Mary Todd Lincoln
Lady Most nineteenth century First Ladies traditionally served as a behind-the-scenes supporter to her husband in his official duties. Modern Presidential spouses may be the same but also be a committed activist to a worthy cause. Yet no matter their role, it never serves their husband well if they attract adverse publicity in any way. One unfortunate example of this premise was Mary Todd Lincoln. For, while Abraham Lincoln was coping with the intricacies of a nation divided by war, Mary Todd Lincoln was busy shopping and running up large bills, holding seances to reach her dead son, and staging jealous rantings when her husband paid polite attention to another woman. Was Mrs. Lincoln crazy? A jury would later find her so at least temporarily, but nonetheless she was a complex woman at a complex era in complex setting. Yet perhaps all that characterized Mary Lincoln may have been exaggerated simply because she was the wife and then widow of the legendary Great Emancipator.
If Abraham Lincoln was known for being born and raised in frontier poverty then Mary Todd was born in wealth and privilege – on that same frontier. Born in December, 1813 in Lexington, Kentucky, Mary (often called Molly) Todd was the third daughter of a businessman/Kentucky state legislator, and his first wife, and she was born into what one biographer called a “clannish” family. Molly Todd and her four siblings were left motherless in 1825 when her mother died in childbirth along with the newborn. Mr. Todd remarried soon after, a woman from a Virginia family who had elevated ideas about instilling aristocratic ideas into the Todd children. Besides coping with her mother’s death, Mary proved to be an independent child who would present a non-compliant opposition to the plans of the new Mrs. Todd.
Mary attended private schools, and then at age 14, she enrolled into a residential finishing school where the curriculum emphasized manners, dancing and French. After completing her education, Mary traveled to Springfield, Illinois to visit her sister Lizzie who was married to lawyer Ninian Edwards. She moved there permanently in 1839.
A brown haired, rosy cheeked 20 year old, Mary was a candid speaking flirt and as such, she was a fresh addition to what was a rustic frontier state capital. Since sister Lizzie was socially conscious, she naturally hoped her Mary would find a suitor from among the young men in her social circle. Instead, Mary had her eye on a tall, lanky lawyer from a poor background. In 1840, she and Abraham Lincoln became engaged despite Mrs. Edwards’ feeling it was a mismatch because they were too dissimilar. Yet as one biographer put it: “The truth is Molly gravitated to the strong-minded positive person, perhaps she admired so much the mental ruggedness that had been left out of her chemistry. She was a woman all feeling and impulse, incapable of scheming to catch a husband.”(Profiles and Portraits of American Presidents and their Wives, Margaret Bassett, p. 150)
Yet when in January, 1841 Lincoln called off the engagement, possibly because he sensed a lack of a true love match, Mary returned to the social whirl. While Lincoln became ill with concern over the parting, Mary began seeing another Springfield politician named Stephan A. Douglas. Yet while this romance did not evolve, meanwhile a series of unusual events were soon to reunite Mary and Lincoln.
A local newspaper ran a series of fictitiously authored letters mocking a local politician. While Lincoln wrote two humorously toned letters, Mary and a friend contributed a letter that was more direct. The politician began to suspect the identity of the author of this last letter and to prevent any repercussions to Mary, Lincoln claimed to be the offending author. The politician challenged Lincoln to a duel but with the intention of avoiding any inquiry to either of them suggested they settle the issue with broadswords. The politician was a short man so Lincoln had the advantage, but when the duel was about to begin, the politician saw the incongruity, became more reasonable and accepted an apology. However, because of these events, Mary and Lincoln were reunited and they were married in November, 1842 at the Edwards home
At the time of their marriage, Lincoln was a lawyer who followed the circuit courts from one community to another, so Mary was often alone in their first lodgings at a local tavern/inn. In 1844, they purchased a story and a half structure and with the eventual addition of the second floor, the home would become known as the historic Lincoln Homestead in Springfield, Illinois.
Gradually, the Lincolns’ financial situation improved as Mary dedicated herself to their family but her intense efforts often exhausted her and even gave her migraines. This led to occasional emotional outbursts, which Lincoln patiently accepted. “It does her lots of good,” he told friends, “and doesn’t hurt me a bit.”
Their first son – of an eventual four – was Robert Todd born in August, 1843, a child who grew up to follow not only a successful business and public service career but also to be the only Lincoln son to reach adulthood. The second son Edward, born in March, 1846, lived long enough to accompany his family to Washington where Lincoln served a term in Congress, but the boy died in February, 1850. In December of that same year the third son William was born, and the fourth, Thomas (called Tad) was born in April, 1853.
The Lincoln home was probably very typical of other Springfield homes. Lincoln called Mary “Mother” and she called him “Father” or “Mr. Lincoln.” The boys in their homemade clothes played with the neighborhood children, and often visited Lincoln’s office. Mary was an active Presbyterian, and was an impulsively kind neighbor. According to one account, soon after Tad was born when a neighbor woman with a new baby became ill, Mary sent her husband over to get the baby, and then return him after Mary had fed him.
Yet Mary also had problems. She had little concept of frugality, and was always ready to express an opinion about others. One man she found fault with was Billy Herndon, Lincoln’s young law associate, which so offended Herndon that his dislike for her tainted his contribution to a future Lincoln biography.
As Lincoln’s political career reached its culmination in the Presidency, Mary resolved to outfit herself properly. She traveled to New York to choose the best in feminine finery but as it turned out she overspent, and it was the only beginning of the problem.
At first, it was planned that Lincoln would travel to Washington on a special train, accompanied by political aides, stopping for speeches and receptions, while Mary and the two younger boys followed by regular passenger train. However, Mary did not want to miss the excitement of the occasion so the family joined the political aides and friends on the official train. However, though Mrs. Lincoln might smile and wave from the train window she kept a low profile. Willie and Tad, on the other hand, would jump off the train at each stop, dash around among the crowds, and then have to be tracked down and reloaded when it was time to leave.
Then when the train neared Washington, a railroad employee named Allen Pinkerton came aboard to inform the presidential party about a threat to attack the President when they arrived at Baltimore. There had been threats against Lincoln and even Mary, mostly from the South, and since Baltimore was a southern city in sentiment, it was a real danger. Pinkerton’s idea was to allow the train to proceed to Washington without Lincoln who would enter the capital secretly. However, nothing occurred and the family was safely reunited in Washington. Then in spite the gathering war threat, the Inauguration proceeded. At the Inauguration Ball, because the President did not dance Mary led off the festivities with the defeated Democratic candidate and former beau Stephen A. Douglas.
Over the next months, Mary proved to be a successful First Lady. Despite the war, there was a great desire for the normal so Mary kept up a busy schedule of receptions, parties and other social events. Visitors found her a warm hostess and she made many friends even among political opponents. She was assisted by a former slave named Lizzie Keckley who had first come to work in the White House as a seamstress and remained as Mary’s attendant.
Yet Mary soon found herself the center of a controversy because of her family. After all, she was a Todd from Lexington, Kentucky and the Todd’s were Confederates – and in fact, some of her family were fighting against the union. Yet though she tried to set aside any family ties because of the war, at least once it was not so easy.
In the latter part of 1864 Mary’s half-sister Emilie Todd Helm (or “Little Sister” as Lincoln affectionately called her) was restrained when she tried to return to Lexington with her daughter. Lincoln ordered her to be sent to Washington for a brief visit. Yet soon her overspending presented a new challenge.
Congress had appropriated $20,000 to redecorate the White House but when she was finished she overspent by $6,700. Lincoln was irate when he discovered she had spent so much. “It would stink in the nostrils of the American people to have it said the President of the United States had approved a bill overrunning an appropriation of $20,000 for flub dubs, for this damned old house, when the soldiers cannot have blankets,” Lincoln said. If Congress had not covered the overage, it would have come out of Lincoln’s pocket.
Then in early 1862, Tad and Willie became seriously ill. Though Tad survived, 11-year-old Willie did not. Because Mary was so grieved it was several months before she could return to some semblance of a normal routine. From then on, she wore nothing but black, and avoided whatever reminded her of Willie, including his bedroom and the room where he had been prepared for burial. She even consulted mediums and spiritualists, despite Lincoln’s exposing some of them as frauds.
Then in 1863, she realized that her personal debt of $29,000 had become a major problem. Because if Lincoln were not re-elected the next year then her debt would become public knowledge and her creditors could become more pressing.
As the Civil War neared an end in April, 1862, Mary accompanied Lincoln to attend a troop review near Washington. She had made the trip in an army ambulance and because a rough ride had delayed them, she arrived too late to mount a horse and take her place beside her husband. Instead, Mrs. Ord, the wife of the commanding general, had taken that position and Mary was furious enough to rant at both the lady as well as the President. After such a humiliating scene, she could only claim being ill and return to Washington. However, a few days later she was calm enough to make a return trip with an official party to inspect a scene of victory. By April 14, the war was over, and the Lincolns decided to celebrate with a trip to the theater.
Lincoln, Mary and a young couple went to Ford’s Theater to see the popular comedy “Our American Cousin” They were seated in a box, just off the stage, Lincoln in a rocking chair and Mary beside him. When John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal bullet, Mary screamed and fainted. By the time she was revived, the mortally wounded President had been removed across the street to a boarding house to await the end. A sobbing Mary came to his bedside several times, pleading for him respond, and though she was removed several times, she insisted she had to return. When he was finally pronounced dead early the next morning, the overwhelmed new widow was removed to the White House where she would remain for many weeks. The funeral and then the eventual burial in Springfield took place without her. In early June, 1865, the black swathed widow left Washington but not to return to Springfield, Instead she moved to Chicago. Congress had granted her a year’s presidential salary but though she bought a house, it turned out that she could not afford to live there. Since Lincoln had died without a will, his $87,000 estate had to be divided into three parts for his heirs, Mary, Tad and Robert. Finally, to cover her expenses she decided to sell her gowns and other accessories from the White House years. She had left with her extensive wardrobe though unfortunately rumors had arisen that she had attempted to smuggle White House valuables out in her hoop skirts.
Mary arranged for a commission broker to sell her property. Then after she entrusted appeal letters to the broker and the company used them for publicity she felt betrayed and backed out of the deal. Eventually she had to spend $800 to recovery her property.
Eventually Congress arranged for a pension of $3000 a year instead of the $5000 she wanted, but if she wished to retire from public notice, she was soon to be disappointed.
In 1868, Lizzie Keckley published a tell-all book called Behind the Scenes with the belief that she was defending Mary. Yet no matter her reasoning, Mary felt offended and betrayed.
Mary was so anxious to find peaceful obscurity she decided to move to Europe. In 1868 and she and Tad set off, but after nearly three years she had to return because Tad was ill. His death in July, 1871, possibly from tuberculosis, further devastated Mary.
In 1872, there was published a Lincoln autobiography, using some material provided by Billy Herndon, Lincoln’s one time law associate and no friend of Mary’s.
The widow was particularly disturbed over Herndon’s contention that Lincoln had been an agnostic. Her objections to the premise were so strong that Herndon retaliated with implications she was a lying harridan.
In a way, it was true. “She was, in fact, a woeful soul, traveling aimlessly, suffering hallucinations, sometimes spending wildly, sometimes obsessed with the fear of poverty.” (Bassett, p. 158)
At this time, Robert was so concerned about her inability to care for herself; he had to bring legal action to declare her incompetent so she could get the care she needed. This meant a jury trial and was a final humiliation for the former First Lady. When she was declared legally insane, she tried to take poison, but when that failed she was removed to a sanitarium where she finally got the psychiatric care she needed. Improvement was so rapid, that she soon left the sanitarium to live with her sister Lizzie in Springfield. After a concerted crusade to reverse the insanity verdict, she succeeded in June 1876. After demanding Robert return her property, she moved to France.
For the next four years, Mary was able to live as obscurely as she wanted, a black clad figure living in inexpensive hotels. Then a fall in October, 1880 was so debilitating she was forced to return to the U.S. Congress had increased her pension, as well as providing for her medical expenses. After care from New York doctors, she retired to live with Lizzie and then after reconciliation with Robert, she was now serene in her last days. She died in July, 1882, though only 64 – “a distinctly old and weary woman” and was buried next to her husband.