SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois First Lady Lura Lynn Ryan today announced that a collection of artifacts, photographs and recollections from the woman who as an 11-year-old girl urged Abraham Lincoln to grow a beard has been donated to the Illinois State Historical Library.
The anonymous donation of the Grace Bedell Billings Collection by one of her descendants illuminates the life of the woman who played a small but important role in Lincoln’s life. It includes her personal pocket Bible, sachet, ring and name bracelet; a roof board from the Lincoln Home; a piece of wood from the Lincoln Train Car shown at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair; an oak leaf from the Lincoln Tomb; still photographs from the film, The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln starring George Billings; period newsclippings; and photographs of Grace Bedell Billings and her family. The items also include her recollections of the “Lincoln beard” story that she typed at the request of several authors.
Grace Bedell lived with her parents, who were ardent Lincoln supporters, in Chautauqua County, New York. In 1860 her father brought home a poster from the upcoming presidential election. In her recollection for famous Lincoln biographer Ida Tarbell, Grace told of the inspiration for her famous letter to the presidential candidate:
"I think that I must have felt a certain disappointment, for I said to my mother that he would look much nicer if he wore whiskers. Straightaway I gave him the benefit of my opinion in a letter describing the poster, and hinting, rather broadly, that his appearance might be improved if he would let his whiskers grow. Not wishing to wound his feelings I added that the rail fence around his picture looked real pretty. I also asked him if he had any little girl, and if so, and he were too busy to write and tell me what he thought about it, if he would let her do so. I ended the letter by assuring him that I meant to try my best to induce my two erring brothers of the Democratic faith to cast their votes for him."
After the election when Lincoln was traveling from Springfield, Illinois to assume the presidency in Washington, D.C., his train stopped in Grace’s hometown of Westfield, New York. Lincoln asked G.W. Patterson, a local dignitary, if he knew a family by the name of Bedell. Patterson later told Grace Bedell what Lincoln had said regarding her letter: “He said that the character of the letter was ‘unique and so different from the many self seeking and threatening ones I was daily receiving, that it came to me as a relief and a pleasure.’” Upon learning that Grace Bedell was a resident of the town, Lincoln asked to meet her. Grace recalled the meeting for another author:
"I had gone to the railroad station with two older sisters and the escort of one of them, a young man by the name of McCormack. Because of the crowd I had seen very little of Mr. Lincoln but had heard his voice. I finally heard him say that if I was present to please come forward. Taking my hand, my sister’s beau made a lane through the crowd and led me to a low platform along the track beside the train. The President stepped down from the platform of the car, shook my hand and stooped down and kissed me in the presence of the crowd and said: “You see I let these whiskers grow for you, Grace,” at the same time pointing with his hand to his full grown beard.
The crowd cheered, Mr. Lincoln re-entered the train and I ran home, dodging in and out between the horses and buggies, and in one instance crawling under a wagon, looking neither to the right or left, and speaking to no one. I had taken with me a bouquet of roses, furnished by a neighbor, to present to the President as my expression of love and admiration for the man I so stoutly defended and to whom I offered such rare advice. So unexpected was the conduct of the great man toward me that I became frightened and embarrassed. I forgot to hand the roses to him and upon my arrival home nothing remained of my floral tribute but the stems. “As he bent down to kiss me, he seemed so very kind but looked very sad.”"
Grace Bedell, 1848 – 1936, married George Billings after the Civil War. They moved to Delphos, Kansas in 1870, where George Billings farmed and became a banker. Grace Bedell’s original letter to Lincoln is owned by the Detroit Public Library; Lincoln’s response to her, written October 19, 1860, is in a private collection.