Abraham and Mary Lincoln employed a number of hired servants over the almost two decades at their Springfield residence. Among the many individuals who served them was a black house servant named Epsy Smith. Her association with the Lincoln family undoubtedly accounts for this lengthy obituary that appeared in the
(Springfield) Illinois State Journal, on Tuesday, May 10, 1892, p. 1, col. 6:
SHE WORKED FOR LINCOLN
Death of a Negress Who Knew
Much About Father Abraham.
Aunt Epsy Smith Passes Away in a Rick-
etty Tenement House in Chicago –
Her Eventful History.
“It was in one of the dilapidated old frame tenement houses on Dearborn St. near Sixteenth, Chicago, where the rattle and roar of constantly passing trains never cease, and where such a thing as a garbage cart or street sweeper is unknown, that “Aunt” Epsy Smith died. It was near 1 o’clock Sunday morning that she breathed her last. She was of African descent and unknown, so to speak, in the great metropolis, but she had an eventful life — one of almost historic interest.
Away back in 1827 she was a protégé of Ninian Edwards, at the time governor of Illinois. She was present at the wedding of Abraham and Mary Todd, and after the wedding was a servant in Lincoln’s home. She nursed Robert T. Lincoln, the present minister to the court of St. James, when he was a baby. Her death was caused by the grip, from which she had been suffering since last March. Her exact age is not known, for she was born a slave and no record of birth was made. But as near as could be told she was about 72 years old.
Epsy Arnsby Smith was her name in full and she was born on the plantation of Arnold Spear, near Shelbyville, Ky. The Spears were old friends of Ninian Edwards and shortly after his election as governor Mrs. Spears visited the family and brought Epsy, who was at that time 7 or 8 years old, along as a waiting maid. She was bright and active and the governor took a liking to her, and when Mrs. Spears was getting ready to return home, she gave the child to him.
When Epsy was a miss, Miss Mary Todd, Mrs. Edwards’ sister, came from Kentucky to live with the governor’s family. About this time Abraham Lincoln became a frequent visitor at the governor’s mansion and he generally asked for Miss Todd. It was Epsy’s duty to answer the call and in after years she used to tell her children and grandchildren how she used to usher “Massa Linkum” into the house when he was “a cortin’ Mistus Mary.”
She witnessed the wedding ceremony when Lincoln was married, and during the first few years of his married life she was his house servant. Then she became engaged to Robert Smith, a colored man living in Vandalia. Shortly before her wedding she came back to live with the family of Governor Edwards and was married at his house by the minister who performed the ceremony for Lincoln. And the dress she wore on that occasion, a black brocaded silk, was a present from Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln.
Years rolled by: Lincoln was elected president; the war came and the slaves of the south were freed. Among the first negroes to come north was “Aunt” Epsy’s father, and the proudest day of his life was when his daughter told him that she had worked for the man who had set him free.
In 1861 her husband died and then she sold her little home and moved to Greenville, where she lived with her daughter Mrs. Julia Barbee, until last March, when she went to Chicago to live with another daughter, Mrs. Catherine Jackson, 1630 Dearborn street. Mrs. Jakie Smith, also her daughter, went with her. She had been there but a few days when she became ill with the grip. Enfeebled by old age she lingered along until Sunday morning, when she was taken with a spasm and died. As there was no physician in attendance at the time of her death the matter was reported to Lieutenant Gallagher of the armory, who notified the coroner.
After relating the story of her mother’s life Sunday night Mrs. Smith spoke of the anxiety the poor old “mammie” felt lest she should not be buried by the side of her dead husband in the old graveyard at Vandalia. “But we are too poor to send the body there,” she continued, “and I am afraid her dying request cannot be granted. I know if Massa Robert Lincoln were here he would help us. But then he is so far away we can’t let him know
The funeral will be held today from the dingy tenement house where the old woman died.”
The question arises, Was Epsy Smith the same person as an indentured mulatto girl named Hepsey? Indentures were contractual relationships in which minors were taught employable skills in return for having their basic needs provided. Ninian Wirt Edwards, who would become Abraham Lincoln’s brother-in-law, signed an indenture of apprenticeship on October 29, 1835, for Hepsey, who was described as “a mulatto girl aged eleven years …having no parent or guardian.” Edwards agreed to provide her “good holesome (sic) and sufficient meat drink washing lodging and apparel suitable and proper for such an apprentice and needful medical attention in care of sickness and will cause her to be instructed in the best way and most approved manner of domestic housewifery and will cause her to be taught to read and at the expiration of her term of service will give unto her a new bible and two new suits of clothes suitable and proper for summer and winter wear.” This arrangement lasted until Hepsey’s 18th birthday.
Most leading families in Springfield used hired help. Indentures from the period of the 1830s and 1840s showed that blacks and “mulattos” were the source of this hired help. If Edwards was using a phonetic spelling for Hepsey, there is little difference between Hepsey and Epsy. (The same is true with early Lincoln campaign biographies that confused Abram with Abraham.) That Epsy was clearly part of the Edwards household and witnessed the Lincoln marriage suggests that Elizabeth sent Hepsey to work for her sister Mary after her service ended with the Edwards family. In fact, Hepsey and Epsy were undoubtedly one and the same.