The Sad Journey of Mary Lincoln

By Harold Frost

Biography magazine, 2001

“Good riddance” was a common sentiment in America in 1882 when Mary Lincoln died in Illinois. Many people regarded her as a half-crazy harridan, a disgrace to the hallowed memory of her husband, Abraham Lincoln.

Mary Lincoln (also known as Mary Todd Lincoln) led an unhappy life and doled out unhappiness to others. But she had her reasons, some of which had to do with the restricted place of women in 19th century America.

Mary Lincoln (1818-82)

Mary Todd was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on December 13, 1818, the third of six children of Robert Todd and Elizabeth Parker Todd.

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Her forebears were prominent folks in town. She grew up with a sense of social confidence possibly bordering on arrogance. However, her world crumbled when she was six – her mother died of an infection related to childbirth. Robert Todd soon remarried; the new stepmother, Betsey, was cordially loathed by Mary and the other Todd children. Robert and Betsey built a new family togther, and Mary felt abandoned and vulnerable, hardening herself with anger, becoming a bitter dethroned princess.

She found some solace in school. She loved the classroom and was far better educated than most girls of the day, running as fast as she could to class, eager to get started (or, perhaps, to escape home). She stayed up late at night reading books by candlelight, and read the newspapers passionately, following the career of Henry Clay, a family friend and leader of the Whig Party – when she was 14, someone described her as a “violent little Whig.”

Mary Todd clearly had a head on her shoulders but she had zero opportunities to use her talents in a career. Southern aristocratic ladies in the 1830s simply did not work. Their life options were marriage or spinsterhood. The same was true of Russian aristocrats – as author Vivian Gornick writes of Sophia Behrs Tolstoy (1844-1919), wife of author Leo Tolstoy:

As full of intelligent high spirits as the Natasha of War and Peace, (the young Sophia) read, dreamed, larked about, loved music passionately, and fantasized conquering the world through marriage to a Great Man. Sonya (as she was known) could, in fact, have grown into a woman of sensibility and character had she ever had some real work to do.

In 1839, Mary, age 20, paid a visit to her sister Elizabeth in the Illinois capital of Springfield, about 300 miles west of Lexington. At a party she met Abraham Lincoln, 30, a state legislator and lawyer. Lincoln asked her to dance; she consented, and they did a turn on the floor.

He was clearly not a fellow who had grown up taking dancing lessons. He was a backwoods rustic with unfashionable clothes and a hick accent – he said “cheer” for “chair.” And his looks – how to put it? – his looks were unique. Mary’s sister Frances called him the plainest-looking man in Springfield. Mary’s other sister, Elizabeth, scorned him on the basis of class rather than aesthetics, describing him as “plebian.”

Mary liked him. As they conversed, she probably sensed ambition, brains, and seriousness of purpose, cardinal attributes in a man, so far as she was concerned. Perhaps she detected an air of drama in him as well, a possible destiny as a Great Man.

She loved talking to him, and he was OK with listening and pondering. “Lincoln would listen and gaze on her as if drawn by some superior power,” said one observer. They were both dedicated Whigs. They both loved poetry. They both had lost mothers at a young age. Her buoyancy was tonic for his melancholy. His strength was balm to her insecurity.

Abe, unlike most men of the day, viewed females as equal in many ways to males. Mary probably took pleasure in feeling socially superior to Abe; perhaps the thought crossed her mind that he was moldable.

Their courtship was bumpy, with Abe famously getting cold feet in 1840. Mary, wounded by his hesitation, affected indifference, and things got complicated. Historian Douglas L. Wilson writes

Mary Todd seems to have had strong feelings for Abraham Lincoln. The problem was that her behavior, then as well as later, did not always look like true affection or love. By all accounts, she carried on gaily during the winter months (of 1840-41), flirting and accepting the attentions of other men….

Lincoln overcame his doubts, and on November 4, 1842, the couple was married in a quiet ceremony in a Springfield home. (Scholars debate whether Lincoln believed he had syphilis and resisted marriage until he’d been cured.)

“Our own political advancement” is the telling phrase used by Mary in coming years to describe Abe’s political progress. She dedicated herself to his career, encouraged him in times of defeat and depression, analyzed his speeches, entertained his cronies, and, in the 1850s, helped him rise to prominence in the new Republican Party. She felt he could become President of the United States with her help. Historian Paul Johnson goes so far as to say, “The likelihood is that he would never have become President without her” – a dubious notion, but interesting to think about. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin emphatically challenges Johnson: “Although [Mary] undoubtedly fortified his will at difficult moments….Lincoln’s quest for public recognition and influence was so consuming, it is unlikely he would have abandoned his dreams, whatever the circumstances.”

The Lincoln residence in Springfield from 1844 to 1861 was a comfortable clapboard structure at Eighth and Jackson Streets, purchased for $1,500 and enlarged by the family to two stories. The marriage, writes historian Merrill D. Peterson, was “loving and fruitful,” if problematic at times. Abe was on the road a lot during their Springfield years, lawyering and politicking, and Mary raised four boys pretty much on her own: Robert, Edward, William, and Thomas (Tad). She was a good mother in many ways, says historian Jean H. Baker, but she held her children with excessive closeness – she was “anxiously attached” to them, writes Baker, using them as “shields for her own vulnerability.” How cruel the blow, then, in 1850 when Eddie, 3, died of tuberculosis after almost two months of suffering. Mary was inconsolable. She became convinced, writes Goodwin, that “destiny had branded her for misery.” The death “left an indelible scar on her psyche – deepening her mood swings, magnifying her weaknesses, and increasing her fears.”

Stress multiplied through the 1850s. She carried unresolved feelings of anger and fear. She worried compulsively. She manifested significant health problems, including crippling headaches, allergies, and gynecological complications from the arduous delivery of Tad in 1853.

Historian David Herbert Donald notes that she became infamous for her bouts of temper – notorious for giving tongue lashings to “maids, to workmen about the house, to street vendors – and to her husband.” Abraham Lincoln played a role in this dynamic – historian Douglas Wilson writes that his “abstracted ways” were a provocation for Mary’s “blazing temper and sharp tongue.” Abe was good at keeping the mundane concerns of day-to-day life at arm’s length when he wanted to (or needed to); this angered Mary.

Doctors offered little relief. Mainstream religion she found untenable. She found a modicum of comfort in spiritualism, a major fad of the day in which spirits of the dead were “summoned” by mediums, but seances offered only patchwork help to her state of mind. (Abraham Lincoln may have dabbled briefly in spiritualism while in the White House – perhaps, writes historian Peterson, “indulging her whim” in order to keep domestic peace.)

By the end of the 1850s, Mary Lincoln was dangerously brittle.

Her spirits lifted in November 1860 with her husband’s election to the presidency. Since childhood the wounded little girl in her soul had cried for attention; now, at age 41, Mary was “first lady” of the land – a title coined by a journalist to describe her.

The White House became a place of horror.

The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, and, needless to say, cast a dark, at times unendurable gloom over the Lincoln family, the capital, the populace. Mary had little involvement with the president’s labor to win the conflict. “With each passing month,” writes Goodwin, “she spent less time with her husband, whose every hour was preoccupied with the war.”

She was often indifferent to the teetering balance of her husband’s War Cabinet, freely insulting its members, calling Secretary of State William H. Seward a “dirty abolitionist sneak” and deciding that “there was not a member of the Cabinet who did not stab” the president in the back with the exception of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair.

Occasional merriment lightened the mood. She redecorated the White House and entertained in its ballrooms, enjoying the bustle and excitement, taking heart from the thought that parties were good for morale in the capital. She won a measure of respect for these activities but also was criticized for extravagance. She devoted much time to bringing fresh flowers to wounded Union soldiers; a Congressional committee investigated rumors that she was using these visits to spy for the South. (Testimony by the president squelched the scurrilous gossip.) Basically, she couldn’t win. Even as she came under investigation for supposed espionage, some factions in the Washington social elite, inclined toward the Southern Democratic view, damned her as a dastardly Republican. She had “no real friends to lean upon,” writes historian Benjamin P. Thomas, and this was a woman who badly needed a good friend or two.

Above all, there was death. “In proportion to today’s population,” writes historian Goodwin in 2005, “the number of deaths (in the Civil War) would exceed five million.” (See “This Republic of Suffering” by Drew Gilpin Faust [2008] for a full examination of the pall over the land.)

Several of Mary’s relatives were killed in the war, and in February 1862 she lost her favorite son, Willie, to typhoid fever, probably caused by contamination of the water supply by army camps. With the boy’s death, Mary stopped functioning. She stayed in bed for weeks, plunging ever-deeper into “guilt and grief,” writes Goodwin, “speculating that God had struck Willie down as punishment for her overweening pride in her family’s exalted status.” She suspended all White House social activities for months, showing the world the special quality of her pain. But thousands of families had lost loved ones, and some people resented Mary’s conviction that she had a unique purchase on suffering.

President Lincoln was shot on the evening of April 14, 1865, and died the next morning. The event was a decisive blow to Mary’s equilibrium. She kept her sanity, but only just.

“No such sorrow was ever visited upon a people or a family,” she announced, embarking on a career as a professional widow. For the remaining 17 years of her life she dressed in black and obsessed about her late husband and his legacy. And she used her widowhood as a lever. Claiming poverty, she demanded grants from Congress and begged rich friends to raise funds for her. In fact she was comfortably well off, but she didn’t feel well off, and her feelings were what mattered to her. She made a tawdry effort to sell fancy clothes, furs, jewelry, and gifts she had gotten while in the White House; this met with resounding disapproval – she was called greedy, vulgar, and a thief of public property. “A dreadful woman,” said a newspaper in Massachusetts.

Her beloved son Tad, her companion and de facto servant, died of lung disease at age 18 in 1871, the third of her four boys to precede her in death. “Ill luck presided at my birth,” she said, “and has been a faithful attendant ever since.”

A few years later she became alienated from her only remaining child, Robert, when he petitioned the courts to have her committed for lunacy. He felt, based on a significant amount of evidence, that his mother was a danger to herself. Did his legal action stem entirely from compassion? Was he also interested in preserving every dime of his inheritance? Some scholars believe that the case against Mary was trumped up, noting that, in those days, men with money found it relatively easy to dispense with troublesome women via institutionalization.

Mary was declared incompetent by an all-male jury (“sort of a kangaroo court,” says historian Harold Holzer), apparently contemplated suicide, and was confined to an asylum in the Chicago area. She was rescued after several months by a pioneering feminist activist named Myra Bradwell, and by Robert Lincoln’s request for a new trial. A year later, a second jury declared her “restored to reason.” (For details on the case see “The Madness of Mary Lincoln” by Jason Emerson [2007] and “The Insanity File: The Case of Mary Todd Lincoln” by Mark E. Neely Jr. and R. Gerald McMurtry [1986]. See also the historical novel “A Warrant for Mrs. Lincoln” by Nancy Schleifer [2007]. The best biography of Mary, by Jean H. Baker, published in 1987, endorses the trumped-up argument. See also “The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage” by Daniel Mark Epstein [2008].)

Mary never forgave Robert and thus “ended her life childless,” writes Baker. She died in Springfield on July 16, 1882, age 63, partially paralyzed, nearly blind, drugged on patent medicines, and as lonely as she had been as a little girl in Lexington.