Mary Todd Lincoln

Controversial as First Lady, Lincoln's Wife Remains Misunderstood

Photographic portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln. Library of Congress

Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln, became a figure of controversy during her time in the White House. And she has remained so until the present day.

A well-educated woman from a prominent Kentucky family, she was an unlikely partner for Lincoln, who had come from humble frontier roots.

During Lincoln's time as president, his wife was criticized for spending too much money on White House furnishings and on her own clothing. The death of a son in early 1862 seemed to bring her to the point of madness. Her interest in spiritualism intensified, and she claimed to see ghosts wandering the halls of the executive mansion.

Lincoln's assassination in 1865 accelerated what was perceived as her mental decline. Her oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, the only Lincoln child to live to adulthood, had her placed in an asylum in the mid-1870s. She was later declared mentally competent, but she lived out the rest of her life in poor health and living as a recluse.

Early Life of Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln was born on December 13, 1818, in Lexington, Kentucky. Her family was prominent in local society, at a time when Lexington was dubbed "The Athens of the West."

Mary Todd's father, Robert Todd, was a local banker with political connections. He had grown up near the estate of Henry Clay, a major figure in American politics in the early 19th century.

When Mary was young, Clay often dined in the Todd household. In one often-told story, 10-year-old Mary rode to Clay's estate one day to show him her new pony. He invited her inside and introduced the precocious girl to his guests.

Mary Todd's mother died when Mary was six years old, and when her father remarried Mary clashed with her stepmother. Perhaps to keep peace in the family, her father sent her away to the Shelby Female Academy, where she received ten years of excellent education, at a time when education for women was not generally accepted in American life.

One of Mary's sisters had married the son of a former governor of Illinois, and had moved to Springfield, Illinois, the state capital. Mary visited her in 1837, and she probably encountered Abraham Lincoln on that visit.

Mary Todd's Courtship With Abraham Lincoln

Mary also settled in Springfield, where she made a major impression on the town's growing social scene. She was surrounded by suitors, including attorney Stephen A. Douglas, who would become Abraham Lincoln's great political rival decades later.

By late 1839 Lincoln and Mary Todd had become romantically involved, though the relationship had problems. There was a split between them in early 1841, but by late 1842 they had gotten back together, partly through their mutual interest in local political issues.

Lincoln greatly admired Henry Clay. And he must have been impressed by the young woman who had known Clay in Kentucky. 

Marriage and Family of Abraham and Mary Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln married Mary Todd on November 4, 1842. They took up residence in rented rooms in Springfield, but would eventually buy a small house.

The Lincolns would eventually have four sons:

  • Robert Todd Lincoln, born August 1, 1843. He was named for Mary's father, and would be the only Lincoln son to live to adulthood.
  • Edward Baker Lincoln, born March 10, 1846. "Eddie" became ill and died on February 1, 1850, weeks before his fourth birthday.
  • William Wallace Lincoln, born December 21, 1850. "Willie" became ill while living in the White House, perhaps because of polluted water. He died in the White House on February 20, 1862, at the age of 11.
  • Thomas Lincoln, born April 4, 1853. Known as "Tad," he was a lively presence in the White House and Lincoln doted on him. He became ill, probably with tuberculosis, in Chicago and died there on July 15, 1871 at the age of 18.

The years the Lincolns spent in Springfield are generally considered the happiest of Mary Lincoln's life. Despite the loss of Eddie Lincoln, and rumors of discord, the marriage seemed happy to neighbors and Mary's relatives.

At some point animosity developed between Mary Lincoln and her husband's law partner, William Herndon. He would later write scathing descriptions of her behavior, and much of the negative material associated with her seems to be based on Herndon's biased observations.

As Abraham Lincoln became more involved in politics, first with the Whig Party, and later the new Republican Party, his wife supported his efforts. Though she played no direct political role, in an era when women could not even vote, she remained well-informed on political issues.

Mary Lincoln as White House Hostess

After Lincoln won the election of 1860, his wife became the most prominent White House hostess since Dolley Madison, the wife of President James Madison, decades earlier. Mary Lincoln was often criticized for engaging in frivolous entertainments at a time of deep national crisis, but some defended her for trying to lift her husband's mood as well as the nation's.

Mary Lincoln was known to visit wounded Civil War soldiers, and she took an interest in various charitable endeavors. She went through her own very dark time, though, following the death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln in an upstairs bedroom of the White House in February 1860.

Lincoln feared that his wife had lost her mind, as she went into a prolonged period of mourning. She also became very interested in spiritualism, a fad which had first caught her attention in the late 1850s. She claimed to see ghosts in the White House, and hosted seances.

Tragic Aftermath of Mary Lincoln

On April 14, 1865, Mary Lincoln was seated beside her husband at Ford's Theater when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln, mortally wounded, was carried across the street to a rooming house, where he died the following morning.

Mary Lincoln was inconsolable during the long overnight vigil, and according to most accounts, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had her removed from the room where Lincoln was dying.

During the long period of national mourning, which included a lengthy traveling funeral that passed through northern cities, she was barely able to function. While millions of Americans participated in funeral observances in towns and cities throughout the country, she stayed in a bed in a darkened room in the White House.

Her situation became very awkward as the new president, Andrew Johnson, could not move into the White House while she still occupied it. Finally, weeks after her husband's death, she left Washington and returned to Illinois.

In a sense, Mary Lincoln never recovered from her husband's murder. She first moved to Chicago, and began to exhibit seemingly irrational behavior. For a few years she lived in England with the Lincoln's youngest son, Tad.

After returning to America, Tad Lincoln died, and his mother's behavior became alarming to her oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who took legal action to have her declared insane. A court placed her in a private sanatorium, but she went to court and was able to have herself declared sane.

Suffering from a number of physical ailments, she sought treatment in Canada and New York City, and eventually returned to Springfield, Illinois. She spent the final years of her life as a virtual recluse, and died on July 16, 1882, at the age of 63. She was buried beside her husband in Springfield, Illinois.