Love is Eternal…Mary Todd Lincoln

MarryingMinda Crop to UseWhile 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.Mary Todd Lincoln 1

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 Todd Lincoln 2

 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.

Mary Todd Lincoln 3Five 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. Mary Todd Lincoln 4

How about you? Any more info on Mary Todd Lincoln come to mind? Any other First Ladies whom you admire?

Tanya Hanson
A California beach girl, I love cowboys and happy-ever-afters. My firefighter hubby and I enjoy travel, our two little grandsons, country music, McDonald's iced coffee, and volunteering at the local horse rescue. I was thrilled last year to receive the CTRR Award at Coffeetime Romance for Sanctuary, my tribute to my cancer-survin' hubby!
Updated: April 26, 2010 — 6:09 pm

35 Comments

  1. You Fillies over here always have such interesting posts!

    Thanks for sharing this info, Tanya.
    PamT

  2. The Lincolns were and are fascinating, aren’t they, Tanya? I love reading about first ladies, all of them so different. My favorite is probably Abigail Adams, a wise and brilliant woman far ahead of her time. Thanks for a great blog.

  3. Oh, and Jackie of course. When she was working as an editor in NY I was visiting a publisher and had the unforgettable experience of riding down several floors with her in the elevator. Definitely her. It was summer, she was wearing a peasant dress and sandals. I’ll confess I spent most of the time looking at her feet.

  4. Hi Pam, good morning, my new friend! It was ao amazing meeting you at the ranch in Bandera. I’ll definitely be posting pix of our wranglers and our horseback rides next time around! Thanks so much for joining me today! oxoxoxox

  5. hi Elizabeth, I learned so much about both Lincolns for blogging. I had only known a litle about Mary Todd, that she was difficult and crazy. Researching her sure cleared some things up.

    Abigail Adams was an incredible woman. John did nothing without consulting her. Her letters to him are brilliant. We studied some of them in American Lit! Thanks for posting. oxxoxoxo

  6. Ah, Jackie. I miss her. What a legend, an icon. I was a little girl when JFK died, and I remember how dignified she was in her grief. I would have freaked if I’d been in an elevator with her! What a memory. Yowza.

  7. You taught me something I didn’t know about Mary Lincoln. Love is eternal is both romantic and tragic.

  8. Great information, Tanya. Mary Lincoln was very much her own woman and I always suspected she was misjudged. Imagine suffering all that grief in public view. It would make anyone crazy.

    BTW: Just got back from 10 glorious days in the Carribean. I now have the urge to write about pirates but I’m counting on you all to get me back into cowboy mode.

  9. Excellent post, Tanya. I admire every first lady. Any woman who can open herself to the constant scrutiny, worry, and pressure that comes with being first lady–just because they love a man–is amazing in my book.

  10. Hi Julie, the “Love is Eternal” really touched my heart also. I can’t even imagine the grief she went through, loving and losing three sons, her husband shot so horrifically in front of her. Thanks for stopping by today.

  11. Hi Margaret, no, no, we wanna learn about your trip and see some pix here in the Junction. Pirates are always WAY cool LOL. Glad you had fun. But…cowboy mode is, indeed, good too! oxoxoxoxox I sure fell for all the wranglers at the Silver Spur.

  12. Hi Tracy, I couldn’t agree more. Especially today with instant tweets and everything living on and on and on, on the internet. I always liked Jackie Kennedy’s extreme efforts to protect her kids from the press, but then, those days were so different in terms of media. SIgh. Thanks for stopping by today. oxoxoxxo

  13. Great post, Tanya. I think there is a big void in most of history for women.
    I’d love to see a series of books about Daniel Boone’s wife, Davy Crockett’s wife, Kit Carson’s wife. Did Wild Bill Hickock ever marry? Jim Bridger? A lot of these men had wives, who quietly made a home for their wander-lust plagued husbands and a lot of their stories are lost or never told just because they were woman.

  14. Hi Mary, what a fantastic idea. I can’t even imagine waiting at home for years and years while my guy was off doing his own thing. Hmmmm. Maybe a blog-series here in the Junction?

    I just visited The Alamo yesterday. Hmmmm. I’ll see what I can find about Mrs. Crocket. I bought the grandbaby a coonskin cap and it is faux fur, thankfully LOL.

    Thanks for posting. oxoxoxoxox

  15. Great post Tanya, I really enjoyed it! I live about 40 Miles from Lexington, so I am always interesting in any history around the KY area! Thanks for sharing!

  16. What a fascinating woman! Great post, Tanya. Mary Todd Lincoln took on a very difficult role in very difficult times. I didn’t realize she had Southern roots.

  17. Tanya, you chose an interesting person to blog about. How sad about being declared insane. Clearly she wasn’t. I’m sure she was only grieving for her husband. Grief will make you do all sorts of crazy things because your mind doesn’t really work too well. I wonder how many other men and women (mostly women) who were declared insane by a family member who really weren’t crazy. Very interesting.

    I think Jackye Kennedy is the first lady I admire most. She really suffered tragedy but handled it with grace and seeming ease. She was very strong.

  18. Hi Quilt Lady, you are so welcome. Places where history and historical figures mingle with everyday life fascinate me. I was at The Alamo the last few days and it was kinda weird to reconcile this amazing shrine mixed up with hotels and shops. But I sure loved everything about my first visit to Texas! Thanks for commenting today. You are such a faithful visitor to the Junction!

  19. Hi Jennie, I learned a lot about Mary Todd Lincoln, that’s for sure. And there were many more facts, of course, I didn’t have room to share. It made me sad that her loyalty to the Union was suspect just because she had Southern kin ahd loved and mourned. Reminds me of how difficult the Civil Was was on everyone.

  20. Hi Linda, intereting comments as well. I know grief and despair can have shattering affects on people. When I researched my upcoming Marrying Mattie, I learned that upperscale men in the 1800’s could have a wife committed, if she wanted to divorce him or was in other ways “difficult.” Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

  21. Did you know, Tanya, that Mary Lincoln — according to personal family and their diaries is supposed to have killed her husband? This very little known fact is from diaries of family members and has been hidden for obvious reasons.

    Her reason for doing so: apparently, he’d had an affair with another woman who was expecting.

    Just another little tidbit of info.

  22. Fascinating read, always found the Lincoln’s interesting, and great info on Mary!

    One first lady I admired was Edith Wilson, When Woodrow Wilson had a stroke at the end of his term, she stepped up to the plate and took over, wow.

  23. I have been fascinated with Mary Todd Lincoln since I read Irving Stone’s biographical novel Love Is Eternal many years ago.
    As a young woman she was described as lively, intelligent, well educated, sought after. She was courted by two future presidential candidates. She must have seemed destined for a wonderful life. What an extraordinary woman.
    And then to endure so many terrible losses and be so villified by the press, to be estranged from her surviving son and have grave robbers disturb her husband’s remains. Surely death must have been have come as a welcome relief to her sufferings.
    Thanks, Tanya, for setting the record straight about her. Loved your post. And love the idea to feature more wives here. I’ll be looking forward to reading yours on Mrs. Crockett!

  24. Hi Tanya,

    As usual, an EXCELLENT post!!! So interesting and informative, and full of stuff I didn’t know. What a woman she was, and what a very sad life she had. She was pretty in her pictures, and looked like she must have been a very sweet person. Makes you wonder what kind of son Robert was, doesn’t it? And how did he get that way?

    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  25. hi Kay, I have never heard even a whiff of such a thing. If it’s true, what a marvelously kept secret. Why would she hire a well-known actor as a hit man? I will have to dig further when I have some time LOL Nothing showed up on google.

    Thanks for taking time from your busy, busy tour to stop by today! oxoxoxoxoxox

  26. Hi Karyn, I like Edith Wilson, too. She really stepped up, didn’t she?

    I just got back from Texas where I was reminded of Lady Bird Johnson’s wildflower campaigne! So lovely. We’ve had some great First Ladies, that’s for sure!

    Thanks for commenting today!

  27. You should read Lincoln by Gore Vidal. Much of what you have in your blogs was mentioned in the book. Very interesting people.

  28. Hey Cheryl, so glad you came by. I thought Robert sounded dreadful myself. But as with anything, there’s always two sides. Apparently her behavior was extreme for that time. I’m glad she at least got to escape to Europe. It might be interesting to research something of Robert Lincoln now LOL.

  29. thanks for the post
    it’s wonderful to learn a little each day!
    what a tragic life overall
    i can’t imagine losing my mother, husband and my children…except for one that turned against me

  30. I do understand the pain of losing a child and at times I think anyone who has gone through it could be considered insane. How can you possibly go through what Mary did and not need serious counseling? Of course, that wasn’t available in those days. Poor sad woman.

  31. Hi Tanya,
    I think Robert Lincoln is as interesting as the rest of his family. Did you know he was at his father’s bedside when he died and also present at the assassinations of Presidents McKinley and Garfield? Wouldn’t that give you a complex? Also, John Wilkes Booth’s brother Edwin, a famous actor, once saved Robert’s life.
    I don’t think Robert was a bad man. I think he was concerned about his mother’s actions and trying to protect her and his father’s name from disgrace. Society was not as “tolerant” then as they are now.

  32. Hi Tabitha and Deb, thanks for stopping by the Junction. I can’t imagine such loss. And as Deb says, there really was nowhere for her to turn…no counseling et al. I think at this time period, losing kids was just what happened and you gutted it out. So sad.

  33. Hey Judy, I didn’t know this about Robert Lincoln! As I mentioned earlier, two sides, no? I think he’d make a great subject for a P and P blog…I’ve already done his mom and dad. So, thanks for the idea! And thanks for commenting!

  34. Avatar

    Thanks for an interesting and informative post. I think all the pictures I’ve ever seen of her were taken when she was older. She was a very beautiful young woman. Even in her maturity she was attractive. It is so sad that her later life was such an unhappy time. Shame on her son. It seems he was more interested in his career than he was in his mother’s welfare. Who wouldn’t find it difficult to deal with the memories of the losses she had endured. It is sad that medical knowledge wasn’t more advanced. Unfortunately true for everyone back then.

  35. Mary Todd Lincoln was abusive to her husband and other people. There is evidence that she was also addicted to narcotics plus may have had a narcissistic personality disorder. Now many people during this time period lost children, brothers, huspands and yet managed to not become a burden to their families. For example the nurse hired by Abraham Lincoln to sit with Mary Lincoln while she was “bedridden” after the death of Willie Lincoln. The woman had lost her husband and 4 sons in the civil war. She had conforted the president but had not been as effective with Mary Lincoln. I sympathize with Robert Lincoln and believe he was also a victim to the ignorance of the time. If you read Mary Lincoln’s letters written while she was a patient at Bellevue you may notice how intelligent and reasonable she seems. Yet, her actions before her insanity trail would alarm people even today. Of course today, addicttion to something, would probably have been the first thought. Even though she deserved the bad press she recieved I do admire her intelligence and appreciate her encouragement of Lincoln to pursue select avenues in politics. That is probably her finest contribution. She was also the first president’s wife to be called the “first lady”. But I believe that rather than feeling sorry for her we need to understand exactly what she did and who she was. Her behavior was problematic well before the time of her husbands assassination.

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