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Mary Todd Lincoln

Controversial as First Lady, Lincoln’s Wife Remains Misunderstood

Historians have long been fascinated with the behaviour of Mary Todd Lincoln.

She was one of the most interesting and polarizing first ladies of the 19th century: Her unusually stormy moods, coupled with rumors of delusions, constant headaches and pallor, have led historians to suggest that she was “insane,” “hypochondriacal,” “menstrual” and the “female wild cat of the age.”

Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln, became a figure of controversy during her time in the White House. And she has remained so until the present day. A well-educated woman from a prominent Kentucky family, she was an unlikely partner for Lincoln, who had come from humble frontier roots.

During Lincoln’s time as president, his wife was criticised for spending too much money on White House furnishings and on her own clothing.

Mary Todd Lincoln, the most criticised and misunderstood first lady, experienced more than her share of tragedy during her lifetime. From the time she was six, her life took a melancholy turn from which she never recovered. She suffered from depressive episodes and migraine headaches throughout her life and turned to squandering money on lavish gowns and frivolous accessories during the white house year in hopes of finding relief from the void deep within.

Mary supported her husband throughout his presidency and witnessed his fatal shooting at nearly point blank range at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. Mary’s life was difficult after her husband was assassinated; she suffered from depression and mental anguish, which led to her being hospitalised for a time.

Did loss and grief drive Mary insane or was it simply syphilis?

For countless Americans, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809, to April 15, 1865) endures as the country’s greatest president ever. His personal integrity, commitment to abolitionism, wartime leadership and inspired oration are disputed by few. Honest Abe’s wife, however, was a far more controversial figure, due in most part to the spectre of mental illness which lingered over her throughout her troubled life.

It should come as no surprise that her husband’s near-mythical status overshadows her own life story. Today, most think of Mary as an unlucky witness to American history rather than a participant in it, or at best, the butt of some seriously dark comedy (“Aside from that Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”). Like Jacqueline Kenney, she was indeed with her husband the moment he was shot, but unlike the beloved Jackie O, Mary somehow became a national embarrassment instead of a national icon. But was her history of mental illness organic in nature or was it a result of the series of devastating tragedies which defined her life?

Even before April 14, 1865 — the night John Wilkes Booth fatally wounded Abraham Lincoln in Washington DC’s Ford’s Theater — Mary was no stranger to tragedy.

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln’s Family by Francis Bicknell Carpenter

Mary Todd was born on December 13, 1818, in Lexington, Kentucky, the fourth of seven children born to banker Robert Smith Todd and Elizabeth Parker Todd. Robert Todd provided his children from two marriages with social standing and material advantages. When Mary was seven, her mother died. Mary’s father remarried to Elizabeth Humphreys in 1826. This marriage eventually brought nine more children into the house. Mary had a difficult relationship with her stepmother, who was not sympathetic toward her stepchildren, which may have contributed to Mary’s insecurities later in life.

Unlike most men of his era, Robert Todd believed that women should be well educated. At the age of eight, Mary began her formal education at Shelby Female Academy, where she studied grammar, geography, arithmetic, poetry, and literature. While Mary was trained in the social graces common to her class and time, the level of education she received was unusual.

At age 14, Mary entered Madame Victorie Mentelle’s Select Academy for young ladies, just outside Lexington. There she learned to write and speak French fluently, studied dance, drama, and music. In 1837, she began attending Dr Ward’s Academy for advanced studies.

In 1839, after completing her education, Mary moved to Springfield, the new state capital of Illinois, to live with her older sister Elizabeth, who was married to Ninian Edwards, the son of a former governor of Illinois. At the age of 20, Mary was 5 feet 2 inches tall, with blue eyes and reddish-brown hair. The Edwards’s were socially prominent, and Mary soon became a popular belle.

At a dance in Springfield, Mary met Abraham Lincoln, a junior partner in cousin John Todd Stuart’s law firm, who was ten years her senior.

Elizabeth and Ninian Edwards did not approve of the relationship. They believed Lincoln was far beneath Mary. In January 1841, perhaps with his poor background and debt in mind, Abraham asked Mary to release him from the engagement. After much depression, a friend arranged for them to get together again. After another year of clandestine meetings and secret preparations, on November 4, 1842, Mary informed the Edwardses that they were getting married that day. Elizabeth realised it was inevitable.

Mary Todd married Abraham Lincoln in the front parlour of the Edwards home on the evening of November 4, 1842. Inside the ring, Lincoln gave to Mary was the inscription: “Love Is Eternal.” He was 33 years old; she was 23. With Abraham earning a modest income, for the first two years of their marriage, they lived in an $8-a-week room at the Globe Tavern in Springfield.

By all accounts, Mary was vivacious, smart and ambitious: the perfect wife for an aspiring young politician. Soon after her marriage, however, life took a calamitous turn.

The Lincolns would eventually have four sons:

  • Robert Todd Lincoln, born August 1, 1843. He was named after Mary’s father and would be the only Lincoln son to live to adulthood.
  • Edward Baker Lincoln, born March 10, 1846. “Eddie” became ill and died on February 1, 1850, weeks before his fourth birthday.
  • William Wallace Lincoln, born December 21, 1850. “Willie” became ill while living in the White House, perhaps because of polluted water. He died at the White House on February 20, 1862, at the age of 11.
  • Thomas Lincoln, born April 4, 1853. Known as “Tad,” he was a lively presence in the White House and Lincoln doted on him. He became ill, probably with tuberculosis, in Chicago and died there on July 15, 1871, at the age of 18.

The years the Lincolns spent in Springfield are generally considered the happiest of Mary Lincoln’s life. Despite the loss of Eddie Lincoln and rumours of discord, the marriage seemed happy to neighbours and Mary’s relatives.

At some point animosity developed between Mary Lincoln and her husband’s law partner, William Herndon. He would later write scathing descriptions of her behaviour, and much of the negative material associated with her seems to be based on Herndon’s biased observations.

As Abraham Lincoln became more involved in politics, first with the Whig Party, and later the new Republican Party, his wife supported his efforts. Though she played no direct political role, in an era when women could not even vote, she remained well-informed on political issues.

Only the eldest son, Robert, survived to adulthood. Even by 19th-century standards, it was a poor showing. Edward died of tuberculosis at age three in 1850. William, born later that year, succumbed to typhoid fever at 11. Their fourth child, Thomas, made it to 18 when he also succumbed to tuberculosis in 1871. Mary was devastated (she’d already lost her husband by that point and was extremely devoted to Thomas). Her firstborn, Robert, was by then 28 years old, a successful lawyer in his own right, with a family of his own. But instead of being his mother’s comfort, he would become her sworn enemy.

Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln were a study in contrasts. Nine years older, Lincoln came from a comparatively poor and undistinguished background. He was socially awkward, with less than two years of formal education. Mary’s vivacity and occasional flashes of the “Todd temper” was in marked contrast to his self-deprecating personality. Yet many things brought them together: a love of poetry, literature, and a keen interest in politics and political issues. Mary recognised Lincoln’s intellectual depth and political ambition before others did.

Abraham Lincoln

Mary took an active role in promoting Lincoln’s political career. When he was offered the governorship of the Oregon territory, she advised against his accepting the post since it would remove him from the national stage in the East. She often wrote to influential friends in Kentucky regarding Lincoln’s views on slavery. As the division between the northern and southern sections of the country widened, Lincoln’s speeches on limiting the spread of slavery, while preserving the Union, were much admired.

Mary’s vigorous defence and support of Lincoln’s presidential candidacy in 1860 her willingness to speak with reporters who came to Springfield to cover his campaign, and during the transition period between election and inauguration, prove her eagerness to assume a prominent public role in her husband’s presidency.

Due to the sectional strife and imminent secession of South Carolina, however, Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural was overshadowed by threats on his life. Many of the wealthy southern families who had dominated the social-political life of the national capital were leaving and those remaining social leaders, including the outgoing First Lady Harriet Lane, had pre-judged the western Mrs Lincoln as unsuited to assume a social leadership role.

Mary Todd Lincoln was thrilled to become First Lady, at the age of 42. She held elegant buffet dinners, invited intellectuals and literary figures to the White House, and welcomed visitors and guests to her Thursday night receptions and spring and winter receptions. She balanced her social role with an interest in public affairs, reading political journals and newspapers, attending congressional debates, and advising her husband on administration appointments. But even as the public began to regard her as First Lady, she referred to herself as Mrs President.

Her southern background and Illinois husband led to snobbish questions about her social grace when she arrived in Washington. Mary was caught between northern prejudice of her southern background and southern prejudice of her northern sympathies. Recent First Ladies had been virtually invisible in Washington. Mary Todd Lincoln would not be invisible – and thus became the subject of vicious gossip which her own imprudent behaviour encouraged. British journalist William Howard Russell, the correspondent for the London Times, described her shortly after observing Mrs Lincoln at her first state dinner:

Mrs Lincoln was already seated to receive her guests. She is of the middle age and height, of a plumpness degenerating to the embonpoint natural to her years; her features are plain, her nose and mouth of an ordinary type, and her manners and appearance homely, stiffened, however, by the consciousness that her position requires her to be something more than plain Mrs. Lincoln, the wife of the Illinois lawyer; she is profuse in the introduction of the word ‘sir’ in every sentence, which is now almost an Americanism confined to certain classes, although it was once as common in England. Her dress I shall not attempt to describe, though it was very gorgeous and highly coloured. She handled a fan with much energy, displaying a round, well-proportioned arm, and was adorned with some simple jewelery. She struck me as being desirous of making herself agreeable, and I own I was agreeably disappointed, as the Secessionist ladies at Washington had been amusing themselves by anecdotes which could scarcely have been founded on fact.

Being under scrutiny as a fashion symbol, the first lady’s popularity was as precarious as a roller-coaster ride – sometimes up and often down, with a change in the blink of an eye. Her fastidious attention to matters of dress at first impressed and recommended her to the press.  The rumoured costs of her attire became the subject of Washington gossip and prompted bitter critiques by journalists, especially as Union soldiers fell by the thousands, maimed and wounded, dying in camp and on the battlefield.

Media accounts described the new First Lady as plump and plain, and she took such reports as an insult, not just to her but to her husband. Everything she wore was scrutinised and critiqued in the newspapers, convincing her more and more that she needed to wear the very finest fashions. She spent more on clothes than her husband could afford, but her spending only added to the public ridicule. She was the first presidential wife to be called First Lady in the press, as documented in both the London Times and Sacramento Union newspapers.

Mary spoke her mind on political matters – sometimes in French – and in a time when women were supposed to be demure and soft-spoken, she came across too forcefully.

Mary Lincoln viewed her expensive 1861 White House redecoration (over-running a Federal appropriation of $20,000) as a necessary effort to create an image of the stability that would command respect not only for the President but for the Union. She instead conveyed the image of a selfish and indulgent woman, inconsiderate of the suffering the nation’s families were enduring as a result of the war her husband was managing.

Mary Todd Lincoln was the wife of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.

Hints of Mary’s erratic personality appeared early in her adult life. She’d always been a nervous person, very impulsive, and prone to lavish spending sprees and grandiose thinking. As First Lady, she fell out of public favour quickly, since many believed her over-the-top redecorating and entertaining schemes at the White House were wasteful and unnecessary (it didn’t help that many of her relatives were devout Confederates either). In one four-month period, for example, Mary bought herself 400 pairs of gloves. She refused to tone it down, and Abe himself was forced to defend her publicly on several occasions.

Despite all this, Mary was a very sweet and loving mother. After young Edward died in 1850, she began to exhibit increasingly depressive symptoms. A year and a half later, Mary was involved in a carriage accident. She was thrown from the vehicle and hit her head on a rock so hard that she was incapacitated for nearly a month. Her son Robert would later say that his mother was never quite right afterwards. Within three years, more tragedy befell her family, as three half-brothers and a brother-in-law were all killed in the war.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary’s life in the White House was marked by controversy and tragedy. As a well-bred woman of Kentucky, she was reviled by Southerners as a turncoat, while Northerners doubted her loyalty. Several of her siblings supported the Confederacy through marriage or military service. Not surprisingly, the divided loyalties within the Todd family fueled much controversy in the nation’s press.

Mary’s brother George R.C. Todd and her half-brothers Alexander Todd, David Todd, and Samuel Todd all fought in the Confederate Army. Two of her stepbrothers were killed in battle: Alexander at Baton Rouge; Samuel at the Battle of Shiloh. Of one of her stepbrothers, she said, “He made his choice long ago. He decided against my husband, through him against me. He has been fighting against us and since he chose to be our deadly enemy, I see no special reason why I should bitterly mourn his death.”

Yet when her brother-in-law Brigadier General Benjamin Hardin Helm was killed fighting for the Confederacy in the Battle of Chickamauga, the Lincolns took in his widow, her stepsister Emilie Todd Helm, to live with them in the White House.

Mary suffered greatly in the White House. The pressures and anxieties of the war were unrelenting, and she watched her husband age visibly under the strain. In early 1862, when she lost eleven-year-old son Willie to typhoid fever, Mary was prostrate with grief. Mary sought out mediums and spiritualists to contact the dead boy, but they only bilked her out of another small fortune the Lincolns could not afford.

Things worsened after 11-year-old William passed away, less than a year after Lincoln was elected. Mary’s grief was so unrelenting that she was nearly institutionalised. Never happy with the First Lady, the public criticised her newfound antisocial side just as they had her earlier extravagance. In desperation, Mary looked towards the growing trend of spiritualism to find relief. She hosted several séances at the White House, hoping to reach her children beyond the grave. Mediums and known quacks were coming and going at all hours; the public, however, reserved judgment, even though the President himself was rumoured to be dabbling in the supernatural fun.

Mary also made irrational outbursts during Lincoln’s presidency. For example, after an uncomfortable carriage ride to review the troops at City Point, Virginia, during which she was accompanied by Julia Dent Grant (whom Mary did not like), wife of General Ulysses S. Grant, Mary Lincoln unleashed her pent-up fury on her husband when he rode on horseback alongside the lovely wife of a general.

Such scenes were not infrequent in Mary Lincoln’s life, and Abraham Lincoln’s secretaries nicknamed her the Hellcat. Even in childhood, friends had observed that she was either “in the garret or in the cellar,” emotionally. Such patterns indicate that Mary Lincoln may have suffered from bipolar disorder. Her mental illness worsened after her husband’s assassination when she disintegrated into inconsolable, pathological grief and went on manic shopping sprees, which partially accounts for her unpopularity with many people.

On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, and the war was officially over. Mary Lincoln hoped to renew her happiness as the First Lady of a nation at peace.

However, on April 14, 1865, President and Mrs Lincoln went to watch the comic play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater. As they sat in a theatre box, her hand in his, John Wilkes Booth shot the president in the head at near point blank range. Mary accompanied her husband across the street to the Petersen House, where Lincoln’s Cabinet was summoned. Mary was with her husband through the night along with her son Robert. Abraham Lincoln died at 7:22 the following morning.

Mary Lincoln was inconsolable during the long overnight vigil, and according to most accounts, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had her removed from the room where Lincoln was dying.

During the long period of national mourning, which included a lengthy travelling funeral that passed through northern cities, she was barely able to function. While millions of Americans participated in funeral observances in towns and cities throughout the country, she stayed in a bed in a darkened room in the White House.

Her husband’s assassination shattered Mary. The next 17 years held nothing but sorrow.

Her situation became very awkward as the new president, Andrew Johnson, could not move into the White House while she still occupied it. Finally, weeks after her husband’s death, she left Washington and returned to Illinois.

In a sense, Mary Lincoln never recovered from her husband’s murder. She first moved to Chicago and began to exhibit seemingly irrational behaviour. For a few years, she lived in England with the Lincoln’s youngest son, Tad.

After returning to America, Tad Lincoln died, and his mother’s behaviour became alarming to her oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who took legal action to have her declared insane.

Her husband’s assassination was an ordeal from which Mary never entirely recovered. Somewhat surprisingly for a lawyer and sitting president, Lincoln didn’t leave behind a will, and it took several years for his finances to be resolved and the money distributed. In the meantime, Mary became increasingly paranoid about financial matters, fearing that she’d end up flat broke and on the streets. (Of course, this never would have happened, since she did stand to inherit almost $40,000). At first, the public was sympathetic, since Lincoln’s devotion to her was well-known, but her increasingly bizarre behaviour eventually left her a laughing stock.

At one point, Mary committed a very public gaffe when she tried to sell her entire wardrobe, sincerely believing she was on the brink of poverty. Her son Robert was mortified, and, to add insult to injury, the clothes didn’t sell. After Thomas died in 1871, Mary’s eccentricity morphed into delusion. She became terrified of fire, illness and theft, so much so that she began to keep wads of cash stuffed under her petticoats. Though she was understandably afraid that her last remaining child would die, her irrationality on this matter sometimes bordered on obsession. Robert, for his part, had little patience for his mother’s concern.

Painting of the death of President Abraham Lincoln, circa 1865. Photo by Fotosearch

Mary’s mental health deteriorated rapidly. Increasingly dependent on medications such as laudanum and chloral hydrate for a variety of physical and emotional ailments, she had delusions, hallucinations and irrational fears of people trying to kill her. Her only living son, Robert, on his way to becoming a prominent attorney, became concerned for her health and safety.

Robert arranged an insanity trial after agonising over his distressed mother’s erratic behaviour. Illinois law required a jury trial for involuntary commitment to a mental institution. In a June 1, 1875, letter to Mary’s friend Sally Orne, Robert explained his difficult decision. “Six physicians in council informed me that by longer delay I was making myself morally responsible for some very probable tragedy, which might occur at any moment.”

Mary did not realise that a public trial awaited her, and was forcibly taken to the courthouse on May 19, 1875. Isaac Arnold, a family friend who reluctantly became her defence attorney, did not contest the case and allowed 17 witnesses to testify to her unstable condition, while not calling any witnesses of his own.

During the trial, Robert testified, “I have no doubt my mother is insane. She has long been a source of great anxiety to me.”

Dr Norbert Hirschhorn and Dr Robert G. Feldman maintain that “Symptoms imputed as insanity at her trial clearly had their origin in the organic disease of tabes dorsalis. The bizarre behaviour in 1875 leading to hospitalisation, with elements of acute anxiety, insomnia and delusions, most resembles post-traumatic stress disorder, coinciding with the tenth anniversary of her husband’s murder.”

Mary bitterly (and perhaps correctly) accused Robert of being after her money and the strange details of her obsessions became a matter of public record.

Replica Of John Wilkes Booth Gun Used To Assassinate President Lincoln Above is a photo of the actual gun from the National Park Service.

Some said that Mary claimed to hear voices through the walls; servants were forced to stand guard over their fearful mistress while she slept. Her alternating habits of wasteful spending and frugal saving were exposed before the court. Some historians believe she may have had bipolar disorder, though few would go so far as to diagnose schizophrenia, despite the fact that she seemed to suffer at times from psychosis and delusions.

One of Mary’s doctors, Willis Danforth, was the star witness. He reported that Mary had told him that an evil Indian spirit was pulling wires out of her left eye, that she was distracted by premonitions of her own death and that she was prone to vomiting up her meals to foil imaginary Poisoners. The manager of the Chicago hotel she lived in explained how Mary had shown up in the elevator half-naked and sent all her belongings to Milwaukee one day believing the city was being consumed by a raging fire.

The jury sided with her son, and Mary Todd Lincoln, the former First Lady of the United States of America, was committed against her will.

On May 20, 1875, Mary Todd Lincoln was declared insane at the age of 56, and confined to Bellevue Place, a private sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois. This news shocked the nation. The trial’s verdict required Mary to be committed but allowed her to stay in a private hospital such as Bellevue if finances allowed it. She also could have stayed in Robert’s home, but her tumultuous presence there four years earlier had caused Robert’s wife to leave temporarily.

Later in the day after the verdict was announced, Mary was so enraged that she attempted suicide. She went to the hotel pharmacist and ordered enough laudanum to kill herself. However, the pharmacist was suspicious and gave her a placebo.

She spent three months at Bellevue Place, an upscale women’s insane asylum in an imposing old mansion outside of Chicago. Mercifully, she was allowed to live separately from the other patients while she was there. The public was greatly divided as to the justness of her trial and confinement. She was eventually declared sane enough to take care of her own financial affairs, and the humiliated Mary Todd Lincoln was released into the custody of her sister Elizabeth.

Robert’s motivation was always presumed to have been financial. But Mary was also an embarrassment to him. Perhaps he genuinely wanted to help her, or perhaps he wanted to get rid of her and advance his own political career. The year before her death in 1882, mother and son made an uneasy peace, but it was too late. Mary had lived the final years of her life in lonely seclusion.

After Mary died of what was thought to be a stroke on July 16, 1882, an autopsy revealed a brain tumour. How long it had been there is unknown, but it might have explained her mood swings and eccentricities. During her later years, Mary had become nearly blind, as well, and had lost a great deal of weight. Diabetes certainly may have been the cause. She was also known to depend on a wide variety of medicines prescribed by various doctors, including generous amounts of chloral hydrate for her unrelenting insomnia.

Another likely explanation, however, is one which her doctors would have tried to hide during her lifetime: that both she and her husband suffered from syphilis, and that Mary’s delusions resulted from tabes dorsalis, a degeneration of the nerve cells and fibres that carry information to the brain. All this is caused by untreated syphilis. Indeed, Mary displayed all the main symptoms of that disease and tertiary syphilis: knife-like back pain, dementia, impaired coordination, weight loss and, eventually, blindness and death.

Any one of these factors surely could have contributed to her strange habits and declining mental health. But even in the absence of all of these possible causes, if Mary Todd Lincoln had encouraged her husband to stay home that fateful April evening in 1865, her life — and those of countless others — might have turned out quite differently. Indeed, Mary was reported to have been holding the President’s hand the moment he was shot. That alone would be enough to drive anyone insane.

As a girlhood companion remembered her, Mary Todd was vivacious and impulsive, with an interesting personality–but “she now and then could not restrain a witty, sarcastic speech that cut deeper than she intended….” A young lawyer summed her up in 1840: “the very creature of excitement.” All of these attributes marked her life, bringing her both happiness and tragedy.

Mary Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln

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The Life Of Mary Todd Lincoln | eHISTORY

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