Thursday, April 03, 2008

My Latest Obsession: I Stand Up For Mary Lincoln

"Certainly ill luck presided at my birth--certainly it has been a faithful attendant." --fragment in a letter from Mary Lincoln, November 1869

You would have to look hard in America's history to find a woman more roundly condemned and more valiantly championed, both in her own time and more than a hundred years later, than Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. She was, in many cases, a woman before her time, intensely interested in politics and highly educated, well-versed in banking and real estate, and no stranger to international travel and the ways of European society. She was fluent in French, adept in all social situations when she chose to be, and so charming that her brother-in-law once remarked that she could "make a bishop forget his prayers." True, her moods could be mercurial, but that was to be expected for the "middle child" whose mother died in childbirth when Mary was only 6 1/2.

Her father remarried quickly, too, bringing a cold, distant woman into the house who immediately began on a second family of nine more children. Mary left for boarding school as soon as possible, where she excelled. Soon, she was able to escape permanently to Springfield, Illinois, to her sister's house, where she met and--against her sister's wishes--married Abraham Lincoln. It had not been an easy engagement, however; at one point, they had a 6 month estrangement which proved almost suicidal for Abraham. Due to the intervention of well-meaning friends, they had several meetings and the engagement was salvaged. One year later, their first son Robert was born. Three years later, Edward, who they called "Eddie" was born.

Mary, who believed that homemaking and mothering were the most noble of callings, set about making her home a haven for her children and her often absent husband, whose job took him away from his family. Nineteenth-century housekeeping was brutally hard and nonstop. And the lack of sanitation and refrigeration made illness a constant companion and threat. In 1849, Mary lost both her beloved father, for whom her eldest was named, and her grandmother. At the beginning of the following year, in February, her beloved son Eddie died of "consumption". And Mary went into paroxysms of mourning. In these Victorian times, women were expected to bear up under grief, to accept it as God's will and to be strong. Mary Lincoln never grieved that way, and she was seen as extreme and unchristian for it. She had watched her child of only four years old waste away from sickness for fifty-two days and then die. She could not bear it.

Ten months later, Willie was born. And three years later, Thomas "Tad" Lincoln joined the family. And with Mary's help and ambition, Abraham Lincoln entered the White House in 1861 with the country torn asunder and gave his inaugural address with Federal snipers posted on the top of key buildings in Washington in case any Southern "secesh" should try his luck at taking out the new President.

Already the gossips and newspapers were vilifying First Lady Mary Lincoln, who was born in Kentucky. They speculated about her loyalties. The North accused her of espionage for her rebel family; the South accused her of being a traitor. She read the papers, heard the epithets being thrown at her husband: black ape, tyrant, imbecile, gorilla. She heard of death threats against her husband as well as plots to kidnap him. Her own carriage was tampered with, causing an accident. In 1862, Tad and Willie became gravely ill with typhoid, and Willie died. The day he was buried, a tornado swept through Washington. Mary was overcome with grief, and for three weeks could not move from her bed. The President harbored fears that she had become deranged. Tad, still sickly, seemed unable to regain his health, and the country was locked in a bloody civil war.

Mary had lost two half-brothers to the Civil War, but she dared not mourn them; they fought on the Confederate side. At this time, a new wave of pseudo-science was sweeping the globe: Spiritualism. Mediums claimed they could bridge the chasm between the spirit world and the living. Mary, bereft of her two darlings and overcome with grief, began to attend seances. She convinced her husband to allow a medium to come to the White House. He humored her, and a long interest in Spiritualism followed.

On April 6 or 7 of 1865, Abraham Lincoln confided to his wife that he had an unsettling dream: he had been awakened by the sound of weeping. Wandering through the White House, he came to the East Room where he saw a catafalque on which a coffin rested with a body inside. He asked a nearby soldier, "Who is dead in the White House?" One answered, "The President." On April 14, 1865, Mary Lincoln witnessed the assassination of her husband in the chair next to her.

On May 23, Mary, dressed in the heavy black mourning that she would never, ever give up, finally left the White House. There was no provision made for her residence at the time; no money appropriated. Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer by profession, had died without a will. She and her sons lived in Chicago, for Mary Lincoln could not bear to return to Springfield, a city rife with memories of her beloved husband and their young family's early years together. They lived cheaply, and Mary worried constantly about money. She petitioned Congress for a widow's pension, but her reputation in Washington was sullied by last-days looting of the White House by souvenir hunters and petty thieves. The White House was open to the public in those days, and anything not nailed down or under the watchful eyes of guards was easy pickings. China, silver, draperies, art, even furnishings had disappeared after Lincoln's death. And an astonishing number of Washingtonians blamed Mary Lincoln. Even after some things showed up in private homes or in pawnshops, she was still called a common thief among social circles and in the newspapers.

In 1868, Mary felt defeated. She decided to leave for Europe with Tad. She was in ill health, persecuted, a pariah in her own country, a country that owed its very existence to her husband, the Martyred President. She left for Europe, hoping to take the cure in some of its most recommended health spots. Tad, under the tutelage of a scholar, began to improve in his studies, but soon became homesick after so much continental wandering. In 1871, they boarded ship, but Tad, ever susceptible to illness, caught a cold which developed into pleurisy. Back in Chicago, he worsened and in July, Mary lost her third son. This time, she was able to attend his funeral, but her only remaining child, the distant and very Victorian Robert, left inexplicably less than two weeks later for a Colorado vacation. Mary was left alone.

That fall, the Chicago fire broke out. Fighting smoke and flames, Mary escaped with a few items, losing many valuable letters, papers, and mementos of her husband. She spent the night and part of the next day along the shore of Lake Michigan. After that, she became a continental nomad, wandering Europe and North America, seeking mediums to help her make contact with her beloved Mr. Lincoln and her dead darling boys. She was especially pleased with the picture made by a spiritualist photographer which showed the spirit of her husband hovering behind her, his hands placed protectively upon her shoulders. It would prove to be the last photograph ever taken of her.

In May of 1875, her son Robert had had enough. His mother's constant mood changes, her odd behavior, her shopping sprees and her buying mania were not only embarrassing to him, but were worrisome. No longer could she be termed "eccentric"; she was, since his father's death, literally insane. He convened, secretly, a half-dozen doctors, the majority of whom had never even seen, let alone examined his mother, and presented his evidence. They wholeheartedly agreed: She needed to be confined to protect not only herself but her assets. She might spend herself into the poorhouse. Robert sent a family friend and a guard to collect his mother, who had no choice but to acquiesce with humiliation. The trial was a jury trial, and Mary Lincoln was never called to speak on her own behalf. Indeed, she had no idea until she got there and was told so that Robert was the one who initiated the proceedings. When it was all over, she was declared insane, and was ordered confined to Bellevue Place, a private asylum.

Her stay there was short because Mary Lincoln began an immediate campaign for her release, much to her son's chagrin and dismay. She wrote letters, comported herself admirably, and did not require any restraint or strong medications. She even involved the newspapers, her most hated nemeses, inviting a reporter to visit her at Bellevue and write about his impressions. It was sensational. Entering Bellevue on May 20, she was released on September 11 to the care of her sister Elizabeth in Springfield. By June of the following year, she was declared in court to be "restored to reason." Robert, it must be noted, strongly objected to both the release and to her declaration of full sanity. He did so, however, out of concern for her well-being both times, he continued to reiterate. There is not definitive evidence to the contrary. But Mary Lincoln never forgave him and, at one point, planned to shoot him with a pistol packed away in one of her trunks.

As was her usual habit, Mary Lincoln left for Europe after this battle. But she was forced by continued ill health and loneliness to return in 1880, unable to care for herself. She had fallen and broken her back, weighed now only about 100 pounds, and was nearly blind, a condition actually caused by her excessive weeping. She was unable to bear most light and spent the remaining two years in a darkened room at her sister's home, one of four that she paid rent for. One was a sitting room, one for her bedroom, and two for her sixty-four trunks of possessions, whose combined weight was four tons and caused much concern as to whether the structure of the house could bear it. Mary Todd Lincoln died on July 16, 1882, of a stroke. She would have loved her funeral, held three days later. It was full of flowers and music; the mayor declared it a holiday; thousands lined the streets. Even the newspapers printed a thick black mourning band on their mastheads.

And at the end of it all, Mary Lincoln was laid to rest with her beloved Mr. Lincoln and the rest of her family.


  1. Mary is looking down on you with pride and gratitude.

  2. Wow. Fascinating. I knew only a mere fraction of that info. I have to agree with Nancy. You've given Mary the "due" she never received in life. Her funeral, at least, showed that people did care deeply. To think of her suffering all those years is so sad and to have one's son act that way is so heartless (I think I understand her wanting to shoot him). I still have not read that book written by a local author on her that I mentioned in your other Lincoln post several months ago. I still want to read it. Anyway, beautiful and honest tribute to Mary, Nance. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

  3. Wow...that was really fascinating! I only knew that she was southern, and her kids died. Poor woman. I wonder if it was actually true that her crying caused her eyesight to fail...that's scary.

    I have an ancestor who was arrested and died in jail as a witch in Salem, MA. She owned property, and had remarried. Her kids, I suspect, were in on it, wanting to make sure that their inheritance went to them, and not to the new younger husband. Creepy, huh?

  4. Wow. I had no idea what she was like or what she went through. Lincoln was always my "favorite" president. :)

  5. This was a very educational briefing! I didn't know anything about Mary and now I know a lot! Thank you for your wisdom :-)

  6. She really did go through some horrible horrible times. I've never seen that ghost picture before. Quite interesting...

  7. anali--of course that picture is such a fraud, but she took comfort in it. do you know that she and her husband were never, ever photographed together? most people theorize that it's because she didn't like how short and heavy she looked next to him, but no one knows for sure why.

    jen--i know it's a horridly long post, but she had gone through so much tragedy in such a short time, and she's never really given sympathy for it. most people just say, "Oh, yes, she was insane and poor Abraham Lincoln." she was so vastly misunderstood. my heart just aches for her. and for him.

    ck--he is one of only a couple of american presidents that I call "President." i admire and respect Abraham Lincoln so much. and i find Mary Lincoln such a tragic figure...both of them, really. thanks for reading.

    j.@jj--yes, the weeping affliction is apparently true. i've read so many books about her and the Lincolns now, and it's come up consistently. regarding your ancestor--which one is it? i teach The Crucible, and I also have a Salem Witch Trials interest. (Sigh.) I've read the court documents online and have read about a dozen books. That whole saga is fascinating and tragic as well, made moreso by the crass commercialization of the entire Salem/Danvers area.

    shirley--oh my, believe me; Mary Lincoln's "due" has been given by wonderful author Jean Baker, whose very sensitive and thorough biography is a partial source for my post. I relied on about 4 books for this post, and it was so hard to make it only THIS long. I've been obsessed by Mary Lincoln for years, and I've been reading deeply about the Lincolns for a while, on and off. Sometimes I have to stop because I just feel so entered by their tragedy and so compelled by it. While Mary is fascinating and complex, the President is truly noble and inspiring. But what happened to them both is just so profoundly sad. I took a big gamble with such a long, dry post, but I just had to write it. Thanks for sticking with me. And Mary.

  8. nancy in a2--that would be so nice. by no means am i her only modern-day champion, but i would like to think that, after all this time, she deserves some understanding and kindness, and that it's time history rewrote her chapter.

  9. It's a shame that she was "respected" enough to have her death declared a holiday but to be so mistreated during life. I'd rather have it be the opposite - to be able to enjoy the time when people appreciate you.

  10. In high school I read a biography of Mary Lincoln. I think it was called "Love is Eternal". I remember then being struck by her bravery and also by the singular cruelty of an ignorant public. Times haven't changed much...have they?

  11. Fascinating. And so tragic. No one should have to face life with so much death.

    I knew nothing about Mary Lincoln except an anecdote which is probably apocryphal, to the effect that when she introduced herself to Lincoln, she said that her last name was Todd, "with two d's"... to which L. supposedly replied, "One was enough for God."

  12. Nancy7:05 PM

    Oh! Nance, I never knew about Mary Lincoln's sad life. I knew only the superficial facts that we all learned in History class.

    I read every word of your post and actually could have read more about Mary, which is why I will be at the library on Monday for Jean Baker's biography of her.

    Thank you for caring enough to write such a "long dry post" as you called it. I call it a long wonderful tribute to someone we all should know more about. A real
    heroine who by government neglect and personal slander was made into a tragic figure..

  13. My ancestor is Sarah Osborne. She was Sarah Warren, then Sarah Prince. My ancestor was one of her Prince sons. When her husband died, she married an indentured servant named Osborne, causing much commotion, and some worry amongst her sons about their inheritance. She died in jail before she could come to trial. I take a bit of pride in the fact that she refused to place blame on others, which many others did in the trials. She just refused to admit to being bewitched herself.

    I was hooked on genealogy a few years ago, and this was one of the most interesting bits that came from that obsession.

  14. Oh, and I read through your comments...this post was anything but dry. Rather the opposite, I think.

  15. Oh, and just to clutter up your comments with my lineage, one of my family cousins (not an ancestor, but the cousin of an ancestor) was Billy Herndon, Lincoln's law partner. My family maintains that he wasn't nearly the drunk that history has made him out to be. I wonder.

  16. OK, I know I'm getting annoying now, but I thought you'd like to know that I went back to my blog and looked at this old post:
    and remembered that I'm also related to the Putnams, one of whom (though not an ancestor) was Anne Putnam, who was one of the 'afflicted girls' in Salem. I realized that in that post, I failed to mention Billy Herndon, though I did mention a few others.

  17. j@jj--sigh. that anne putnam. the afflicted girl and her mother, both troublemakers, as you undoubtedly know, but at least anne junior wrote an "apology" of sorts. although she copped out and basically said "the devil made me do it." as far as herndon, is it william herndon, the one that made the infamous "Lincoln's first love was really Ann Rutledge" speech that Mary was forced to live down, or the "Lincoln was really illegitimate" speech that sent Robert Lincoln in a mad dash to find the family bible that proved that Lincoln's parents were married? He was really a thorn in the Lincolns' side, especially Mary's. But on to poor Sarah Osborne...she was such a horrifically sad case, wasn't she? Among the first accused, desperately ill, dying in jail. You have a very rich family history. and you're not "cluttering up comments." i enjoy the chatting inspired here. please do it often! that's why i call this area "brainstorms."

    nancy--oh, thank you. the book is called "mary todd lincoln: a biography" by jean h. baker. it is wonderful. of course, i left so much out, but i wanted to highlight the amount of personal tragedy that may have been at the root of some of her eccentric and extreme behavior exhibited later in life. i think so many people, including MALE historians, forget the devastating consequences of so much personal pain and loss.

    ortizzle--i have never come across that particular anecdote. it sounds like lincoln, but the fact that i've never read it makes me think it may very well be apocryphal. thanks for reading my big long post.

    apathy lounge/ab--good point. i still see women in the public eye being much more harshly judged than men. this presidential race being an example.

    ih--exactly. and i feel that way still. i'd rather have the flowers now, when i'm alive and can appreciate them, than when i'm dead and can't even see them. washington, chicago, springfield...all these cities reviled mary lincoln during her lifetime. even new york, whose merchants benefitted from her considerable shopping mania. in death, she was suddenly more worthy? my heart aches for her.

  18. Roxanna3:14 PM

    What a fantastic post Nance. I, too, am quite interested by the Lincolns. I read a book a few months ago that was an "auto-biography" of Mary Lincoln (obviously fiction). It was very good - it seemd to be to be well reseasrched, and fairly balanced. If I can remember the title I'll share it.

    I love your blog Nance!

  19. roxanna--thank you so much, roxanna. i read that novel; was it called just "Mary"? i enjoyed it immensely and i also thought it did a pretty good job of not being too terribly sensationalized. forgive my curiosity, but are you the same roxanna who was a fairly regular reader and commenter before and had a blog as well? if so, welcome back. if not, thank you for your first comment and welcome to the Dept!

  20. A fascinating and engrossing post! Loved it. Just got back from DC and once again visited Lincoln's memorial and took in his words. A giant of man in every sense. I love this story of Mary. Tough and tragic woman.

  21. rd--thanks so much! your comments are kind and most welcome. please stop by often. have you read Doris Kearns Goodwin's wonderful book "Team of Rivals"? It's a terrific look at Lincoln's genius.

  22. I've never looked into Billy Herndon, but if he was Lincoln's law partner at one point, then it would have to be the same one. Bad Billy!

    I heard that Anne Putnam kind of got her karma comeuppance, in that her parents died when she was young, and she had to raise her many younger brothers and sisters herself...and never ended up marrying. You've studied more than I have...does that mesh with your understanding of her fate?

  23. j.@jj--that's true, j. A.P. junior was left behind by her mother and father to raise the remainder of the children, and she also died young, if i recall correctly. i think she was anywhere from 34-37, depending upon sources, when she died, unmarried, as you say.

  24. I find myself, more and more, feeling for Mrs. Lincoln. I read the biography by Jean Baker (wonderful!) a bit ago and now can completely feel for how she must have felt. How horrible it must have been to witness the deaths of one's babies and husband...and still face the hatred of a country that misunderstood her and the indifference of a son who was basically, in my opinion,a cad. You could have gone on and on and I would have read every word. As a side note, I often wonder if it is possible that I could cry myself blind. I swear my eyes have gotten a lighter shade of green because of it.

  25. I partially read the bio, but found it really interesting, I can't remember why I stoppped reading.

    Great post!

  26. When I left my comment the other day, I attended a book fair at the elementary school that night. There was a whole table full of Lincoln books. I thought of you.

    Oh, and if I didn't mention it before (and even if I did), I LOVE that widdle white bunny up in the corner. So cute!

  27. ck--I'm always so flattered when anyone thinks of me; thank you! And to be thought of in the company of the Lincolns, well...!
    And OMG--that bunny is squeezalicious.

    gina--sometimes, life with kids gets in the way and the momentum is lost. (I'm assuming you meant the bio-book, not this post? LOL) also, it is a very affecting story. maybe it just got you down and you had to stop and get your head back into your life and your family.

    laura--thanks for the compliment on my post. the medical effects of her crying were said to be surface swelling and blisters on her corneas, leading to extreme sensitivity to light and pain, even to the extent that blinking was painful. certainly it became a vicious cycle: her staying in the dark must have made any light at all that much harder to bear. and in her heightened depressed and martyred state, she probably felt it was somewhat of a stigmata in its own way. grief is terrible and savage in its way.


Oh, thank you for joining the fray!

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