Once Upon a Time

Impoverished Lincoln cousin lived in Quincy

Joseph Jr. and Mary Hanks of Melrose Township, shown in this undated photo, were the parents of Quincy's Caroline Hanks Hall. Joseph Jr. was the youngest brother of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, which made the couple the aunt and uncle of Nancy's son Abraham Lincoln. | Photo courtesy of Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection
Posted: Feb. 10, 2019 12:01 am Updated: Feb. 10, 2019 12:02 am

Caroline Hanks Hall, The Quincy Daily Whig reported in its Oct. 12, 1904, issue, "had eked out a miserable existence in her illy-provided flat at 212 North Fourth Street."

For four years, she had lived in a second-floor, four-room apartment--or at least half of it -- in the Fisher Building. Her son William had died of consumption, as tuberculosis was known then, a year or so earlier. His income had supported the two of them, but with him gone, Hall now occupied the two rear rooms and rented each of the two front rooms. The rent was her only source of income.

At 68 years old in 1904, Caroline Hanks Hall had been widowed in 1874 and was alone in Quincy. She admitted to a Whig reporter that she was a pauper and feared she would live the rest of her life in poverty and seclusion. But parsimony and shame were familiar visitors to her ancestral Hanks family.

Hall was the daughter of Joseph Hanks Jr., who had moved in 1828 to Adams County with his wife, Mary, and seven children. Melrose Township pioneers, the family lived on 80 acres the elder Hanks bought to farm approximately 5 miles southeast of Quincy. Three more daughters were born there, including Caroline in 1836. She was the youngest of the family's 10 children.

Her father, Joseph, was the brother of Nancy Hanks, Abraham Lincoln's mother. That made Caroline Hanks Hall Lincoln's cousin. She had drawn little attention to that fact until a Quincy Daily Journal reporter featured her connection to the martyred president in a story on Feb. 11, 1909.

It was not unusual for Hanks family members to be reticent about their relatives. Relationships in the Hanks family were complicated. The father of Abraham Lincoln's own mother, Nancy Hanks, was not known. In the years ahead, Lincoln would tell his law partner and biographer William H. Herndon that his grandmother Lucey had been made pregnant by "a well-bred Virginia planter." The child, whom Lucey named Nancy, was born Feb. 5, 1784. When the "nobleman of Virginia," as Herndon called him, proved ignoble -- and Lucey refused to identify him, Lucey's parents took her and baby Nancy to Kentucky in 1784.

Lucey Hanks had a second child out of wedlock in Kentucky, where the law made bastardy illegal. A Mercer County, Ky., grand jury charged her with fornication. The case was dropped when Henry Sparrow married her in 1790.

The violation ran in the family. One of Lucey's younger sisters bore an illegitimate son, whom she named Dennis Hanks. The boy was farmed out to sister Elizabeth Hanks and her husband, Thomas Sparrow. The childless couple raised Dennis and two other illegitimate Hanks children, including Lincoln's mother, Nancy, who would live with the Sparrows until she was 16.

An older brother raised Caroline Hanks Hall's father, Joseph, after their mother's death in 1794. In 1798, 14-year-old Joseph immigrated with the Sparrows to Kentucky. There he and Dennis worked in the same carpentry shop as Thomas Lincoln, the same man who would marry Nancy Hanks in 1806.

To the Thomas Lincolns were born daughter Sarah on Feb. 10, 1807, and son Abraham on Feb. 12, 1809. A third child, Thomas Lincoln Jr., died three days after birth in 1812 or 1813.

The Sparrows would follow Thomas and Nancy Lincoln to Spencer County, Ind., in 1816. There they died of "milk sickness" in September 1818. Lincoln's mother, Nancy, would die of the same illness Oct. 5, 1818.

Caroline Hanks Hall's parents, who had married in 1810, moved to Sangamon County in 1825 before arriving in Adams County in 1828. Hall's mother, Mary Young Hanks, died at age 63 on April 11, 1897. Joseph Hanks was 77 when he died at home on Jan. 1, 1902.

The Whig's 1904 story reported that Hall was a second cousin of Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's oldest son, who was a wealthy Chicago lawyer and who had served in the administrations of two presidents. "The two families represent the extremes in the social side of life," the newspaper editorialized, "one surrounded with all the honors and pleasures which money can buy, the other far down the horizon of life with want, sorrow and suffering their lot."

Hall's was a pathetic scene, the newspaper crowed in its headline. Youngest of her living siblings, Hall's two sisters, 71 and 77, and brother, 82, had been driven to seek shelter with her, their "no less fortunate sister."

They had lived in Louisiana, Mo., where a neighbor who learned of their destitution wrote to Robert Todd Lincoln about them.

His reply was not promising. Letters from all over the world, he said, "endeavored to trace some relationship with the purpose of receiving financial assistance."

He told the newspaper, however, that if he could determine they were related and were in "need (and) are as worthy as they have been represented to him, he will extend the help which they so much desire but for which they have been so unwilling themselves to ask." Lincoln hired a Chicago newspaper man to make inquiries.

Hall told the newspaper in 1904 she had spent all of her years in Adams County and had never met the Lincolns. She had no pictures of any of them. She told a different story when the same newspaper interviewed her five years later in 1909.

"My father was a brother of Abraham's mother," she said. "But three of us are alive now, and in fact are the only cousins of Abraham that are alive. I was not very well acquainted with Abe, but my brother and he were quite chummy."

Whether Robert Lincoln assisted his second cousin is not documented. But Hall in May 1909 bought a remaining half interest in a saloon she co-owned below a rooming house at 306 Hampshire.

In a notice in The Quincy Daily Whig on April 21, 1911, Hall said she planned to move to Louisiana, Mo., to make her home with her sister. She died of pneumonia in Louisiana on Feb. 27, 1916.

Reg Ankrom is a member of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County. He is a local historian, author of a prize-winning biography of U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, and a frequent speaker on Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and antebellum America.


"Hanks Lived Near Quincy, Relative of Abraham Lincoln Who Died at Louisiana, Missouri," Quincy Daily Whig, Oct. 7, 1909, p. 2.

"Nancy Hanks Birthplace Claims Virginia." Excerpts from Newspapers and Other Sources from the files of the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection at https://archive.org/stream/hanksfamilynancylinc_4/hanksfamilynancylinc_4_djvu.txt, accessed Jan. 26, 2019.

"Is Cousin of Lincoln: Mrs. Caroline Hall of This City Full Cousin to the Great Emancipator," Quincy Daily Journal, February 11, 1909, p. 7.

"Joseph Hanks of Melrose Township Died at the Homestead Yesterday--Was a Resident of the County Since 1828," Quincy Daily Journal, Jan. 2, 1902, p. 7.

Edward J. Kempf, Abraham Lincoln's "Philosophy of Common Sense," Vol 1. (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1965), pp. 24, 28, 29.

William H. Herndon, "Herndon's Life of Lincoln." (Cleveland: The World Publishing Co., 1965), p. 14.

"Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln." Edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), pp. 782, 783.

"Late Live Locals," Quincy Daily Whig, April 21, 1911, p. 6.

"Mrs. Martha Hanks (sic) and Mrs. Mary Kies, Both Old Residents, at Rest," Quincy Daily Journal, April 12, 1897.

"Own Cousin of Lincoln Found in Quincy After Inquiries Made by Robert Lincoln," Quincy Daily Whig, Oct. 12, 1904, p. 1.

"Stone's Quincy City Directory," 1900-1901, p. 240.

"That New Dry Place, More About No-Saloon District in North Quincy," Quincy Daily Herald, May 6, 1909, p. 10.