Day 32, Thursday, August 16, 2018
My first morning in Lexington, I knew I wanted to visit the Mary Todd Lincoln house. It was pouring rain, so an indoor activity was perfect! If you don’t already know, Mary Todd Lincoln was President Abraham Lincoln’s wife. Most of you have probably heard of her, and I imagine what you have heard has been negative… Mary Lincoln (she didn’t use her maiden name after marrying – we have added the Todd back in later in history) has been unfairly maligned, so maybe I can offer some information in her favor.
Mary was the fourth child of Robert Todd and his first wife Elizabeth “Eliza”; her mother died in childbirth when Mary was six years old. Soon after, Robert married his second wife Elizabeth “Betsy,” and the couple had nine more children. Mary’s relationship with her stepmother was rocky; but although history books often seem to portray Mary being the only problem child, it has been documented that none of the first six Todd children liked their step-mother. Their father was distant and often absent, leaving the raising of the children to Betsy and the slaves. Mary spent several years of her childhood in this home in Lexington, living in comfort; the family were slaveholders and she grew up attending a refining school, where she learned French, literature, dance, music, and social graces. Mary was also raised with a knowledge of politics and formed her own opinions, long before she met or married Lincoln.
Mary moved to Springfield, Illinois at the age of 20 to live with her sister; it was there that she met Abraham Lincoln. Before courting Lincoln, his rival Stephen Douglas was also a suitor of hers, and it is no surprise, as Mary was pretty, refined, witty and intelligent. During the Lincoln Presidency, her detractors criticized her for all sorts of perceived transgressions. She was considered a traitor to the Union cause because several of her brothers served in the Confederacy. What do you expect though? Her family was from Kentucky, a border state and a slave state; loyalties there were divided. The Lincolns were not the only family to have family members on both sides of the war – it was quite common.
Mary was villainized for her extravagant spending in the White House; modern historians theorize that it was a symptom of bipolar disorder, as she was known to swing between seemingly manic periods and deep depressions. Another historian believed she suffered from pernicious anemia, which can apparently also cause these symptoms. The White House was in need of repair and updating too! Mary was tasked with redecorating the White House; and as a woman of the time period, she set herself on this task that was one of the only things it was acceptable for a woman to control. Perhaps she went a bit overboard, but the White House was essentially a pit when they moved in!
Regardless of whether she was mentally or physically ill, who could blame her for being a bit erratic? Her every move as the President’s wife was watched and criticized by the media and Lincoln’s political rivals. Contrary to modern-day beliefs, there was just as much mud-slinging and politicians and their supporters made vicious attacks on those they didn’t agree with then too.
Mary lost three of her four sons before they reached adulthood (Tad was 18 when he died); Robert Todd Lincoln was her only immediate family member to survive her. She was sitting next to Lincoln as he was shot at point blank range in Ford’s Theatre; he slumped over onto her and she held him up until the doctors arrived. All of this would make any of us go a little bit crazy. It’s sad that nobody talks about how well she held up in the face of enormous pressure and grief.
As if that weren’t enough, her surviving son Robert had her committed to a mental institution. He gained control of her finances after she was institutionalized; did he really have her best interest at heart? She was only there for a few months before convincing the doctors that she was indeed sane, and was released. Understandably, it created a rift in her relationship with her son that lasted the rest of her life. I’m not sure I would trust my son after that move either… After years of declining health, Mary died in 1882 at her sister’s home in Springfield, where she had lived for several years.
After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, his former law partner William Herndon was responsible for the biography that provided much of the information on Lincoln’s pre-White House life. It is also known that Herndon and Mary Lincoln did not get along (that’s putting in mildly) and many scholars believed that Herndon unfairly portrayed Mary as a “serpent,” “she-wolf,” and the “female wild cat of the age.” Was the characterization fair, or merely the result of a man who despised that she did not confine herself to the social norms of the era?
I’m reading Jean Baker’s biography, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography to learn more. I’ll tell you about my visit to the Mary Todd Lincoln House next!