By Kimberly J. Largent
Charge the Cannons Publishing
The Early Years
Mary Todd Lincoln, the most criticized 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. During the Civil War, both North and South called her a traitor and seldom was a kind word printed about her by the press. If we examine her early years, her most impressionable years, we become enlightened and can find compassion for the woman who was the wife of the 16th president of the United States. Mary Ann Todd Lincoln was born the third child to Eliza Ann Parker Todd and Robert Smith Todd on December 13, 1818. Preceding her in birth was her eldest sister Elizabeth, followed by her sister Francis. The Todds lived in a quaint two story, nine-room L-shaped house on Short Street in Lexington, KY. At that time, Lexington was a rugged frontier town that had been founded by a handful of men that included Mary Ann’s grandfathers Robert Parker and Levi Todd, as well as her great uncles Robert and John Todd. Her father, a Whig politician and storeowner, adequately provided for his family. In his early years, he’d studied to be a lawyer and was later admitted to the Kentucky bar; however, he never practiced law due to the fact there were already too many lawyers in Kentucky.
Although the Todds rejected the idea of slavery, they owned one slave for every member of the family. Mary was especially fond of the slave Mammy Sally. Her anti-slavery views developed very early in her life and she was extremely proud and pleased when she learned that Mammy Sally was integral in helping escaped slaves make it to the Ohio River. Her anti-slavery views grew to match those of her father who supported the KY Colonization Society in its efforts to send the freed slave to Liberia. He freely discussed his dislike of slave-selling and opposed efforts to open KY slave markets to out-of-state imports. He believed slavery prevented Lexington from growing commercially. Regardless, his lifestyle contradicted his beliefs: he was a slaveholder in an antislavery family in a slave state. Eliza became pregnant within a short amount of time after Mary Ann’s birth, this time giving birth to a long-awaited son named Levi. Another son Robert Parker soon followed, but didn’t survive past 14 months. A daughter Ann was born around the time Mary Ann was three years old and in order to avoid confusion between the two daughters, Mary Ann’s name was shortened to Mary. A second son George Rogers Clark Todd was born in 1825, bringing the total of the Todd clan to six children. George’s birth had taken its toll on Eliza and she became deathly ill. In July 1825, three doctors were summoned to the Todd house to try to save her life. Their attempts proved futile and she passed away at the age of 31, leaving Robert with six children to provide care. Mary, only six years old, was crushed by the death of her mother. Before she had time to mourn the loss, her father shocked her and her siblings when proposed marriage just six months later to Elizabeth “Betsey” Humphreys. Betsey accepted the proposal, but found repeated excuses to postpone the wedding. She was in no hurry to become mother to Robert’s six children. At Robert’s persistent urgings, she finally wed him on November 1, 1826.
Mary’s life—once glorious, filled with hope and joy—was turning dark and dreary. The Todd household took a turn for the worse after the wedding and rooms that were once filled with Eliza’s love for her children were now filled with the rantings and ravings of a stepmother who strongly disliked her husband’s children. Outsiders witnessed Betsey’s cruelty on several occasions and noted the stepmother used shame, disgrace, and embarrassment to keep her husband’s children in line. Mary’s older sister Elizabeth stepped forward and assumed the role of “mother” to Mary and the younger children. Even so, Betsey was becoming increasingly miserable in the Todd home and never failed to express it. And each new year brought another Todd into the world. In total, Betsey and Robert added nine more children to their brood.
The importance of Education
Robert Smith Todd, Mary’s father / Public Domain
Although Robert was a distant father and seldom home, he was concerned that each of his daughters receive a good education. When it came time for Mary to begin her schooling in 1827, he arranged for her to attend Shelby Female Academy, also known as “Wards” for the reverend who was the director. She spent the subsequent five years at Shelby where she was a model student. She studied reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic, history, geography, natural science, French and religion—which may seem like a lot, but in actuality, the boys were taught more. It was considered unacceptable at the time for women to be overly educated—lest they scare off any possibly suitors. Tuition at Wards was a mere $44 per year; French was an additional $8. Mary excelled academically and found a sense of peace and order in her otherwise chaotic world. She invested most of her time and energy on her schooling, probably because it allowed her to escape the miseries at home. In 1832, at age 14, Mary graduated from Wards and whereas most girls would have been satisfied with such an education, Mary was not.
As her family was moving into an elegant 14-room house, she entered Madame Mentelle’s for Young Ladies to continue her education. Mentelle’s was run by a 62-year-old, well-traveled French woman and her husband. Tuition increased to $120 a year and although Mentelle’s was located close to Mary’s new home, Mary petitioned the school to allow her to board on the premises. Boarding privileges were usually reserved for the girls who lived a good distance away, but Mentelle’s made an exception in Mary’s case and permitted her to board throughout the week and return to her home for weekends only. Although the Todd’s new home was luxurious, boasting six bedrooms, a two-room nursery and a bathtub situated on the second floor, throughout her life, Mary always considered Mentelle’s her real home. There, she thrived. She participated in French plays, parlor dances, and marched in local parades. She enjoyed acting and found pleasure in mimicking those around her. Of course, those being mimicked rarely found pleasure in this talent. But it did bring her attention—attention she desired much of her young life. In addition to acting, she was fluent in French and was quickly developing an interest in politics. Like her father, she was a confirmed Whig. Andrew Jackson visited Lexington when Mary was only 14 years old and she declined an invitation to a public demonstration given in his honor to show her disapproval. That same year, a cholera epidemic swept through the state and Lexington wasn’t spared. Many families left the area and of those that remained, hundreds lost their lives. The Todds made the decision to stay and Mary wrote of that epidemic later in her life: “[There was] nothing on the streets but the drivers and horses of the dead carts with the bodies of those who had just died. Toward the last there were not even coffins. Father had all the trunks and boxes taken out of the attic to serve as coffins.”
Striking out on her own
Elizabeth Todd Edwards, Mary’s older sister / Public Domain
Mary was considered by those who knew her to be warm-hearted, save her penchant for mimicking others. Standing only 5’2”, she was described as having clear blue eyes, long lashes, light-brown hair and a beautiful complexion. She was an excellent conversationalist and many noted her ambitious nature. She rarely kept her thoughts hidden and was not one for idle chit chat. She spoke her mind freely in a time when women were discouraged from doing so. Her father was proud of her and desired to spend more time with her as he aged. But Mary, following in her sisters’ footsteps, was anxious to leave the nest due to the dissention with Betsey. In the summer of 1836, she made the decision to trail her older sisters to Springfield, IL. Elizabeth had married former Illinois state attorney general Ninian Edwards and was happily situated in the frontier town. Francis saw the move as her chance to flee the Todd home and she joined Elizabeth and her husband. Mary, feeling restless and wanting to experience life, chose this path as well.
Mary spent the summer of 1837 at Elizabeth’s beautiful house that overlooked the town. She was happily received by everyone and found the attention stimulating. She became well-known for her ability to hold her own in parlor discussions over the Whigs and the Democrats. She often sat in on discussions with her brother-in-law and cousin John Todd Stuart on whether they should stand for Congress in ’38. In the same rugged, unsettled town was newcomer Abraham Lincoln whose appointment to the 9th Illinois assembly brought him to Springfield.
Lincoln, a native Kentuckian as well, was settling into a law practice with Mary’s cousin John Stuart. He was an awkward-looking man and was described as a non-church goer and a loner. He was a farmer’s son whose past jobs included that of laborer, farm hand, carpenter, and ferryman before becoming an attorney. Even so, he managed to earn the moniker “humble Abraham Lincoln” and win a seat in the assembly. Lincoln, himself, described this time in his life as the loneliest he could recall. Whereas Lincoln was lonely that summer, Mary was having the social time of her life. She was disappointed when the summer came to an end and reluctantly made her way back to Lexington. She would have stayed on, but her sister and brother-in-law couldn’t afford to support both Mary and Francis. When she returned to Lexington, she found most of her friends were married or preparing their weddings. She focused her attention on finding employment and accepted a position as apprentice teacher at Ward’s school. Shortly thereafter, fate seemed to intervene and Francis married a Springfield pharmacist and moved out of Elizabeth’s home. This opened the door for Mary to return to Illinois. She hastily packed her backs and made the return to Springfield where she would spend the next 22 years.
The Belle of Springfield
Downtown Springfield, Lincoln’s office, 1858 / Northern Illinois University
For the first time in her life, Mary acquired a close friend by the name of Mercy Levering. Mercy, much more proper and rigid than Mary, would become her most treasured confidante. Of the two, it was usually Mary’s humorous nature that got them in one predicament or another. Once, the two girls decided to journey into town after heavy rainfall left the roads thick with mud. Mary devised a plan to prevent their slippers and gowns from becoming mud-soaked. They each carried with them wooden shingles that they placed down on the mud to accommodate each step. This worked on the journey to town, but the shingles were useless on the return and the two girls found themselves mud-soaked from the knees down. Mary’s sister Elizabeth held parties as a way for her to meet eligible bachelors. But she found most of them “hypocritical, uninteresting, and frivolous in their affection.” She did, however, have a few suitors, including a 90-pound, 5’4” Democrat by the name of Stephen Douglas. It was thought by the town that Douglas had proposed to Mary at one point, but no one knew for certain. Later in her life, Mary confessed to a friend that Douglas had indeed proposed and she’d replied to him, “I can’t consent to be your wife. I shall become Mrs. President, or I am the victim of false prophets, but it will not be as Mrs. Douglas.” Other suitors included the grandson of Patrick Henry and Edwin Webb, a persistent widower. None of these men touched her heart ad she wrote to Mercy about the latter: “I love him not, and my hand will never be given where my heart is not.” Even when she met Abraham Lincoln, she was not overly impressed. But the two did strike up a friendship. Mary’s sister Francis was anything but impressed with Lincoln. She considered him the “plainest man in Springfield.” Lincoln would have agreed with her. He once wrote in a letter about that time in his life that his “swallowtail coats were too short, his patched trouser too shabby, and his socks rarely matched.” When it came to Lincoln on the dance floor, friend James Conkling wrote in a letter to Mercy that he looked like “old Father Jupiter bending down from the clouds to see what’s going on.” It’s said that when Lincoln met Mary, he wanted to dance with her in the worst way, to which she relayed that he did indeed “dance in the worst way.”
Although Mary wanted to be guided by her heart, she also had criteria concerning a potential mate. She shared with her sister that she wanted “a good man, with a head for position, fame and power, a man of mind with a hope and bright prospects rather than all the houses and gold in the world.” She held true to her word. Previous suitors Stephen Douglas and Edwin Webb were both rising politicians at the time. In 1840, Lincoln and “Molly,” as he now lovingly called her, slowly moved their relationship from friendship to courtship. Elizabeth, although she, too, did not approve of Lincoln, often invited him to their home where he and Mary would sit in the parlor and talk. Elizabeth noted that “Lincoln would listen and gaze on [Mary] as if drawn by some superior power, irresistibly so.” But the two being watched were dealing with their own doubts. Lincoln feared he would not make enough money to provide Mary with the life she was accustomed to and Mary feared giving up control of her life to a husband. Elizabeth once stated, “I warned Mary that she and Mr. Lincoln were not suitable. Mr. Edwards and myself believed they were different in nature, and education and raising. They had no feelings alike. They were so different that they could not live happily as man and wife.”
Elizabeth, having spent two years trying to create a rift between the two, rejoiced when on January 1, 1841, Mary and Lincoln went their separate ways after an argument. Apparently, Lincoln was to escort Mary to a party and was late in arriving, so she left without him. He finally showed up only to find her flirting with Edwin Webb. That evening, a fuming Lincoln ended their relationship. It’s said that Mary responded by stomping her foot and shouting, “Go and never, never come back!” The breakup took its toll on Lincoln and he missed the following six days on the legislature. When he finally returned, he was described as “reduced, and emaciated in appearance and seems scarcely to possess strength enough to speak above a whisper.” Lincoln became a hypochondriac and in a letter to Mary’s cousin (his law partner), he wrote, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forbode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.” Mary suffered too. She wrote to her friend Mercy, “[Lincoln] deems me unworthy of notice, as I have not met him in the gay world for months, with the usual comfort of misery, imagine that others were as seldom gladdened by his presence as my humble self.” Lincoln left Springfield to visit a friend in Louisville, KY. During his absence, Mary wrote again to Mercy that she was feeling very alone. “The last two or three months have been of interminable length…I was left much to the solitude of my own thoughts…” It was clear Lincoln missed his Molly and Molly missed her Abe.
Many outsiders looked upon the Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln union with much skepticism. She was short and round, he was tall and lanky. She had a keen fashion sense, his socks rarely matched. She was educated, he was not. Her family had money, his had none. He was loved by all and she was disliked by many. So what kept these two very opposite individuals very much in love during their marriage? Was it simply politics?
Love is Eternal
Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln in 1842 / Public Domain
In 1842, around the same time her stepmother was giving birth to her 14th sibling, Mary reconciled her relationship with Lincoln at the urgings of mutual friend Eliza Francis who petitioned the two to at least enjoy a friendship. Slowly, the tall lanky man and the round young woman rekindled the romance and Lincoln soon proposed. It was then patterns began to emerge in their relationship that would play out almost daily for the rest of their time together. If Mary felt neglected by her husband, she would flirt with his colleagues to garner his attention. He would respond with indifference and focus his energy on the tasks at hand. Indeed, to outsiders, the only thing the two had in common was a political agenda. On Friday, November 4, 1842, Mary and Lincoln wed at the home of her sister Elizabeth in front of about 30 guests. It was a small, impromptu ceremony that didn’t include her father and stepmother among the guests, all of who received only a day’s notice of the ceremony. Even the best man was a last-minute thought, having been chosen by Lincoln the day of the ceremony. What seemed to be the only planned part of the festivities was the plain gold wedding band that was placed on Mary’s finger. In it was the inscription Love Is Eternal.
Reverend Dresser, an Episcopalian minister, married the two in the simple ceremony that many still believed was an awkward pairing. Even Lincoln must have felt so for he wrote one week later to friend Samuel Marshall: “Nothing new here, except my marrying, which to me, is a matter of profound wonder.” The newlyweds settled into a room at the Globe Tavern, paying under $10 per week. They occupied the same room Mary’s sister Francis had shared with her husband after they’d married. Lincoln returned to work right away and Mary found herself with much idle time. The boredom didn’t last long for nine months later she gave birth to a son on August 1, 1843 and named him Robert Todd after her father. It would be Mary who would name all the children—a task Lincoln would later joke about. Once he was asked to name a cannon and he amusingly replied, “…I could never name anything. Mary had to name all the children.” In the fall of 1843, the Lincolns moved from the Globe and settled into a four-room cottage on South Fourth Street, paying a mere $100 rent per year. Mary’s father made the journey to Springfield (sans Betsey) to meet his daughter’s new husband and to see his new grandson, as well as his other grandchildren he’d yet to meet.
During that visit, he showered Mary with attention and gifts, as if making up for all the years of suffering she’d endured at Betsey’s hands. He gave her a $25 gold piece and deeded 80 acres of Illinois land to the newlyweds, plus promised a yearly sum of $1,100. To Lincoln, he handed over a legal case that later yielded a tidy sum of money. Her father’s generosity paved the way for the Lincolns to purchase a one-story, five room cottage located on one acre of land. The property cost $1,200 and was purchased from Reverend Dresser, the same reverend who’d performed their marriage ceremony. Although they now had a wonderful home, both recognized that their standard of living still wasn’t what Mary was accustomed. In 1846, Mary gave birth to a second son whom she named Edward. “Eddie,” was named after Edward Dickinson Baker who’d beaten Lincoln for the Whig nomination for Congress in 1842. Eddie, who was ill most of the time, kept Mary busy. To all outsiders, the new mother seemed to fall off the face of the earth as she took care of her home and children. She was a superb and doting parent, often engaging the boys in a variety of activities. Having been criticized so harshly when she was a child, she parented the boys in such a way that outsiders felt she gave them too much freedom. Meanwhile her husband traveled the circuit trying cases and was away from home more times than not. It was during this time, Mary’s anxieties and fears seemed to escalate. She disliked staying alone at night and would often invite guests to spend the night at their home. When Lincoln was at home, he was just as attentive to the children as she was. In fact, he often solely cared for the children while Mary attended a church function or did the marketing. When it came to disciplining the children, neither Mary nor Lincoln seemed to excel. Lincoln confessed he used reason to keep the children in line over “switching.”
A Lauded Hostess
Mariah Vance (1819-1904) is believed to have been a maid and housekeeper for Mary and Abraham Lincoln in Springfield from 1850 to 1860. / Public Domain
Mary went on to hire several helpers but usually had a difficult time getting along with them. She was fortunate in employing one faithful helper who described Mary as “taking no sassy talk but if you are good to her, she is good to you and a friend to you.” She also employed a kind black woman she grew fond of named Mariah Vance. Mariah, who understood Mary and looked on her with compassion, stayed with her for years. For Mary, Mariah may have reminded her of her beloved Mammy Sally from her childhood. Mary took special care in the cleaning and did the cooking herself; however, her husband was quite the finicky eater. An apple was usually enough to fill him. Not only was he not much of an eater, but quite often he would forget to come home for dinner to which Mary would send the children to fetch him. Her domestic skills were not lacking and she entertained frequently in their small home.
Isaac Arnold, a frequent guest of the Lincolns expressed, “Mrs. Lincoln often entertained small numbers of friends at dinner and somewhat larger numbers at evening parties. Her table was famed for the excellence of its rare Kentucky dishes and in season was loaded with venison, wild turkeys, prairie chickens and quail and other game.” Even though he praised the young Mrs. Lincoln, he would later become very critical of her during the White House years. By the mid-1850s, Lincoln’s law practice became profitable and Mary found her small dinner parties turning into large receptions. Although the Lincolns were growing in popularity, Mary didn’t conform to the role that was expected of her (and all women during that time). Instead, she spoke her mind freely, expressed her opinions without caution, and could hold her own when the talk turned to politics. There seemed to be little gray area when it came to Mary: most either liked her or disliked her, there were very few who had no opinion. In 1856, after Lincoln was defeated in the senate, Mary sold off the 80 acres given to her by her father for $1,300. The money funded the building of a second floor to their quaint home. Thus four new bedrooms and a back stairway, as well as a double parlor on the first floor, were added. The extra room provided her with areas of the house where she could have quiet, which she relished when she was suffering from a migraine. Although she provided a good home for her children and husband, she sometimes suffered from bouts of melancholy just as her husband did. She wrote to a friend in 1859 during a time when her husband was home, “I hope you may never feel as lonely as I sometimes do…”
Edward “Eddie” Baker Lincoln, Age 3, their second son / Public Domain
As Lincoln continued to pursue a political career, Mary carefully groomed and coached her husband. In 1846, he received the Whig nomination for Congress and in August he became one of Illinois’ Congressman. And whereas the majority of the congressman left their wives and children at home while they served, Mary and the children journeyed to Washington with Lincoln, which offended most of the male boarders where they’d settled, especially those who knew of Mary Lincoln and disliked her. When his congressional term was up, he sought the position of Commissioner of the General Land Office but did not win that post-even though Mary went on a letter-writing campaign to get him appointed. Instead, he was offered the post of Governor of Oregon-which he graciously declined. Mary Lincoln was not going to travel to such a barren frontier town with two children in tow. During the summer of 1849, Mary’s father contracted cholera and passed away. More devastating was the death of Eddie on February 1, 1850. He died of pulmonary tuberculosis. Mary believed in predestination and was certain fate was against her. She told friend Emile Helm, “What is to be is to be and nothing we can say, or do, or be can divert an inexorable fate, but in spite of knowing this, one feels better even after losing, if one has had a brave, whole-hearted fight to get the better of destiny.”
On December 21, 1850, William Wallace Lincoln was born and almost two years later, on April 4, 1853, Thomas Lincoln, named for his paternal grandfather, was born. He earned the moniker “Tadpole” for the strange shape of his head after the difficult birth. The nickname was soon shortened to Tad. Lincoln’s political career seemed to stall during this time but it was jumpstarted in 1854 when he went up against Mary’s former beau Senator Steven Douglas. Lincoln’s slogan became: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free,” while Mary campaigned, “[Douglas] is a very little giant” beside “my tall Kentuckian.” Even so, Lincoln lost again. This time both Lincolns felt the defeat harshly. It wasn’t just Lincoln who’d lost the election, she’d lost too. Theirs was a political partnership. To soothe the sting of the loss, Mary turned to spending money on the latest wardrobe fashions. In 1859, 16-year old Robert was leaving the nest for Harvard and the following year Lincoln was being eyed for president. Twelve years had passed since he’d held a public office and an excited Mary found herself surrounded by the political elite. Whereas most politicians’ wives were unassuming, Mary surprised the press by taking an active role in politics. She freely expressed her opinions, once again taking the public by surprise and offending them. The election came and went and Lincoln was nominated president. It’s evident he saw their marriage as a political partnership as well because he rushed home to tell her, “Mary, Mary, we are elected!” The partnership continued and Mary, feeling as though her husband may understand the issues of the day, felt she understood people and character much better than he ever could. She was instrumental in political appointments. If she did not approve of one of her husband’s choices, she would solicit those close to her husband to talk him out of the appointment.
Mary’s Political Agenda
North Front of the White House at the time of Lincoln’s inauguration / White House Historical Association
The newly-appointed president and his family took the train to Washington DC. Lincoln had preferred that Mary and the children take an alternative route due to assassination threats, but General Winfield Scott talked him out of it, rationalizing that an assassination would less likely take aim if he were surrounded by his family. Mary, herself, had received many anonymous letters bearing a skull and crossbones and a threat that if her husband took office, he would be assassinated. As the train journeyed to DC, it made many stops, and Mary was surprised at her notoriety. “Where’s the Missus? Where’s Mrs. Abe?” came the cry from the crowds if she was not at her husband’s side to greet the well-wishers. This reinforced her belief that she had been elected as well. Ladies Home journal coined her “Illinois Queen.”
First on Mary’s White House agenda was to assemble a wardrobe, a task that took two weeks and captured national media attention. She tailored her wardrobe after France’s Empress Eugenie (who married Napoleon III in 1853). She wanted to be known for her wardrobe, and she was, but not in a flattering light. The press poked fun at her “loud” outfits, yet Lincoln always complimented her. Rarely was a newspaper published without some mention of the new first lady. Not only did she not conform to the dress of the day, she additionally went against convention by making herself very visible. All of her predecessors had spent their time in the White House sequestered on the upper floors while their husbands ran the country. And although she was pleased she was getting media attention, the harsh, exaggerated words that were printed about her stung and made their mark in her already weakened self esteem. In her eyes, the press was no different than her cruel stepmother.
Second on Mary’s agenda was to give the White House a desperately needed makeover using a $20,000 stipend. Every president since William Harrison had been receiving the funds, but none chose to take advantage of it. Thus, by the time the Lincoln’s arrived at the White House, it was in disrepair. After the war broke out and a Rebel invasion seemed imminent, General Scott urged Mary to take her children and return to Springfield. She declined and instead went on a two-week shopping trip, making stops in Philadelphia and New York and in turn, angering the merchants in Washington who’d served the White House for years. Her shopping trip was costly—she spent the entire $20,000, that was supposed to last four years, in one trip. She purchased furnishing, curtains, rugs, china, anything that she felt would lend a regal atmosphere to the White House. At one point, Lincoln did intervene and cautioned her about her spending. He even threatened to pay the shopping expenses she incurred from his own salary if she didn’t curtail her spendthrift ways. That threat seemed to take the edge out of her spending; however, she had already run up several debts that she eventually turned over to White House staffers to manage. She quickly learned the art of bartering. Even though Mary was careless with spending, she managed to save $70,000 of his $100,000 salary during his presidency.
After the Battle of First Bull Run, Mary became a regular at the newly-established hospitals around DC. There, she provided food and comfort to the wounded. She read to them, brought flowers, wrote letters home and worked tirelessly to raise funds for special needs. She also contributed all the White House liquor to the hospitals. And whereas most women could not stand the sight of an amputated limb, it’s reported that Mary was able to tolerate the atrocities of war. Although she had a philanthropist side, it was her spending that seemed to grace the headlines, that and the fact she had three half brothers fighting with the Confederacy. For her sisters’ husbands, Mary secured an appointment for each. Ninian was appointed to the Commissary Department of the U. S. Army and Francis’ husband was appointed local paymaster of the volunteers.
Mary possessed a defiant streak to say the least. She was not one to be bullied by any of her husband’s cabinet members. Once, she sent a friend to Edwin Stanton to try to secure an appointment and after Stanton met with her friend, he sought out Mary and scolded her for the imposition. She promised she would not bother him again, but it’s said shortly after his berating, he received a package of newspaper clippings that pointed out his inadequacies with the Union army. Many feel Mary was the sender of the package, which would have been consistent with her sometimes passive-aggressive behavior. Regardless, she was the busiest of any first lady in history and her accomplishments were not trivial. She had successfully redecorated the White House, became an admired hostess, reviewed the troops alongside her husband, and held the hands of the wounded and dying. She overlooked frequent migraines, fevers, depression/loneliness (her husband was preoccupied with the war) and once a concussion to make her self available to the public. She had no less drive than the men of her day.
William “Willie” Wallace Lincoln at age 5 / Public Domain
In January of 1862, when the country was finally accepting it would not be a quick war, Mary decided to hostess a lavish party. Five hundred invitations were sent out and those who received one were delighted, those who didn’t were bitter. Many felt with the solemn blanket the war spread, it was no time to be hostessing a party. She did so anyway and as though she were being punished, two weeks after the party, her favorite son Willie died of illness. Mary fell into a deep depression. She was bedridden for weeks and never entered the Green Room, where Willie’s body had been laid out, or the room where he died, ever again. Shortly thereafter, Tad became ill, and with Mary in no condition to care for him, an intervening Dorothea Dix posted one of her nurses at the White House. Mary’s grief played out in ways that weren’t so unusual for the time. She had insomnia and suffered from bizarre nightmares, and although both of those symptoms seemed to be the norm for Lincoln, his grief played out in other ways. Every Thursday, he would sequester himself in Willie’s room. Mary, not able to take in the sight of anything that reminded her of her favorite son, quickly removed all her son’s items from the White House and sent them to relatives in Springfield. The only items she kept were his pony and his two goats. Mary was downright angry at God for taking something so special from her.
Meanwhile, husband and wife were growing apart and to her, it seemed as though they’d been closer in spirit when he was traveling on the circuit and away most of the time during the early years of their marriage. She continually worried about his health and often asked those closest to the president for their opinion on the matter. He was visibly depressed, tired, and giving all his energy to the war. As she came out of her mourning, she found herself being entertained in her notorious Blue Room by many male friends. The Blue Room was intended for entertaining while her husband met with his generals and cabinet. The press, as well as the wives of those invited to the Blue Room, felt it was inappropriate. Maybe Mary did too, but making her husband jealous was the only way she knew to bridge the gap between them.
Dreams and Visions
In ’64, the Lincolns needlessly worried that they would not be reelected. The final outcome was Lincoln managed to win every state—save three. It was then a friend reminded Mary of a vision that Lincoln had had. He’d just woken from a nap when he looked into the full-length mirror in the corner of the room. There, he saw two images of his face, one much lighter than the other. No matter how he shifted, and from what angle he viewed the oddity, both images remained. Mary interpreted her husband’s vision to mean he would be reelected, but would not complete his term. The vision didn’t surprise her. Her life had been such that when one joyous door opened, another closed shortly thereafter. With that in mind, she immediately spent $1,000 on mourning attire. Mary was now called the Presidentess.
As the war came to a close and the Lincolns traveled into the Confederacy, Lincoln had another vision, this one coming to him in a dream. In it, the White House was on fire. He shared this dream with Mary and the very next day, she sent a telegraph to the White House maid: “Send a telegram, direct to City Point…and say if all is right at the house. Everything is left in your charge—be careful.” All of this probably weighed heavily on Mary’s mind and it played out in ways that made her look less becoming. The following day, a grand review was planned and she was to attend with Lincoln. For reasons beyond her control, she was late in arriving. Not only was she late, but during her carriage ride with Julia Grant to the review, the carriage hit a ditch and Mary banged her head forcefully against the roof. By the time she arrived, she openly expressed her anger and irritation to her husband, not sensitive to the fact that others were within earshot and witnessing her tantrum. Most felt a sadness for Lincoln at that point. He took her anger with calmness and dignity. Mary regretted her behavior that day and returned to the White House with a heavy heart.
After a few days, she returned to her husband’s side in the Confederacy and walked through the Confederate capitol. The Lincolns returned to the White House and Lincoln was exposed to another one of his dreams. In this one, he was wandering through the halls of the White House and he came upon the East Room. There was a coffin with a corpse inside. He asked the soldier in attendance, “Who is dead in the White House?” The soldier responded, “The President.” Lincoln shared the dream with Mary and it haunted her. Regardless, Lincoln expressed his desire that they both look to the future. Now that the war was over, they needed to focus on each other and nurture their relationship. At her husband’s urgings, the first order of the day was to make plans to attend the theatre that very evening to see Our American Cousin.
The Widow Years
Having lost her mother at the impressionable age of five created a deep void within Mary Todd Lincoln from which she never recovered. That, coupled with her inability to accept the deaths of sons Eddie and Willie, led to perpetual depression and anxiety that she tried to cure with frequent shopping excursions and trying to win the love and affection of those around her. In the end, she may have assembled quite a collection of beautiful wares, but it cost her the respect of her admirers. Mary’s losses also included the deaths of two half brothers: Sam, a Confederate who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Shiloh; and Aleck, a Confederate killed at the Battle of Baton Rouge. Some, knowing her fondness for her brothers accused her of traitorous behavior during the war. Little did Mary know that although the war was coming to a close, her battles were just beginning.
A National Tragedy
1870s photo of Ford’s Theatre
On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Mary and Lincoln took a carriage ride where they rekindled their relationship with intimate conversation. It was decided that later that evening, they would attend a showing of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre, along with Senator Harris’s daughter Clara and her fiancé Major Henry Rathbone. The presidential party arrived at the theatre late, but became happily situated inside the freshly-decorated presidential box as the orchestra played Hail to the Chief. When the applause died down, the play began. About an hour and a half into the performance, Mary intimately slipped her hand into her husband’s and leaned over to ask of him what the others in their group would think of her bold display of affection. Before she could absorb his response, a man entered the box and pointed a revolver to the back of the president’s head and pulled the trigger. Lincoln slumped over. Mary’s screams echoed throughout the theatre and those who witnessed the shooting never forgot the wretched moans that came from Mary over the next few moments. “Oh my God…” she uttered in disbelief, “have I given my husband to die?”
Lincoln was quickly removed from the theatre and taken to a private home across the street. A hysterical Mary and her companion Clara followed closely behind, their gowns spattered with Major Rathbone’s blood from a saber wound he’d received while trying to subdue Boothe. Lincoln’s unresponsive body was laid on a bed in a second-floor bedroom and Mary clung to him begging for a response. The men in attendance were unable tolerate Mary’s hysteria and at a time when she should have been consoled and allowed to remain at her husband’s side, she was forcibly removed from the room and taken to a downstairs parlor. For the next nine hours, she anxiously awaited her husband’s death. Robert, who’d been fetched to the home earlier, divided his time between consoling his mother and sitting beside his father’s lifeless body. Mary was finally permitted another visit with her husband and collapsed. By the time she was revived, her husband was dead.
She later wrote of his death, “I often think it would have been some solace to me and perhaps have lessened the grief, which is now breaking my heart—if my idolized had passed away, after an illness, and I had been permitted to watch over him and tend him to the last,” then she could have, “…thanked him for his lifelong—almost—devotion to me and I could have asked forgiveness, for any inadvertent moment of pain, I may have caused him.”
Mary did not attend her husband’s funeral and had no family members from Springfield come to her side during this difficult period. She became bedridden for the next 40 days and refused callers who came to offer their sympathy, which in turn created talk of her impropriety in dealing with her husband’s death.
Mary Todd Lincoln wore black almost exclusively after her husband was assassinated / Public Domain
President Andrew Jackson was anxious to settle into the White House and his new role; however, he patiently waited for Mary to leave the White House. During her period of confinement, she was oblivious to the goings on around her; the White House staff took advantage of her preoccupation and began looting valuable items. (The following year, the Congressional Committee on House Appropriations investigated the thefts and whether Mary had a hand in the disappearance of these items. She was cleared of any involvement.)
Mary began to contemplate her future. Most suggested she return to Springfield, but to return to Springfield where she’d enjoyed so much gaiety with her husband was out of the question. It was also the place where she’d lost Eddie. She finally decided on Chicago and on the same day that the Union chose to celebrate their victory in war, Mary, Robert and Tad boarded a train for Chicago.
“I go hence brokenhearted with every hope in life almost crushed…Alas, all is over with me.”
The three settled along Lake Michigan in the Hyde Park Hotel. It was there that while walking the shores of Lake Michigan she allowed herself to think of her husband and grieve. For the most part, she became a recluse and allowed few people into her world and for those she did interact with, they concluded that Mary was still very much consumed by the events of the evening her husband was assassinated. Today, we recognize her behavior as post traumatic stress disorder.
Robert remained active and busied himself by accepting a position as an apprentice in a law firm. Mary’s yearly purse totaled $1,500 by the fall of 1865 and she and Tad moved into Clifton House, a boarding house that was home to mostly newcomers and transients. Robert refused to join the two feeling that their new accommodations were dreary, in actuality, he was trying to distance himself from his mother. Creditors began knocking on her door to collect debts incurred during her White House years. To pay off some of the debts, she sold her gowns, and returned jewelry and other items to the place of purchase. She refinanced the remaining debt with a wealthy financier, at a very high-interest rate. She hired Alex Williamson to handle her financial affairs and try to raise contributions for the Mary Lincoln fund. Through his efforts, Mary was able to pay off the vast amount of her debts—although many frowned upon her methods. Regardless, she was proud of her accomplishment.
But her accomplishment was overshadowed by the fact that other war-time widows were receiving much more in contributed funds than she was receiving. It was another blow to her already wounded self. In 1866, Simon Cameron promised to raise $20,000 for Mary and in light of this promise, she purchased a house on W. Washington Street in Chicago. The purchase, she hoped, would bring her family back together under one roof. Robert did not support her in this purchase, especially since she didn’t have the funds, only a promise. Sure enough, Simon Cameron’s interest in Mary waned after he’d won a senatorial nomination. Mary was frustrated by the broken vow and took it upon herself to secure the necessary funds. She sought out those individuals whose careers had been helped by her husband. Robert became irritated at his mother’s “begging” and his opinion of her soon fell in alignment with her critics. Unable to afford the house, Mary rented it out and became a vagabond. She felt, “No place is home for me.”
Her public humiliation continued. In November of 1866, Lincoln’s former law partner William Herndon went public with a story that it was Ann Rutledge who had been Lincoln’s true love, not Mary Lincoln. He called the marriage of the Lincoln’s “a domestic hell…For the last 23 years of his life, Mr. Lincoln had no joy.” Mary didn’t respond publicly, instead she endured a living hell in solitude. It was during this time that others came to her defense and denied the claims made by Herndon, who was considered an irresponsible alcoholic. Robert also came to his mother’s defense during this time and tried to persuade Herndon to drop the story, but he was unsuccessful.
No Place is Home
Robert Todd Lincoln, their first son, photograph by Harris & Ewing / Library of Congress
In 1867, Mary packed her belongings in what she termed “poor boxes” and traveled—for the first time in her life unaccompanied. Both Robert and Tad were in Washington testifying at the trial of John Surratt. Mary made her way to the spas in Racine, Wisconsin where she took advantage of their therapeutic affect. While there, she began to feel better and seemed to garner a clearer sense of her predicament. She formulated a plan to raise money that included selling her entire White House wardrobe. She no longer needed the clothes as she’d taken to wearing widow’s garb since her husband’s death. She immediately journeyed to New York where she planned the sale under the alias Mrs. Clarke, but it was only a matter of days until her identity was discovered and she was blasted in the press once again. The sale was a fiasco.
She returned to Chicago in time to read the Chicago Journal’s coverage: “The most charitable construction that Mary Lincoln’s friends can put on her strange course is that she is insane.” Robert’s opinion of his mother seemed to move in the same direction, more specifically, he wrote to his future wife Mary Harlan, “My mother is on one subject not mentally responsible-it is very hard to deal with someone who is sane on all subjects but one.” He referred to her mishandling of money.
Robert was becoming increasingly embarrassed by his mother’s actions. Later that year, Mary learned through a newspaper article that her late husband’s estate was ready for disbursement. Neither Robert, nor David Davis who was handling the affair, bothered to tell her. She also learned that although she was receiving a mere $130 a month to live on since Lincoln’s death, Robert was receiving twice that amount. This infuriated her since she’d had given up her house on Washington Street because her requests to Davis for an additional income to afford the house were rejected, yet her son’s request for more money had been awarded. He’d even received extra money to decorate his bachelor’s quarters. Davis was now prepared to divide Lincoln’s assets of $110,000 between Robert, Tad (with Robert as guardian), and Mary.
Wishing to leave the United States and all the humiliation, both public and private, Mary and 15-year-old Tad boarded a steamer in 1868 bound for Europe—but not before attending the wedding between Robert and Mary Harlan. For the next two years, Frankfurt Germany became home to Mary. There, her eccentricities were seen for just that, and not insanity. She was liked and even admired abroad. In 1869, she became a grandmother and although the relationship with Robert was strained, Mary passed advice freely on to her daughter-in-law about marriage and motherhood. “Don’t mope around the house. Attend operas and concerts,” she advised.
Her life became leisurely and when she wasn’t sending lavish gifts to both her daughter-in-law and granddaughter, she was reading books and walking alongside the Main. She journeyed to Baden-Baden to enjoy the sulfurous baths, followed by Nice where she enjoyed the climate. “Was there ever such a climate, such a sunshine, such air—flowers growing in the gardens, oranges on the trees, my windows open all day, looking out upon the calm, blue Mediterranean.” Onward to Scotland where “We visited Abbotsford, Dryburgh Abbey, passed six days in charming Edinburgh, seeing oh so much: Glascow…all through the west of dear old Scotia, Burn’s birthplace…went to Gerenoch, heaved a sigh over poor Highland Mary’s grave—went out into the ocean—entered Fingal’s cave—visited Glencoe—Castles unnumerable–Balmoral.”
Back in Frankfurt, Mary was surprised and delighted to receive a visit from her old friend Sally Orne. The two spent the ensuing days together reminiscing. Mary’s lighthearted nature reappeared briefly and apparently the two women made so much noise in Mary’s room with their giggling and talking that “a gentleman next door knocked several times, during the night, saying ladies I should like to sleep some. We amused ourselves very much over his discomfiture, last night another sufferer rang the bell for the waiter and quiet at 2 1/2 o’clock this a.m.” Sally had heard Robert’s assertions that Mary was insane and she wrote at the time of her visit, “As it has been suggested by some that Mrs. Lincoln is partially deranged, having seen her recently it may be proper for me to say to you that I have watched her closely by day and night for weeks and fail to discover any evidence of aberration of mind in her, and I believe her mind to be as clear now as it was in the days of her greatest prosperity and I do believe it is unusually prolonged grief that has given rise to such a report.”
Seeing Sally renewed Mary’s spirit and she began petitioning for a pension once again and after much heated debate in Washington, President Grant signed the bill providing for an annual pension of $3,000 for her. When the French invaded Germany, Mary and Tad journeyed to Milan, Lake Como and Florence before returning to Chicago where they boarded with Robert and his wife. By early 1871, there was friction between the two Marys and Mary chose to move into Clifton House. It was there Tad became very ill with what was initially diagnosed as a cold. But his lungs quickly filled with fluid and on July 15th, he died of “compression of the heart.” Mary received no comfort from Robert as she grieved the loss of Tad. In fact, 10 days after Tad’s death, Robert left for the Rocky Mountains where he remained in seclusion for a month. The locale was a favored place for men who were suffering from “nervous” disorders. Robert would later express that he’d been “all used up” after his brother’s death.
Soon, Mary was no longer welcome in Robert’s house—it may have been because she learned of her daughter-in-law’s struggle with alcoholism. Mary, who now despised the 14th and 15th day of each month—anniversary dates of Lincoln’s death and Tad’s death, respectively, turned more and more to spiritualists and mediums to find comfort. In 1872, Tad’s estate was ready for disbursement and Mary offered to split the estate (worth $35,570) with Robert even though the law entitled her to two thirds. She also loaned Robert $10,000 for a real estate investment. She then traveled to Waukesha, Wisconsin and settled near the health spas next to Lake Michigan.
Lunacy vs Eccentricity
Mary was sent to Bellevue Place in Batavia, Illinois / Wikimedia Commons
In 1873, Mary traveled to Canada. In 1875, she desired warmth and traveled to Green Cove, Florida. As the 10th anniversary of her husband’s death neared, Mary had a premonition that Robert was dying. Hastily, she left for Chicago where she was relieved to find him in good heath, but angry at her for all the ridiculous fuss. Mary’s anxieties during the anniversary of her husband’s death played out in unusual ways. She shopped for items she didn’t need and then purchased the item in large quantities. At one point, she ordered eight pairs of lace curtains for windows she didn’t have, and patiently awaited their arrival. When a knock came at her door, expecting the caller to be delivery the curtains, she opened the door and was surprised to find two uniformed men and an attorney, the same attorney who’d nominated her husband for president in 1860. It was then Mary learned she was being charged with lunacy and was directed to attend a trial immediately where a jury would deliberate her sanity. Mary told the men, “You mean to say I am crazy—I am much obliged to you but I am abundantly able to take care of myself. Where is my son Robert?”
It was later Mary learned it was Robert who took out the warrant for her arrest as a lunatic. In fact, he hired Pinkerton men to follow her throughout her travels and meetings with mediums and spiritualists. He’d also questioned her doctors, maids, waiters and store clerks and then petitioned them to testify against her. One by one, they did so and concurred with Robert’s assessment his mother was insane. Mary had a poor defense, one that was appointed to her by Robert, and it was prearranged the attorney would not provide her a defense that was in her best interest. It only took the all-male jury 10 minutes to return a verdict: guilty of insanity. Her sentence was to hand over her bonds, give control of her money to a court-appointed conservator, and accept detainment in a private asylum in Batavia, IL. If Mary’s trial had been held modern day, she would never have been charged with lunacy—maybe eccentricity—but not lunacy. Mary was being condemned for being ahead of her time.
On May 20, 1875, she was admitted to Bellevue and from the moment she passed through its doors, she was planning her exit—not her escape, but her legal exit. She wrote letter after letter trying to secure an attorney to represent her, but this was difficult since all of her mail was censored. She finally found allies in attorney Myra Bradwell and her husband Judge James B. Bradwell. Although a court decreed that Myra Bradwell could not practice law as “the paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother,” she set out to put Mary’s case back in the media. When a Chicago Times reporter asked her if Mary Lincoln was insane, Myra replied, “Mary Lincoln is no more insane than I am.”
While Myra worked on the outside, Mary worked on the inside and prearranged with her sister Elizabeth that she would reside at her home in Springfield after her release. Initially, Elizabeth agreed until Robert stepped in and applied pressure to Elizabeth to deny Mary’s request. He even concocted several stories to further declare his mother’s lunacy and was able to sway Elizabeth to his side. Myra privately met with Elizabeth and set the record straight and Elizabeth held firm in her offer to Mary to join them. Judge Bradwell sent a letter to Bellevue threatening habeas corpus. Robert continued to pay doctors (with Mary’s money) for their prognosis, which of course supported his theory his mother was insane. Regardless, Mary was finally released to her sister and made the trip back to Springfield. Robert still held her funds and refused to send her money—not even for a new bonnet to wear to church.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s crypt / Wikimedia Commons
Mary was cheerful and sociable at her sister’s home, but she continued to fight Robert for her property and money. She felt as long as he held both, she would not be free. She knew Robert was still pursuing his quest to have her committed so she thought to bargain with him. She made him an offer that if he would place her money in a Springfield bank, she would release to him the contents of her current will, naming him and his daughter heirs to her estate. There was a veiled threat amid her words that if he did not comply, she would disinherit him. Finally, Robert complied.
On June 15, 1876 another jury found her “restored to reason and capable to manage and control her estate.” Robert returned to Mary $73,000, including $60,000 in bonds. With the new ruling, Mary wasted no time in forwarding a letter to her son where she demanded the immediate return of all her personal belongings that he was in possession. She signed the letter Mrs. A. Lincoln. She also returned all the items that Robert had given to her, which didn’t amount to much. The gift-giving had been obviously one-sided.
Her funds restored, Mary decided to journey to Europe. She felt safer with an ocean separating her and her son, who she knew was still trying to have her committed. Abroad, she settled in Pau, France where she spent the next four years. “I live, very much alone,” she wrote in 1877, “and do not identify myself with the [French] —have a few friends and prefer to remain secluded…” She traveled extensively, visiting Rome, Naples, Sorrento, Vichy. In 1879, Ulysses and Julia Grant traveled to Pau and although they knew Mary to be residing there, they didn’t visit her. The old Mary would have felt slighted and snubbed, but she looked upon their act with indifference. In 1880, after two serious falls, she wrote to her sister, “I cannot trust myself any longer away from you all. I am too ill and feeble in health.” She returned to her sister’s home and within a year, weighing only 100 pounds, Mary was nearly blind. She was diagnosed with kidney, eye and back problems. A New York reporter interviewed the physician who treated Mary and asked of the ailing woman’s sanity. The doctor responded, “She is no more insane than you or I are and if you come with me to talk with her, you would understand that.”
With her medical bills rising, 64-year old Mary petitioned Congress to increase her pension. It was increased to $5,000 and she was awarded $15,000 in back pay. She never collected any of the money. On July 15, 1882, on the anniversary of Tad’s death, she collapsed in her bedroom and that evening fell into a coma. On July 16, Mary Todd Lincoln died of a stroke. Mary was buried on July 19 and the Springfield mayor declared a holiday in observance. Thousands lined the streets and the First Presbyterian Church was crowded. For once, the newspapers were kind to her and restored her character in death.
What would Mary’s life have been like if those who’d rallied at her death had rallied during her life? After the service, Robert and Mary’s sister led the procession to Oak Ridge Cemetery where she was laid to rest among those who had abandoned her throughout her life. In 1884, Robert inherited his mother’s estate, not because he was listed in his mother’s will because she destroyed the only copy, but because IL state law named him as her natural heir.
Source: Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, Baker, Jean H. 1986, W.W. Norton & Co.