Facts, information and articles about Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of Abraham Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln Facts


December 13, 1818, Lexington, Kentucky


July 16, 1882, Springfield, Illinois


Abraham Lincoln

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Mary Todd Lincoln summary: Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, ranks among the most controversial women in American history. High-strung and mercurial, at times she exercised poor judgment and often gave offense to those around her, but she is also remembered as well educated, intelligent, unusually assertive for a woman of her time, a helpmate to Lincoln’s political career, and a loving mother. Ten years after her husband’s assassination, her only remaining child had her declared insane and admitted to a sanitarium for a time. During the Civil War, most of her family sided with the Confederacy, leading some Northerners to accuse her of treason; Southerners condemned her for not being loyal to the South.

Mary Ann Todd was born December 13, 1818, in Lexington, Kentucky, the fourth of seven children of cousins Robert Smith Todd and Eliza Parker. One of the seven, died in infancy; the others all survived to adulthood.

Mary Todd’s Early Life

Todd was a prominent name in Kentucky. Her father, Robert S. Todd, was the son of Levi Todd, one of the founders of Lexington and clerk of Lafayette County. Levi’s brothers, John and Robert, were also held in high regard; Todd County, Kentucky, is named for John, who was described as the best-educated man in the state. Mary’s father was a successful merchant and co-owner of a cotton mill. He passed the bar but never opened a law practice. The Kentucky legislature named him head of the Lexington branch of the Bank of Kentucky.

Politics were a popular topic in the Todd home, and Mary seems to have been the child most interested in them. For 20 years, her father served as clerk for the Kentucky House of Representatives before winning election to that body three times. In 1845 he won a hotly contested race for the state senate, with help from an old family friend, Henry Clay. While campaigning for reelection during a cholera epidemic in 1849, Robert Todd fell ill and died on July 16. Although he was a slaveowner, he had had to defend himself against charges of being an abolitionist in his political campaigns because he was "soft" on the slavery issue and refused to renounce his support of an 1833 law that prohibited the importation of slaves into Kentucky. Mary developed an opposition to slavery stronger than that of her father, due in part to her life in the free state of Illinois and her husband’s stance on the issue.

Mary’s mother, Eliza, was also the child of a prominent Lexington couple, Major Robert Parker and Elizabeth Porter; Major Parker was the town’s first surveyor, and he and his wife were among the most substantial of Lexington’s citizens.

Mary was not yet seven when her mother died on July 4, 1825, within hours of having given birth to George Rogers Clark Todd. This loss at a young age may have contributed to Mary’s high-strung personality, but temper and impetuosity were not uncommon traits among the Todds. Within months—far less than the socially accepted period for mourning—her father was courting Betsey Humphreys of Frankfort, a descendant of another old and respected Kentucky family. They wed on November 1, 1826. Robert and Betsey would produce a second family, eight of whom lived to adulthood and would be Confederate supporters.

The new stepmother was not accepted by the late Eliza’s mother—who lived next door to the Todds until Robert purchased a larger home a few blocks away. Betsey and the children of Robert’s first marriage were often at loggerheads: Robert’s hasty courtship, Grandmother Parker’s disapproval, and the fact that Betsey appears to have been more of a disciplinarian than Eliza all likely contributed to the situation.

Mary described her own childhood as "desolate." At age 14, after completing her preparatory schooling at Dr. John Ward’s Shelby Female Academy, she was sent to board at Madame Charlotte LeClere Mentelle’s boarding school a mile and a half from town. A finishing school for young ladies, it taught French, dancing, and proper behavior, Mme. Mentelle’s went beyond that curriculum to offer "a truly useful & ‘Solid’ English education in all its branches," according to the Lexington Intelligencer, March 6, 1838.

Mary seems to have found a second home at Mme. Mentelle’s. She never forgot the French she learned, which served her in good stead at times during Lincoln’s presidency when she conversed with state visitors from France. Kentucky valued women of education—during one celebration in the town a toast was given: "To our daughters, may they be as well educated as our sons"—and Mary’s education was not exceptional for a woman of her class, but she possessed a quick mind and was well read, traits that enhanced her formal schooling. She did not, as some writers have claimed, attend Transylvania University or stand outside its classrooms listening to lectures.

Mary’s eldest sister, Elizabeth, married Ninian Wirt Edwards in 1832 and moved to Springfield, Illinois. Edwards was the son of the first territorial governor of Illinois (later the third governor of the state), became Illinois’ attorney general in 1834 and served in the legislature with Abraham Lincoln. The Edwards lived in a fine home on a rise in Springfield known locally as Aristocratic Hill and, indeed, the name Edwards was close to aristocracy in Illinois. Each of Elizabeth’s full sisters and a few half sisters would journey to Springfield as they came of age, seeking husbands and escaping the tensions in the Todd home.

Mary first visited in 1837, for three months. She did not meet Lincoln during that time, and she returned to Lexington for another two years before coming back to Springfield in the late autumn of 1839. She quickly became the center of attention among many of the town’s most eligible bachelors. Her brother-in-law Ninian said she was full of sunshine and claimed, with her attractive appearance, well-honed social skills, and a sharp, quick sense of humor, "Mary could make a bishop forget his prayers."

Mary Todd Meets Abraham Lincoln

Among her suitors was Abraham Lincoln, who had been a law partner of her cousin John Todd Stuart and was at present partners with another cousin, Stephen T. Logan. Lincoln was also a four-time member of the state legislature and a leader in the Whig Party of Illinois. Although they came from very different economic and social backgrounds, he and Mary shared a sense of humor, a love of politics, and a healthy dose of ambition. Some sort of understanding developed between them, although the full extent of it is not known for certain. In December of 1840 or January of 1841—possibly as early as November 1840—Lincoln seems to have broken off the relationship, and Mary wrote to him releasing him from his obligations. He did not, as his long-time law partner William Herndon claimed, leave Mary "standing at the altar." Over a year later, a friend brought them back together, and they wed November 4, 1842, in the Edwards home.

Elizabeth and Ninian had developed doubts about the couple’s suitability for each other, but probably too much has been made about the differences in Mary and Lincoln’s social classes. In frontier states like Illinois, linage was considerably less important than in more established areas, and a man of humble beginnings could be judged on what he accomplished, not what his ancestors had done. The Edwards did not share in that attitude, but the marriage did not seem to much disturb others of the Todd family, including Mary’s father, who felt all his daughters had married well.

Mary Todd Becomes Mrs. Lincoln

Although today she is frequently referred to as Mary Todd Lincoln, once she married she never included her maiden name in her signature, unlike her half sister Emilie Todd Helm. Mary signed her name Mrs. Abraham Lincoln or Mrs. A. Lincoln.

Mary Lincoln would give birth to four children, all boys. Only the first, Robert Todd, named for Mary’s father, would live to adulthood. Among his many successes, he would become secretary of war, minister to London (the title was changed to ambassador with his successor), a very successful attorney, president of the Pullman Car Company, and a millionaire.

The other children were Edward "Eddie" (or "Eddy") Baker (1846–1850), named for a close family friend; this child’s death threw Mary into a debilitating depression for a time and foretold the deep, protracted periods of mourning she would experience later. William "Willie" Wallace (1850–1862), named for Dr. William Wallace, the husband of Mary’s sister Frances; he seems to have been the favorite of both his parents, and his death appears to have begun a marked decline in his mother’s emotional stability. Upon his death, Mary’s sister Elizabeth, always something of a surrogate mother to her, was summoned to Washington and remained for two months caring for Mary, who was too prostrated to even take care of the youngest Lincoln child, who was sick at the time. That child was Thomas "Tad" (1853–1871), named for Lincoln’s father who had died two years earlier.

Mary, with her abiding interest in politics, became a helpmate to Lincoln in his political career. Among other things, she improved his wardrobe—something he gave little attention to—and summarized newspaper articles for him, and the two discussed political topics. While women could not "stump" for candidates at that time, Mary engaged in letter-writing campaigns and hosted social events, such as a strawberry party that drew 300 guests to the Lincoln home (presumably not all at one time). When her husband learned he had won the presidency in 1860, he reportedly rushed home from the telegraph office shouting, "Mary, we are elected!"

Her personality had always been mercurial; a cousin described Mary in childhood as being like an April day, "sunning all over one moment, the next crying as though her heart would break." Many stories have been told about Mary berating Lincoln, chasing him out of the house, and even striking him. Other accounts by close neighbors and by people who were frequent visitors to the Lincoln home in an upper-middle class Springfield neighborhood present a picture of a couple very much in love with each other. In 1869, she wrote, "From my eighteenth year—Always—lover—husband—father & all all to me—truly my all."

She was intensely loyal to her husband. When he was defeated in his second attempt to win a U.S. Senate seat by a friend, Mary stopped speaking to the man’s wife. Near the end of the Civil War when Mary’s half-sister Emilie Todd Helm, a favorite of the Lincolns, wrote angrily to the president, "Your minnie bullets have made us what we are," Lincoln forgave her; Mary never did.

When Lincoln was elected to his single term in the U.S. Congress of 1846–48, Mary and the children went with him to Washington but soon traveled to Kentucky to stay with her stepmother and stepsiblings. The two women, older now and having both experienced motherhood, were on better terms, although Mary wrote to Lincoln, "if she thought, any of us were on her hands again, she would be worse than ever."

After he won election to the presidency, the family moved to Washington, D.C. None of them would ever live in the Springfield home again.

First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln

It is unlikely any presidential wife whose lot it was to be First Lady during the Civil War would have escaped with her reputation intact; the times were simply too emotional, the fear and anger too intense to allow that to happen. Mary entered the White House with two strikes against her: she was a westerner, a woman outside the Washington ladies’ clique; and she was born in the South, so, hence, her loyalties were suspect and would be the subject of many rumors during her husband’s presidency.

Although it was not widely known at the time, she held séances in the White House after Willie’s death. Spiritualism was a growing phenomenon at the time. She told her half sister Emilie that Willie’s spirit visited her and sometimes he was accompanied by the spirit of Alec (Alexander Humphreys Todd), the youngest of Mary’s half brothers. Alec, a Confederate officer, had been killed at the battle of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. One of her full brothers, Levi, also died during the war, of natural causes; a long-time alcoholic, he never enlisted in the army but claimed to have Union sentiments.

As First Lady, Mary often made unwise choices that fueled the attacks on her. She trusted a White House gardener, and he seems to have abused that trust to leak a presidential speech to the press before it was given. Congress investigated the matter but, after a mysterious visit from a New York politician of dubious character named Daniel Sickles, the gardener made a sudden confession taking all blame and the matter was dropped.

A lover of fashion by nature and believing she had a certain image to uphold as the wife of the president, Mary made shopping expeditions to New York that were widely reported in the press. Misplacing her trust again, she seemed to assume that many of the items pressed upon her by storeowners were gifts—until the bills arrived in Washington.

Maintenance of the White House had been minimal or nonexistent for several administrations, and Mary took it upon herself to replace the old wallpaper and broken furniture and generally refurbish the interior of the old building. At another time she might have been lauded, but in wartime many people viewed it as an unnecessary extravagance. Lincoln himself was shocked by how much she’d overspent her budget. Many newspapers and Washington observers decried her state dinners and other receptions as inappropriate, given the nation’s circumstances, but others praised her for those same things. The viewpoint expressed frequently had as much to do with that person or newpaper’s support for Lincoln or lack thereof.

Her temper and frequent demands, however, led even Lincoln’s loyal secretary John Hay to call her "the hellcat." Once, when Lincoln was reviewing the Army of the Potomac, she arrived late and found Major General O. C. Ord’s wife riding alongside the president. In a jealous rage, she gave the unfortunate woman a tongue-lashing that reduced her to tears, and she berated Lincoln in front of his officers. This incident and others led Julia Grant, wife of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, to declare she would not spend another evening with "that woman"; accordingly, the Grants did not accept the Lincolns’ invitation to attend Ford’s Theater with them on the night the president was assassinated.

The Assassination Of Abraham Lincoln

Seeing her husband shot as he sat beside her was not the final blow to Mary’s emotional stability, but it was the worst one. She remained in mourning the rest of her life, and occupied herself with writing to Congress for an increase in the pension they had granted her; no other presidential widow had ever been awarded a federal pension up to that point.

Through much of her life, she swung between spending sprees and a fear of poverty that had little basis in reality. After Lincoln’s death, Mary arranged with a broker to sell her old clothing, on the advice of her dressmaker and confidant, a former slave named Elizabeth Keckley. When word leaked out, newspapers called her actions "disgraceful," "low, sordid, ill-bred," and similar terms.

Abandoning America for a time, she traveled in Europe and the United Kingdom with son Tad. Not long after returning from Europe, the boy fell ill and died on July 15, 1871, after weeks of suffering.

In 1875, ten years after the death of her husband, her last surviving child, Robert, had her tried by a jury to determine if she was insane. She had been under a doctor’s care almost continually for a year and a half, had reported to that doctor and others information that made it appear she was suffering hallucinations, and otherwise said and did irrational things. She had $56,000 in government bonds sewed into pockets of her petticoat and walked about Chicago with them.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s Troubled Later Years

Robert—who carried a burden of guilt for not going to Ford’s Theater with his parents, where he might have acted to save his father’s life—was advised by his friends and by counselors that if he did nothing to protect his mother and something happened to her, it would be on his head. In accordance with Illinois law, he arranged for a jury trial, and Mary was judged insane. That evening, she attempted suicide through an overdose of laudanum, but the pharmacist gave her a placebo.

She was confined to a sanitarium for disturbed ladies but took her meals with the doctor who owned the sanitarium and reportedly left the grounds occasionally to visit friends. Before many weeks passed, Elizabeth Edwards had secured her release and took Mary to live with her and Ninian. After a year and a day—the shortest time allowed under state law for a re-hearing of insanity charges—she was judged to be restored to sanity and again placed in charge of her affairs. Her supporters, then and now, assailed her original trial as a sham, a kangaroo court, etc.

This episode more than any other single event has shaped much of the public perception of Mary Lincoln and also of Robert, who has been accused of engineering the trial to get his hands on his mother’s money. The testimony in her first trial certainly placed her behavior within the realm of insanity as it was understood in 1875, but a different conclusion would probably be reached by today’s standards, although it is likely even a modern court might order some form of treatment. By Mary’s own admission, she was self-medicating prior to her confinement, and she suggested that was the cause of her irrational behavior.

She spent most of the rest of her life quietly, four years of it in France. After returning to America, her vision and health began to fail, and again she turned to her sister Elizabeth, living out her remaining time in a room at the Edwards home, with curtains always drawn to protect her weak eyes from the light. She died on July 16, 1882. The official cause of death was listed as paralysis, but other possibilities including apoplexy and diabetic coma have also been suggested. Today, on the anniversary of her death each year, she is honored in Springfield by women who portray her in living history programs.


Articles Featuring Mary Todd Lincoln From History Net Magazines

Featured Article

Mary Liked the Clean-Shaven Look


In February 1861, longtime Illinois residents Abraham and Mary Lincoln moved their family to Washington, D.C., where the new president took up residence in the war-riven White House armed with a reassuring new image: that of a bearded statesman. Lincoln had begun growing his now-iconic whiskers only weeks after winning the 1860 election.


By the time he arrived in the capital for his inauguration, he was all but unrecognizable to the admirers who had come to know him only through his ubiquitous, but beardless, campaign portraits. Lincoln must have liked what he saw in the mirror. He never shaved again except to trim his thick beard.

This is the same photograph of her husband that Mary Lincoln took with her, along with her other precious family pictures, to Washington. The original was taken by Samuel M. Fassett in Chicago on October 4, 1859, when Lincoln was still seven months away from the presidential nomination.

Ten days after Abraham Lincoln’s death, the photographer who took this picture confirmed its importance to the martyred president’s widow. Reported Fassett: “Mrs. Lincoln pronounced [it] the best likeness she had ever seen of her husband.”

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