Tag Archive | Mary Todd Lincoln

Book Review: Mary Todd Lincoln, A Biography

I picked up Mary Todd Lincoln, A Biography, by Jean H. Baker, at the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington, Kentucky, when I visited there in August 2018.  I have read a lot about Abraham Lincoln, and have learned much about Mary in the process, but I have never read anything that explores her life as her own person, separate from her relationship with our nation’s 16th President.

Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography

The book covers the entirety of Mary Todd Lincoln’s life, from her birth and upbringing in Lexington, Kentucky.  Her mother died when Mary was six, and her father remarried shortly after to Mary’s step-mother, a woman that Mary had a tumultuous relationship with.  She went to boarding school across town, and received far more education than a girl typically received at the time.  She was versed in politics and could speak eloquently on a variety of topics, in both English and French.

She was, by all accounts, a formidable force, who had strong opinions and a pushy nature.  However, it is likely that Lincoln’s rise to the Presidency was heavily influenced by his wife, her encouragement and her assistance behind the scenes.  She believed she would be the First Lady, and Mary Todd Lincoln often got what she wanted.

Her life was also overshadowed by tragedy.  She lost her mother as a child, and three of her four sons died before they reached adulthood.  And of course, you know what happened to her husband…  She grieved.  Yet she grieved in a way that the nation thought inappropriate, not becoming of a lady of her time.  She was too much to take.

Mary’s polarizing personality bought her many enemies, and those enemies have tainted the historical record.  She certainly was far from perfect, but this biography will help the reader to understand what is true and what is myth surrounding Mary Todd Lincoln.

4 stars. 

Circus Trip 2018: Mary Todd Lincoln House

Day 32, Thursday, August 16, 2018

Lexington, Kentucky

The Mary Todd Lincoln House itself was built between 1803 and 1806, and originally served as an inn.  If you don’t know Mary Todd Lincoln or why you should care about her family home, she was the wife of our 16th President Abraham Lincoln. Mary’s father, Robert Todd, purchased the 14 room mansion in 1832 and lived here until his death in 1849.

The Mary Todd Lincoln House

 

Mary Todd Lincoln – 1846 – from Wikipedia

Mary was born in 1818, and didn’t move here until 1832, and even then, spent much of her time living in a boarding school for girls about a mile away.  Even though she could have traveled back and forth to school from home, she felt that staying at the school was a better option; she described the school as being more of a home for her than the home with her father and stepmother.  In her late teens, Mary moved to Springfield to live with her sister.  That’s my long way of saying that Mary Todd Lincoln really didn’t spent much time living in the Mary Todd Lincoln House, even though it was the family home during a part of her childhood.

Unfortunately, legal disputes after Todd’s death meant that the home was auctioned.  In the days after it left the Todd family, it was used as a boarding house, a grocery store, and even a brothel.  By the 1950s, the home was in rough shape, and a grassroots campaign began to save the home.  It was opened as a museum in 1977, making it the first museum dedicated to a First Lady.

Due to the fact that it is dedicated to Mary Todd Lincoln’s life, it tells a different story of her than is frequently depicted.  They are honest about her struggles with grief and mental illness but they also share that Mary was a very intelligent woman who played an enormous role in shaping her husband’s political career.  Abraham Lincoln married up; Mary Todd came from the upper class – high society of the West.  She knew politics, was very ambitious, and was not a woman content to wait in the wings in what was a society controlled by men.  The docents let visitors know about Mary’s qualities and her genteel upbringing.  They share openly about her trouble with her stepmother, and the fact that her father was often absent.  It was Mary’s sisters who felt more like mothers to her.

The home has been restored to what it would have looked like when Mary Todd Lincoln lived here, and they have been able to acquire some of the original Todd furnishings and household goods that were in the home.

They also have artifacts from Mary’s later life, including an original advertisement announcing the last night of Our American Cousin from its run at Ford’s Theatre, the play that Mary and Abraham attended the night Lincoln was assassinated.  If you read the date, you see that it was advertising the last night as Friday, April 14, 1865, the very night Lincoln was shot.

An advertisement for Our American Cousin

The docents at the home really do a great job of telling the story of Mary as her own person, rather than an extension of her later President husband.  As I have said, they are honest and candid about her shortcomings.  However, they also explain that her own and President Lincoln’s opponents painted an unfair portrait of her in the media, and their later “tell all” books.  Sensationalism drives sales; this hasn’t changed since the 1800s, and what better way to make a buck?

They allow photos within the home (yay!) and allow enough time in each room for guests to see everything and ask questions.  They really encourage questions even!  This was my second visit to the Mary Todd Lincoln Home, and it is still one of the best home museums I have been to.  If you are in Lexington, do visit!

 

 

 

Circus Trip 2018: Mary Todd Lincoln

Day 32, Thursday, August 16, 2018

Lexington, Kentucky

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.

The Mary Todd Lincoln House

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 Todd Lincoln – 1846 – from Wikipedia

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!

 

 

All aboard for the Midwest!

Right before I met Jon in August 2008, I took a trip to Ohio and Kentucky. I wanted to see the National Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, and see some of beautiful horse country in Kentucky. It was a great trip, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Jon got to hear a full accounting of the trip on our first phone conversation and more on our first date. I’m sure that was his first indication that I am a travel nut, but thankfully, he is too.

I flew into Columbus, Ohio, and stayed the first night in a contemporary hotel downtown. The hotel was really nice – certainly someplace I would stay again if I end up around there. I do have to admit though, there isn’t a whole lot going on during the day in downtown Columbus. I took a walk around, expecting there to be lots of businessmen wandering around, but it was relatively dead. After I found a great place to have breakfast, I left Columbus and started on my way to Dayton. On the way, I drove past a sign for a state park, advertising an interactive farm. I drove down to check it out and found a quaint 1800s farm called the Slate Run Living Farm, complete with farm animals, exhibits on farming techniques and animal husbandry techniques. It was a beautiful day, so it was enjoyable to just sit in the sun and take it all in. There were lots of good photo ops at this place, and I got some neat photos of the barn with the sunny blue skies and clouds. In all, it was a nice relaxing day, perfect for working up to a visit of the aviation museum of all aviation museums.

Slate Run Living Farm

So, what can I possibly say about the National Museum of the United States Air Force? This place is enormous. It is not possible to see everything there is to see in one day. I made it through two of the three gigantic airplane hangars, but didn’t have time for the third. Which was ok, because the third focused on modern day aviation and the space program, and I’m much more interested in the beginnings of air travel, World War I, and World War II. And don’t think that the exhibits only pertain to the Air Force, because they aren’t exclusive. There are exhibits on the Wright Brothers, the German Aces in World War I, and Navy air operations during World War II. And, like I said before, the Space Program, if that is what floats your boat (I have to admit, the landing pods were pretty cool – the ones where you can land in the ocean and then float until NASA picks you up). This is a museum that can keep you fully occupied, even if Aviation isn’t your passion; you just have to have an appreciation for history. There is information about Doolittle’s Raiders, who flew bombing missions over Japan during WWII and the Wasps (the women aviators who transported military aircraft), just to name a few. It is humbling to see what Americans sacrificed for our freedom.

The museum houses the Bockscar, which is the Boeing B-29 Superfortress which dropped the Fat Man atomic bomb on Nagasaki.  It is difficult to fathom all the lives that it destroyed and all the lives that it saved.

Bockscar, B-29 Superfortress

Outside the museum is parked the “Hanoi Taxi,” a Lockheed C-141, which shuttled the Vietnam POWs home at the end of the Vietnam War.  US Senator John McCain was flown home from his imprisonment in a Vietnamese prison camp on this plane.

The Hanoi Taxi

Next, I made my way to Lexington, Kentucky, hometown of Mary Todd Lincoln. No visit to Lexington is complete without a visit to the Mary Todd Lincoln childhood home.  The home is in downtown Lexington now, but apparently during the mid 1800s it was on the outskirts of Lexington. It is a beautiful brick home that has been well maintained over the last 200 years.  I got the tour, and the docent was very knowledgeable about Mary Lincoln and quite willing to discuss how Mary really got the shaft when Lincoln was assassinated (I always love when the docents are willing to go off of the script). Undoubtedly, Mary had some mental illness issues, but consider the fact that three of her four children died before reaching adulthood, several of her family members were killed in the war, and her husband was murdered. People in the north thought she was a traitor and that she was urging Lincoln for special treatment for her family members (geez, who wouldn’t?). She was booted unceremoniously out of the White House with no pension, and women of that time period typically didn’t receive any financial education or schooling in business affairs. I would be having a little trouble adjusting too. There really is more to Mary Todd Lincoln than the overspending nutcase that she is portrayed as.

Mary Todd Lincoln's Childhood Home - complete with garbage and recycling toters

And the best part of the trip, is that  it was not yet finished!  But I’ll save the rest for another post.