lincoln actually visited Belleville three times, including twice in 1840, when he was promoting candidates in the Whig Party, but local historians tend to focus more on the 1856 visit.
“It was a really important time in his life,” Shannon said. “It was the first time a Republican ran for president. The Whig Party was falling apart. The slavery issue was coming to a head.
“(Lincoln) is two years away from running for Senate against Stephen Douglas, and he’s four years away from running for president. He’s kind of taking a step onto a bigger stage.”
Koerner had been elected Illinois lieutenant governor in 1852 as a Democrat before switching to the new Republican Party.
Both he and Lincoln opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed voters in those territories to decide for themselves whether to expand slavery within their borders.
Feelings on both sides of the slavery issue intensified in the weeks leading up to the 1856 election. Political rallies, like the one in Belleville, sometimes led to pushing, shoving and fistfights, according to LeChien.
The city of Belleville owns the Gustave Koerner House, which was built in 1849 and rebuilt in 1854 after a fire at 200 Abend St. The committee is working to restore it as a historic landmark.
LeChien was doing research at Belleville Public Library when he found Heber’s column on the Oct. 15, 1936, editorial page of the Daily News-Democrat, commemorating the 80th anniversary of Lincoln’s visit.
“I think it adds just a little more color and flesh to our knowledge of the visit,” LeChien said. “... We want people to know about the Koerner-Lincoln connection. They were compatriots. They worked together, and it was a big deal for Lincoln to come to Belleville.”