By many historical accounts, Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of the 16thPresident of the United States, is portrayed as emotional, irrational, difficult, and spoiled. In all fairness, she might have been these things, but the explanations for the reasons behind these behaviors varies.
As a teenager, Miss Todd’s contemporaries described her as kind, intelligent, well-educated and vivacious.
Mary grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, a town her family helped found. The daughter of a wealthy merchant or banker (accounts vary), Mary had every luxury a young girl in the 1800s could want. Her parents, Robert Todd and Elizabeth Parker Todd raised their children in comfort and refinement. However, wealth did not provide much happiness for Mary after the death of her mother who died while giving birth to her seventh child. Robert Todd soon remarried and Mary, at age six, did not get on well with her step-mother.
Despite her unhappy home life, Mary received an excellent education and excelled in school where she mastered the French language and studied dance, drama, music, and social skills. She also showed a keen interest in politics.
As a young woman, Mary moved to Springfield, Illinois to live with her married sister, Elizabeth Porter Edwards. Outgoing and social, she soon became popular among the blue-bloods of Illinois and had many beaus. Among them, a young lawyer Stephen A. Douglas, the man who would run against her future husband for the presidency. But, Mary chose Abraham Lincoln, much to the concern of her family who thought she married beneath her.
Mary and Abraham shared a love of literature and politics, and their endearment for one another lasted until his untimely death.
Though very much in love, the Lincoln’s experienced more than their share of loss with the death of two of their sons; Edward (Eddie) at age four, and William (Willie) at age fourteen. William died while the Lincoln’s lived in the white house, three years before his father.
During her time as First Lady, Mary came under intense scrutiny. Coming from a Confederate family didn’t help her cause. Mary’s family had been slaveholders and several of her half-brothers served in the Confederate army during the war. Some accused her of being a Confederate spy. Fiercely loyal to her husband, she always supported his views and his quest to end slavery and save the Union.
For much of her adult life, Mary suffered from migraines and depression. The migraines became more frequent and more intense after a carriage accident during her time in the white house. Mary’s depression worsened after the death of the couple’s son Willie in 1862. Despondent and overcome by grief, Mary experienced wild mood swings and was prone to temperamental outbursts—sometimes in public. To assuage her grief, she also explored spiritualism and used mediums to reach out to her dead sons, and later her dead husband. All of this added up to a kind of “female hysteria” in the public’s opinion.
Mary also came under criticism for her spending habits. During Lincoln’s presidency, she completed a lavish redecorating of the white house. Probably not a good idea as money was needed to fight the war. She also spared no expense in expanding her wardrobe to include fine silks and lace. Perhaps as first lady, she felt she needed these things to be presentable on the arm of her husband while he went about the business of being President, but others didn’t see it that way.
As one could imagine, when her husband was shot at point blank right in front of her and then later died from his wounds, the state of Mary’s mental health did not improve.
As a widow, Mary returned to Illinois to be nearer to her two surviving sons, but when Thomas (Tad) died in 1871, grief overwhelmed her again. Her son Robert Lincoln became alarmed at his mother’s increasingly strange behavior. He had her committed to an asylum, but her depression did not improve. She experienced fever, headaches, gait problems, delusions and hallucinations. After a year in the asylum and many imploring letters to her lawyer and finally the Chicago Times, Mary was released to the custody of her sister. Shortly after, she took up residence in France to escape further public scrutiny, and her estranged son Robert, who controlled her finances.
Her health continued to decline and after four years in Europe, she returned to her sister’s household and died in 1882.
Many historians contribute Mary’s odd behavior for some thirty years to bipolar disorder, but it has also been suggested that she suffered from pernicious anemia—a vitamin B12 deficiency. She might have suffered from both.
It is hard to imagine what it must be like to be the wife of a president, or a country’s leader, especially during a Civil war. Given the difficulty of Mary’s life before she became First Lady, and certainly with the pressures she endured after with the death of three children and her husband, in addition to physical and emotional health issues, it’s no wonder she seemed a little off her rocker.
Although not one of the most popular First Ladies in history, Mary Todd Lincoln can be remembered as a devoted wife and mother, and loyal to her role in the white house. Despite illness, incomprehensible grief, and public disapproval, she showed fortitude in keeping up the good fight and enduring despite it all.