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First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln

Updated on January 8, 2016

Southerners viewed her as a traitor and citizens loyal to the United States felt the same. Such was the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, First Lady of the Union’s 16th president. She danced gracefully, loved finery and was refreshingly intelligent. Mary was 5 feet 2 inches, had blue eyes, long lashes, light-brown hair and a lovely complexion.

She was a victim of a prejudicial press which criticized her every move during those hard times. While her husband served as a sitting wartime president, she was accused of being a Confederate spy, neglectful mother and a frivolous fame-seeker. Her husband was assassinated in front of her on Good Friday. Even in mourning she received little sympathy. One critic sarcastically wrote about how she cried too loudly.

Mary was one of fourteen siblings split between the Confederacy and the Union. Three of her brothers fought, and two died, for the South. Of one of her late stepbrothers, she said, "He made his choice long ago. He decided against my husband, through him against me. He has been fighting against us and since he chose to be our deadly enemy, I see no special reason why I should bitterly mourn his death."

She was the daughter of Eliza Parker and Robert Smith Todd, Kentucky pioneers. She was born December 13, 1818 in Lexington, Kentucky. Her mother died before she was seven and she described her childhood as "desolate."

She was barely 21, when she moved from Lexington, Kentucky to live with her sister in Springfield and first met Lincoln. The two were an unlikely pair being from such diverse backgrounds.

Her family was aristocratic and proud of ancestors who fought in the American Revolutionary War. They did not approve of the poor, self-made Lincoln, who they viewed as a backwoods hick.

Mary grew up in a 14-room mansion; he in a log cabin. She was privately educated in the finest schools while he was self-taught. Their first year of marriage was spent living in a boarding house and relative poverty. However, she gracefully accepted her new lifestyle.

When Lincoln was elected President, one critic wrote "She had her bosom on exhibition and a flower pot on her head.” She was even described as “plump and plain.” Everything she did or wore was closely scrutinized and critiqued.

This convinced her she needed to wear the very latest and finest fashions. What she shelled out on clothes was beyond their means. But rather than help their public image it only added fuel to the media’s criticism of her.

She was accused of meddling in her husband’s political matters speaking her mind on issues of national interest…sometimes in French. In an era when women were supposed keep their place her actions earned her a nickname as “the hellcat" by the White House staff. Additionally, she had been raised in a slave-owning family, but abhorred the practice. Her best friend was her seamstress. Her name was Elizabeth Keckley, a freed slave.

But as hard as it was to adapt to life in the national spot light under these circumstances, things were to become worse.

The Lincolns' 11-year-old son Willie suddenly became ill with typhoid fever, and died in the White House. Mary consorted with mediums and spiritualists to contact her beloved son. But they only deceived her out of another small fortune.

In July 1863, Mrs. Lincoln was thrown from her carriage, and received a deep gash to her forehead. Even as she recovered, her medical history became as well-known as her name. She had frequent migraines and it was suspected she was diabetic.

Her husband, of course, was assassinated as he sat beside her at Ford's Theater and after his death she became inconsolable. Her behavior suggested she was suffering from severe, extended depression, anxiety and paranoia.

She spent most of the next two decades plagued by physical and suspected mental illness and became overly concerned with her finances since she was now a widow.

Mary was able to hide her serious debts from her husband while he lived, but after his assassination, she became terrified about her finances. Inheritance laws at the time established a presidential widow would receive her husband's salary only for the remainder of the year her husband died. Lincoln had left an estate of $85,000…but no will. Therefore Mary only received the customary "widow's portion," a third of that.

Controversy over her finances and allegations of insanity arose. She wrote letters to friends and acquaintances pleading for money to pay her debts. She sold clothes she had worn while First Lady but continued buying fancy jewelry and fine clothing. And for years she never wore anything but black in public.

Her son Robert broke down in tears on the witness stand as he surrendered to public opinion and perhaps his own doubts and committed her to an asylum in 1875. A judge ruled her insane and she attempted suicide on the night of the verdict.

After four months Mary was released to the custody of her sister Elizabeth. There she remained the rest of her life, rarely emerging from her room. The cause of her death was listed as a stroke. She was interred wearing her wedding ring, inscribed "A.L. to Mary, Nov. 4, 1842. Love is Eternal". She was laid to rest at Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, IL.

Was she actually mentally ill? Some biographers say Mrs. Lincoln was “unfairly maligned” with many of her troubles being financial and purely a result of terrible bad luck, not emotional. Others diagnose her as bipolar or having a narcissistic personality disorder.


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