While the Civil War raged, Southerners scorned her as a traitor to her birth. Citizens loyal to the Union suspected her of treason. She was holding her husband’s hand when he was shot by an assassin, and declared insane later in her life. Who was she?
Mary Todd Lincoln.
Since I wrote about her husband Abe a few weeks ago, I decided to learn a little more about her. Mary Ann Todd was born on December 13, 1818, one of seven children born into a prominent family in Lexington, Kentucky. Her mother passed away when she was seven, and she later described her childhood as “desolate.” An excellent student, she spoke French fluently.
In 1839, Mary moved to Springfield, Illinois, to live at the home of her older sister, and here, the tiny young woman became a popular socialite. She dated both Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, but it was Lincoln who won her heart. At their wedding in 1843, he gave her a ring engraved with the words “Love is Eternal.”
Over the next eleven years, four sons were born to the couple who had settled in Springfield. Mary was known as a very loving, devoted mother, but sadly, only Robert (1843-1926) lived to adulthood. When her husband was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846, Mary and the children lived with him in Washington for part of his single term. Back home in 1849, Abraham practiced law for five years before his interests returned to politics. After his well-known series of debates with Stephen A. Douglas, he was elected over three other Presidential candidates in November 1860 and inaugurated the next March as the 16th president.
Mary’s position as First Lady fulfilled her high social ambitions, but her White House years were a mixture of triumph and misery. Among her joys were refurbishing the White House and spending much time on visits with injured soldiers in hospitals. In addition to bringing them food and flowers, she read to them, wrote them letters, and raised $1,000 for the Christmas dinner at a military hospital. Mary provided support for the Contraband Relief Association which helped blacks who came to the North during the Civil War. She was ardently opposed to slavery, and she strongly supported her husband’s pro-Union policies.
However, Mary incurred ire for extravagant shopping orgies that were deemed unpatriotic during such hard times. Her reputation was soundly thrashed because she had relatives who sided with the South in the war. In fact, several kinfolk died fighting for the Confederacy. Resulting, her own loyalty to the Union was often suspect.
Five days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant in April, 1865, her husband was tragically assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Mary never recovered from the horrific event. A month later, she left Washington to live in Chicago, trying a couple of years later to raise money by selling her old clothes through dealers in New York. I loved this tidbit. It reminds me of Princess Diana.
However, unlike Prince William who supported Diana’s venture, Mary’s son Robert — fast on his way to becoming a highly-regarded attorney– was highly embarrassed by her unsuccessful scheme. She moved to Europe for three years, visiting health spas to ease increasingly bothersome arthritis. Upon the death of son Tad, her irrational fears and behaviors alarmed Robert, her surviving son, and he instigated an insanity hearing.
A jury of twelve men declared Mary insane after witnesses testified to erratic behavior and habits. The judge admitted “the disease was of unknown duration; the cause is unknown.” Mary spent about four months in a private sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois. In September 1875, she went to Springfield once again to live with her sister’s family. The next year a second jury found her sane.
Later she traveled to France, visiting spas as her health began to decline. It is suspected she suffered from undiagnosed diabetes, spinal arthritis and migraine headaches. By the time she returned to her sister’s home in 1880, she was going blind. She passed away on July 16, 1882, at age 63. Since physicians wrote “paralysis” on the death certificate, the cause was probably a stroke.
Mary was buried next to her husband in the Lincoln Tomb Cemetery in Springfield. On her wedding ring, quite thin from wear, the words “Love is Eternal” were still visible.
All in all, it doesn’t sound much like a HEA for the Lincolns, but I sure like that phrase, Love is Eternal. It broke my heart that Mary had to spend months in an asylum on the whim of twelve, make that 13, men. (I guess fourteen, counting her son.) But I was glad to find out Mary and Abe had support and some good times between them, although I cannot remotely imagine losing so many children.
How about you? Any more info on Mary Todd Lincoln come to mind? Any other First Ladies whom you admire?