Published April 28th, 2022 at 6:00 AM3 minute read
LECOMPTON, Kansas – “They’re politicians, you can’t get them to do anything quickly,” someone joked while herding 20 or so Abraham and Mary Lincoln presenters up the stairs at the Territorial Capital Museum.
The historic impersonators gathered in the small town of Lecompton as part of their annual conference with the Association of Lincoln Presenters.
Many of the folks in attendance present the historic president and first lady as a full-time job. The association, formed in 1990, boasts 153 Abraham Lincoln and 67 Mary Lincoln presenters.
“History is important and we need to make sure it never dies,” said Tom Wright, a Lincoln presenter from Tennessee.
He and his wife, Sue Wright, have been presenting as Abraham and Mary Lincoln for the past 13 years.
She grew up 25 miles from where Lincoln was born in LaRue County, Kentucky.
“We grew up Lincoln,” Sue Wright said.
The couple had participated in Pioneer Days in the past and eventually found themselves playing the parts of Mary and Abe.
As a presenter, it’s important to not only dress the part, but know the history.
That’s why the association came to Kansas for their conference this year. Murray Cox, the association’s treasurer and organizer of the trip, said many in the association didn’t know about this area of Lincoln’s history.
“It’s been very successful,” Cox said. “People have been pretty excited to learn about the role of Kansas.”
The Lecompton Constitution, drafted in 1857, would have admitted Kansas into statehood as a pro-slavery state.
It was a hotly debated topic during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. According to the Lecompton Historical Society, debates around the Lecompton Constitution further divided the Democratic party and led to Lincoln’s election in 1860.
The group stayed in Leavenworth, Kansas, and toured the Lincoln Archives at the University of Saint Mary and Fort Leavenworth, where Lincoln gave a speech in 1859.
Robert Broski, who has presented as Abraham Lincoln since 2009, said the history is important to understand and internalize.
“We’re presenters, we’re not look-a-likes,” he said.
Even so, his likeness to the famed president is certainly part of the job.
Broski said he’d heard several times from acquaintances that he resembled Abe. Then he grew the beard just to see.
“I grew it, I looked in the mirror and said ‘holy moly.’ If I don’t present Lincoln, I’ll kick myself,” Broski remembered.
Now, the beard is a permanent fixture, as it is for many of the Lincolns who were in attendance.
Body and soul, Broski also embodies the orneriness of Lincoln.
“My husband is so much like Lincoln that I feel like I understand Lincoln,” said Dianne Broski, who was in attendance presenting as Mary Lincoln.
As she spoke, her husband in top hat and all, comically poked his head around the corner.
“We’re like the real Mary and Abe,” Dianne Broski said. “We fight like cats and dogs, but the love is there.”
With her understanding of the Lincoln marriage, she tries to dispel some of the negative opinions some hold towards the First Lady.
“She did some weird things, but what woman doesn’t,” she laughed.
For example, Diane Broski said she reenacts a scene in which Mary Lincoln throws a log at Abraham after asking him multiple times to stir the fire, only in her version, its small brown pillow.
“People embellished on her flaws,” she said. “We’re trying to dispel what people thought of her.”
But ultimately, she contends that Mary Lincoln was a politically engaged, and a loving wife.
Lincoln presenters are adamant about wearing period appropriate garb.
Dianne Broski donned a cornflower blue dress, complete with up to eight layers underneath, small round spectacles, gloves, a bag and hat.
All were made to follow the styles that Mary Lincoln would have worn in the mid-19th century.
For the Abes, it’s a straight (rather than pointed) waistcoat, a frock coat with only interior pockets and square-toed boots.
Most importantly, Lincoln presenters always keep papers and notes in their hats.
“And on a long day, a pastrami with cheese,” Robert Broski joked.
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.