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Mary Todd Lincoln

Updated on February 14, 2012

The Troubled First Lady

Mary Todd Lincoln was the sixteenth first lady in the White House, but she will never be remembered as one of the greats, even though her husband, Abraham Lincoln, will be. Many people think that her husband was one of the best presidents ever, despite being married to her. Mary Todd Lincoln will never be a popular first lady because she was moody, went on extravagant spending sprees; some think that she was schizophrenic, although doctors didn't know about that disease back in those days.

Although she had problems, I think that perhaps we don't give her enough credit for what she did do with her life. She led a life that was full of grief. She lived through unimaginable stress. Her sadness could have contributed to her pitiful end especially if she was mentally ill to begin with.

Photo by Mathew Brady. In the Public Domain.

The Belle of the Ball

Mary Todd Lincoln was not always a grieving, extravagant, schizophrenic widow. She was once a joyful, sought after lady of society. She was born to a banker, and was raised in comfort. Her mother died when she was seven, and her father remarried shortly afterward. She ended up having 15 siblings and half-siblings. She never got along that well with her stepmother.

When she was older, Stephen A. Douglas, later to become Lincoln's rival and debate partner in the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates, tried to court her. However, she fell in love with Abraham Lincoln. They married when she was 23. Their life seemed to be going well. Unfortunately, the pressures of living a public life started messing with her mind.

The Springfield Years

After Mary Todd married Abraham Lincoln, they began their life in Springfield, Illinois. Her husband was successful as a lawyer, and Mary had four children: Robert in 1843, Edward in 1846, William in 1850, and Thomas, also known as "Tad" in 1853. Unfortunately, even in the early years of their marriage, Mary's life would be one of heartache. Eddie died in 1850, one month before his fourth birthday. The 1850 census says that he died of "chronic consumption." Eddie's death devastated both of the Lincolns, but for Mary, it may have marked the change in her that led to her mental problems.

Photo of Eddie Lincoln, in the public domain.

White House Years

Mary Todd Lincoln's years in the White House were controversial and difficult. In 1861, the same year that the Civil War broke out, she redecorated the White House. She made extravagant clothing purchases, putting her family into debt, in a period of time where debt was a lot less acceptable than it is today. Although some believe that she did this to try to bring the essence of stability into a shattered society, many people of the time thought of her as selfish and indulgent, and uncaring about all the suffering that was around her.

During the war, she was active in the affairs of state. She volunteered as a nurse, toured Union Army Camps, tried to bring entertainment to the troops in order to boost morale, and offered her advice. She supported freedom for the slaves, and had a friendship with her dressmaker, which was the former slave Elizabeth Keckley. Mary Todd Lincoln was the first presidential wife that was called "first lady." The Sacramento Union and the London Times first used the term with her.

It was also during this time of immense difficulty and pressures for the country, that the Lincoln's suffered another more personal tragedy. In 1862, their third son, William, died at age 11. He had received a pony as a present, and got ill after riding his pony in bad weather. The whole family was saddened. Abraham didn't send correspondence out for several days. Mary was so distraught that her husband feared for her sanity. In the midst of all this, the Civil War raged.

Photo in the public domain.

There's Something About Mary

Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography
Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography

Have you ever wanted to find out more about Mary Todd Lincoln? This book has been described as "serious and sweeping" and "a fascinating account". No wonder it is one of the most popular books on in the category of biographies of the ladies of the Civil War.


The Assassination

After the Civil War ended, things were looking up for Mrs. Lincoln. Until the fateful day in 1865 when tragedy struck yet again. While watching a play at Ford's Theater, her husband was shot right in front of her. She went across the street with her husband, where he died the next day, on April 15th.

Congress voted to give her a pension of $3000 a year because she was the widow of a president, but her sanity was only so-so. She never recovered from the assassination of her husband.

Tragedy and Insanity

Mary Todd Lincoln relocated to Chicago in late May of 1865 and tried to settle her husband's estate. In 1868, she moved to Germany for a while with her son Tad, but returned to the United States in 1871. That year, Tad died, it is believed of tuberculosis. Her behavior seemed erratic, and her remaining son, Robert, had her committed to the insane asylum. In 1875, she was committed to the Bellevue Insane Asylum. After she was committed, she tried to commit suicide by overdosing on drugs, but the druggist had given her a placebo instead. After four months, she was released to her sister Elizabeth's home in Illinois. In 1876, she was declared sane, and she moved to France for a time.

She returned back to the United States in 1880, and lived with her sister Elizabeth until 1882, where she died on July 16th, at age 63.

My Thoughts

Mary Todd Lincoln has had a lot of criticism. She was probably depressed, but who wouldn't be? All but one of her four children died before her, and he husband was shot right in front of her. She was a presidential wife during one of the most difficult and bloody times in history.

We are capable of overcoming a great many things, but there's just so much a person can take. If Mary Todd Lincoln had underlying medical issues to make things more difficult, it's amazing that she got along as well as she did.

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    • profile image

      Ted 3 years ago

      It's so nice to see you n these pages again, especially to cbreelate such a wonderful event! I do hope you'll find the time to post your beautiful art. I've missed you!Carla

    • vinodkpillai lm profile image

      vinodkpillai lm 6 years ago

      enjoyed discovering interesting information about a not so well-known first lady who played a critical role on the national stage at a crucial time. Thanks !

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      JayBeacham 6 years ago

      I really like your insightful lens.

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      creed (and I like neither), of himself I must ever retain a grateful buy plavix. recollection. He was kind when I needed kindness; he did me good. May buy casodex.

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      kimmanleyort 6 years ago

      You've created a nice portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln and shown compassion towards her and her troubles. When I was a teenager, I became obsessed with Irving Stone's historical novels, my favorite being Love is Eternal, about the marriage of Mary Todd and Abraham. This lens brought back those great memories.

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 7 years ago

      This is a lady that few ourside of the USA would know anything about including me before I read this lens. It is a wonderful summary of her life and tragic times. Featured this on brain matters

    • diabolus lm profile image

      diabolus lm 7 years ago

      A good addition to this Lens would be the spirit photograph of Mary with Lincoln's ghost. Google it!

    • javr profile image

      javr 7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      So, mental illness stigma has been around for a long, long time. Thanks for the insight.

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      Joan4 8 years ago

      You homeschooling moms make such super lenses for us to read! Thank you for this refresher on Mary Todd Lincoln.

    • Lewister profile image

      Susan 8 years ago from Texas

      Congrats on winning the First Ladies topic this week in the Carnival of Squid! -

    • JenOfChicago LM profile image

      JenOfChicago LM 8 years ago

      Interesting lens on a very interesting woman.