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Savage Conversations

The 1862 mass execution of thirty-eight Dakota nightly haunts Mary Todd Lincoln, institutionalized and alone with her ghosts.

May 1875: Mary Todd Lincoln is addicted to opiates and tried in a Chicago court on charges of insanity. Entered into evidence is Ms. Lincoln’s claim that every night a Savage Indian enters her bedroom and slashes her face and scalp. She is swiftly committed to Bellevue Place Sanitarium. Her hauntings may be a reminder that in 1862, President Lincoln ordered the hanging of thirty-eight Dakotas in the largest mass execution in United States history. No one has ever linked the two events—until now. Savage Conversations is a daring account of a former first lady and the ghosts that tormented her for the contradictions and crimes on which this nation is founded.

About the Author

LeAnne Howe (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma) is a poet, fiction writer, playwright, and filmmaker. Her most recent book, Choctalking on Other Realities, won the inaugural 2014 MLA Prize for Studies in Native American Literatures, Cultures, and Languages. She is the Eidson Distinguished Professor in American Literature in English at the University of Georgia, Athens.


“Howe’s drama taps emotional undercurrents that course imperceptibly through conventional historical narratives.” —Publishers Weekly

“This lucid collection ingeniously examines the deep and sordid layers of complicity.” —Star Tribune

“I left the story with a deep sense of gratitude for Howe’s dedication to complexity and nuance.” —The Paris Review Daily

“A play/poem/novel/historical nightmare, Howe mixes disparate textual, visual, and genre techniques to create something absolutely singular and haunting.” —Literary Hub

“While history reframed President Lincoln’s legacy as one of benevolent glory, Howe refocuses on a national inheritance that is contradictory and even criminal. Perhaps the real ghosts here are in Howe’s portrayals of presidential power, the treatment of marginalized bodies, the erasure of shameful stories in favor of those that glorify a man and a nation; historical relics and monuments and walls, sanity and control—these are still what haunt us.” —Poetry Foundation

Savage Conversations radically ups the ante in characterizing Mary Todd Lincoln, imbuing her with malice and poetry.” —Foreword Reviews

“In May of 1875, Mary Todd Lincoln is confined to an insane asylum. There, she is haunted by a ‘Savage Indian’ who scalps her nightly and sews her eyes open. In Howe’s telling, the specter haunting the widowed First Lady is one of the thirty eight Dakota men, hanged in 1862 by her husband in the largest mass execution in American history. In reading this, I was blown away. Unmoored. Sent spiraling adrift on gusts of wind.” —Rachel S, Harvard Book Store

“Part fever dream, part extended meditation on madness, Howe’s Savage Conversations is a bracing commentary on the nature of guilt and grief.” —Historical Novel Society

Savage Conversations takes place somewhere in between its sources, between sanity and madness, between then and now, between the living and the dead. It pushes past the limitations of textual sources for telling indigenous history and accounts of insanity.” —Barrelhouse Reviews

“An eerie mash-up that ties President Lincoln’s mass 1862 execution of 38 Dakota warriors to the hallucinations of Mary Todd Lincoln.” —City Pulse

“LeAnne Howe’s words are to savor, contemplate, and horrify. Savage Conversations explodes with the stench of guilt and insanity that undergirds the American story, whispered through a personal, familial, national, and supernatural drama revelatory in every sense. Howe’s uncanny images will long haunt readers, just as the Dakota 38 linger in land and memory, both offering a testament to the violent entanglements of past and present.” —Philip J. Deloria

“LeAnne Howe’s play Savage Conversations activates this space in history. She fills the wide-open gaps with a narrative of ‘what could have been,’ makes the absences present in very intimate ways.” —Full Stop

Savage Conversations invokes our own racial conflict and probes America’s psyche, its struggle to reconcile its colonialist values, indeed its white supremacy, with its multi-ethnic cultures and populations. . . . Through the masterly dramatic management of Mrs. Lincoln’s disturbing and chilling obsessions, Howe shows that there is no escape from the yesterday’s paradigms of power without a true reckoning with the injustices that set the stage for our troubled social landscape.” —On the Seawall

“Howe’s book powerfully contributes to our understanding and re-thinking of a moment in time that we are still grappling with today. In the wake of recent movements to remove Confederate monuments as we work to present the truths of history, Howe’s book directs our attention to a violent event that has not been adequately acknowledged. Through experimental form, Howe refracts a moment of history that readers simply cannot forget, that they will inevitably carry with them long after reading the last page.” —The Carolina Quarterly

“This is a haunted poem. Howe gives us voices intimate, twisted, and deluded—and yet relentlessly exact. Inside this drama in verse, a seething history uncoils. But do we meet a mad woman’s fantasy or someone more real?” —Heid Erdrich

Praise for LeAnne Howe

“Let her lead you into history, intrigue, comedy and comic insight, even mystery, yes, as she impels you and other readers toward decolonization with attitude! A very fine and fulfilling read.” —Simon J. Ortiz

“How does she do it? Cross Rocky Horror Picture Show with War and Peace in a voice that sings America’s song as deeply as the best musical poetry of Walt Whitman? But no, Howe’s voice is so utterly unique, comparisons can’t do her justice.” —Susan Power

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Thanks to a 2013 ADA Access Improvement Grant administered by VSA Minnesota for the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, this title is also formatted for screen readers which make text accessible to the blind and visually impaired. To purchase this title for use with a screen reader please call (612) 338-0125 or email us at info@coffeehousepress.org.