Tom Eblen

Want an heirloom from Abraham Lincoln’s in-laws? Helm Place is being cleaned out.

Association of Lincoln Presenters annual convention

The Association of Lincoln Presenters descend upon Lexington for their annual convention. 38 Abraham Lincoln and 14 Mary Todd Lincoln presenters attended the event
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The Association of Lincoln Presenters descend upon Lexington for their annual convention. 38 Abraham Lincoln and 14 Mary Todd Lincoln presenters attended the event

Want to own a piece of Abraham Lincoln’s family history? Here’s your chance.

Bluegrass Auction, Realty and Appraisal LLC is auctioning items from Helm Place on Feb. 17. The sale includes many possessions of Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-sister Emilie Todd Helm and her children, who lived in the mansion for four decades.

There also are things that belonged to William H. Townsend, a Lexington lawyer, author, historian and noted Lincoln scholar and collector, and his daughter, Mary Murphy. They bought Helm Place from the Helms in 1946 gave it to the Kentucky Mansions Preservation Foundation in 2012.

But don’t expect to snag any truly historic artifacts. The foundation, which also operates the Mary Todd Lincoln House museum on West Main Street, has already donated historically significant items from the mansion on Bowman’s Mill Road to 16 regional museums and archives.

Exterior of Helm Place
Helm Place was built for descendants of Revolutionary War veteran Abraham Bowman in the 1830s to the 1850s. It was bought in 1912 by Emilie Todd Helm, half-sister of first lady Mary Todd Lincoln and wife of Confederate Gen. Benjamin Todd Helm, who died at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863. Tom Eblen teblen@herald-leader.com

Still, there is some good stuff, including antique furniture, silver, porcelain, carpets and several paintings by the Lincolns’ niece, Katherine Helm, who was an accomplished artist. There also are several paintings of Helm Place, which was built between the 1830s and 1850s.

Mary Todd Lincoln had 14 full and half siblings, and Emilie Todd Helm was her favorite. The president adored Helm, too, at least until she became a political liability during the Civil War. Think your family fights about politics? You have nothing on the Lincolns.

Lincoln, of course, was commander-in-chief of the Union Army. Most of his Lexington-born wife’s siblings were Southern sympathizers, and two of her brothers died in Confederate service. One sister kept smuggling gold to the South, prompting her brother-in-law to threaten to have her jailed.

Helm’s husband, Benjamin Hardin Helm, was a Confederate general. After he was killed in battle at Chickamauga in 1863, his grieving widow and three children made long, tense visits to the White House. Lincoln’s political enemies howled that he was sheltering a traitor. Even the children quarreled: Tad Lincoln said his daddy was the president, but little Katherine, the future artist, insisted that the real president was Jefferson Davis.

Early Helm Place photo
The earliest known photo of Helm Place, taken in either 1866 or 1880. The house, originally called Cedar Hall,was built between the 1830s and the early 1850s. Helm Place

The widow Helm bought Cedar Hall, which she renamed Helm Place, in 1912 and lived there with her grown children until her death in 1930. Her daughter, Elodie, sold the 150-acre estate and its contents to Townsend in 1946. His daughter, Mary, moved in with Elodie, who died in 1953. Townsend never lived there, but made his home at 28 Mentelle Park for nearly five decades. He died in 1964.

Mary married Joseph Murphy in 1960, and they lived at Helm Place until her death in 2000. When Murphy died in 2011, his wife’s will left the property to the foundation on the condition it become a house museum. She was a longtime foundation board member.

The foundation spent five years exploring museum options, but none were financially feasible, said Gwen Thompson, executive director of the Mary Todd Lincoln House. So the foundation went to court in 2017 and got permission to sell Helm Place and use the money to support the Mary Todd Lincoln House and its other work.

“But that won’t be done anytime soon,” Thompson said, adding that the foundation is putting covenants on Helm Place that would require any future owner to preserve the property and the mansion’s interior and exterior historic fabric. “We’re taking it one step at a time.”

The first step was donating historic items to museums. Some items went to the Mary Todd Lincoln House, the girlhood home of Mary and Emilie. Those included portraits of their father, Robert Todd, and step-grandmother, Mary Brown Humphreys. The Humphreys portrait was by Matthew Harris Jouett, Kentucky’s most famous portrait artist. Thompson and curator Jonathan Coleman said other historic items were given to local and regional museums that were the best fit for them.

A Jouett portrait of Samuel Brown, a Transylvania University medical professor whose home is the oldest house on Gratz Park, went to Liberty Hall in Frankfort, which was his brother’s home.

Table made by Lincoln's father
Among the furniture at Helm Place is this table made by Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas Lincoln. Tom Eblen teblen@herald-leader.com

A small table made by Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas Lincoln, was given to the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park near Hodgenville. A desk used by author James Lane Allen was given to the Lexington Public Library and is on display in Central Library’s Kentucky Room.

Helm Place items also were given to Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate; the Speed Art Museum in Louisville; the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort; and University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections.

Now, the leftovers can be yours. The live auction starts at 1 p.m., Feb. 17, at 1163 Floyd Dr. in Lexington. Items may be previewed there from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Feb. 15. Auction items may be viewed and bid on before the live auction at Bluegrassauction.com.

Tom Eblen, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s metro/state columnist since 2008, writes opinion and feature columns. A seventh-generation Kentuckian, he was the Herald-Leader’s managing editor from 1998-2008. Eblen previously worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Associated Press. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.

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