One of the Most Unpopular First Ladies: Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Ann Todd Lincoln was President Abraham Lincoln’s wife and First Lady of the United States for four years, from 1861 to 1865, but was an unpopular first lady, however. She grew up in a wealthy Kentucky family and moved to Illinois as a teenager. Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s long time political enemy, and Mary courted. She and lincoln were married in 1842 until his assassination in 1865, which she witnessed. Afterwards, Mary fell into a state of depression and was later committed to Bellevue Insane Asylum involuntarily by her son Robert.

Mary Ann Todd was born on December 13, 1818 to prominent banker Robert Smith Todd and Elizabeth Parker Todd in Lexington, Kentucky. She was the fourth of seven children, with three brothers and three sisters, Elizabeth, Frances, Levi, Robert, Ann, and George. Mary was raised comfortably. Elizabeth Todd passed away when Mary was only six years old on July 6, 1825. Shortly after on November 1, 1826, Robert Todd remarried to Elizabeth Humphreys. They would go on to have four sons and five half daughters, giving Mary nine half siblings. The relationship between Mary and her stepmother was always a difficult one. The Todd’s moved into an elegant home on West Main Street in Lexington in 1832, which later became known as Mary Todd Lincoln House.

From 1826-1832, Todd studied at Shelby Female Academy (later Dr. Ward’s Academy). She was taught arithmetic, geography, grammar, literature, and poetry. Following her education at the academy, Todd attended Madame Mentelle’s Boarding School for five years, from 1832 to 1837. There, she learned how to speak and write French along with penmanship, dancing, and singing. But her education did not end there. Mary also attended Dr. Ward’s Academy (which was previously Shelby Female Academy) until 1839 and was taught advanced studies. For a young girl of her time, Mary Todd received a notable education.

Leaving Kentucky, Mary moved in with her sister Elizabeth Porter Edwards in Springfield, Illinois in 1839. Elizabeth was married to Ninian W. Edwards, who was the son of former governor Ninian Edwards of Illinois. Elizabeth also served as her sister’s guardian. In Illinois, Mary Todd, popular among the Springfield gentry, attracted many young suitors. She and Stephen Douglas, new lawyer and politician, courted for some time.


Abraham Lincoln also courted Mary Todd in Springfield. Because he was nine years older than her and had a limited education, Mary’s family did not approve of the match. She had also come from a very wealthy family, while Lincoln had a poor background. The two of them shared a common interest for politics, but were also very in love. Several months after he had proposed and she accepted, Lincoln had broken the engagement in early 1841. On November 4, 1842, the couple married at Elizabeth’s home in Springfield. While Mary as twenty-three, her new husband was thirty-three.

The newlyweds spent the first two years of their marriage in Springfield at the Globe Tavern. nine months after they were married, their first son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was born on August q, 1843. They then purchased a hoe at Eight and Jackson Streets in 1844. The Lincoln’s had three more sons. Edward Baker Lincoln, known as Eddie, was born in 1846, but died of tuberculosis in 1850. William “Willie” Wallace Lincoln was born 1850, but died when he was twelve of typhoid fever in 1862. Thomas Lincoln, or Tad, was born in 1853. Robert and Tad were the only two of their children to survive into adulthood, and Mary outlived all of her sons but Robert.

Mary was a loyal supporter of her husband and his political career. She hosted events for him and offered advice. As he worked on advancing his public life career, Mary sought out recommendations for Lincoln. He also became political rivals with Stephen Douglas, who Mary had courted. As they fought for the Illinois seat in the United States Senate in 1858, they created the well known Lincoln-Douglas debates. While Douglas won the Senate seat, Lincoln was meanwhile becoming more and more popular due to his position on slavery. This gave him national support. Mary continued to manage the household. They lived in Springfield at Lincoln Home from 1844 until he became president in 1861. She raised their children and spent much of her time cooking and cleaning the house.

When Lincoln won the congressional seat in 1847, Mary moved with him to Washington, D.C., which was highly unusual. The couple lived in a boardinghouse in the capital with their sons. Mary remained an active advisor for her husband. She handwrote socialization letters to Whig leaders when he began looking for an appointive position. Lincoln was offered the governor ship of the Oregon territory, but Mary advised him not to accept as Oregon was far away and would lead to his removal from potentially gaining a national position.

Legend says that Mary had claimed as a young woman that whoever she would someday marry would become President. She vigorously defended and supported her husband when he ran for president in 1860. Mary made it known that she was willing to speak with any reporters who came to cover his campaign in Springfield. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election. According to White House Studies, He came running home yelling, “Mary, Mary, we are elected.” It was obvious she was eager to assume a prominent public role with her discussions of political issues she held in between the election and the inauguration. However, Lincoln’s inauguration was overshadowed when there were threats on his life after the secession of South Carolina.  Many wealthy families from the south who had taken over the capital and were leaving. Harriet Lane, James Buchanan’s first lady, pre-judged Mary Lincoln before she assumed her role as first lady.

Though her family and stepfamily were slaveholders and fought for the Confederacy, Mary Lincoln was a staunch supporter of the union and fervent abolitionist. Kentucky had not seceded from the union, but was a border state. This meant it still belonged to the Union but slavery was allowed. One of Mary’s brothers was a surgeon in the Confederate Army and many of her half brothers fought and were killed during the American Civil War.  

Mary was met with many difficulties during her time as First Lady, and it partially had to do with the political divisions in the nation that split her and her family. She spent lavishly despite tight budgets due to the war and was often on shopping trips. She was emotional and outspoken. People began accusing her of being a Confederate spy. Mary was extremely loyal to her husband and his policies though. Many regarded her as a “westerner” and she worked hard to be Lincoln’s first lady. Her husband was considered to be the first “western” president. People found that Mary’s manners were coarse and pretentious. Lincoln was livid when Mary refurbished the White house and purchased new china due to the high costs and her extensive overspending. Congress passed two appropriations that were able to cover these expenses though.


The Lincoln Family. From Left to Right: Mary, Robert, Thomas “Tad”, and President Lincoln.

Throughout adulthood, Mary suffered from severe headaches and migraines and protracted depressions. As First Lady, she suffered from a head injury in a carriage accident. Following this accident, the headaches seemingly grew worse and worse. Some historians and psychologists have speculated that she may have even suffered through bipolar disorder due to her mood swings, fierce temper, public outbursts and excessive spending. Physician and medical historian John Sotos has said that her manic and depressive episodes could have been caused by manifestations of pernicious anemia.

Most of her activities were overshadowed by the war though. She visited Union hospitals and worked as a volunteer nurse. Mary offered intelligence she had learned and gave advice to her husband on military personnel. Her efforts of using entertainment as a way of raising Union morale were, for the most part, successful.

The Civil War was coming to an end by April of 1865. The couple watched the comic play Our American Cousin on April 15, 1865 at Ford’s Theatre with Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone. They were holding hands when Mary leaned over and said, “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?” In response, Lincoln smiled and said, “She won’t think anything about it.” This was their last conversation, as John Wilkes booth shot President Abraham Lincoln only minutes later. Mary was still holding his hand when her husband was shot and struck in the back of the head with a bullet. She accompanied her dying husband across the street from the theatre to Petersen House. Lincoln was taking to a bedroom in the bad and laid crosswise on the bed. His cabinet was then summoned. Robert, their son, sat with his father all through the night until his death the following morning. That morning Mary had also been ordered out of the room due to being so unhinged with grief by Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War.

After her husband’s death, Mary fell into a state of depression. All over the world people sent her messages of grief and condolence, which she tried to answer personally. I have received the letter which Your Majesty has had the kindness to write. I am deeply grateful for this expression of tender sympathy, coming as they do, from a heart which from its own sorrow, can appreciate the intense grief I now endure,” Mary wrote to Queen Victoria. Four years earlier, Queen Victoria had lost her own husband, Prince Albert.

Mary returned to Illinois with her two sons, Robert and Tad, and moved to Chicago. When Elizabeth Keckley published her book about her life called Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, Mary thought it to be a breach of friendship and confidentiality. In the book, Keckley had given valuable insight on Mary Lincoln and her life and character. In 1868, Mary and her son Tad moved to Germany for some time and returned later on once Congress granted her a pension.


Congress granted Mary Lincoln a life pension of $3,000 a year, which would be equal to $56,818 today, in July of 1870. She had lobbied constantly for a pension and wrote numerous letters to Congress. Mrs. Lincoln had even urged Simon Cameron and other patrons to petition on her behalf for pension. She continued to persist, saying that she deserved a pension just as much as soldier’s widows, thinking of her husband as a fallen commander.

Her son, Thomas “Tad” died in July of 1871. Mary was overcome with grief, after losing two of her sons and her husband, and now another son. Robert Lincoln, her only remaining son and a rising lawyer in Chicago, found his mother’s erratic behavior alarming. She became increasingly convinced that Robert was deathly ill while on a trip to Jacksonville, Florida in March of 1875. Mary hurried home to Chicago, but found that her son was healthy. When she visited Robert, she explained that someone had tried to poison her while she was on a train. Mary continued to spend lavishly, buying draperies and elaborate, black dresses. She would walk around Chicago with government bonds worth $56,000 she kept sewn into her petticoats. Mary feared falling into poverty, despite this money and her annual pension of $3,000. Spiritualist photographer took a photograph in 1872 of Mary with her husband’s ghost appearing behind her.

Robert had his mother institutionalized due to her erratic behavior. On May 20, 1875 she was committed to a private asylum located in Batavia, Illinois called Bellevue Insane Asylum after a trial. Mary had become so despondent after the trial that she attempted suicide. She ordered so much laudanum from several pharmacies that could kill her. An alert pharmacist had become frustrated and finally gave her a placebo.

Mary began planning her escape from Bellevue after three months. She smuggled letters to her lawyer, James B. Bradwell, along with his wife, feminist lawyer and Mary’s friend, Myra Bradwell. Myra Bradwell strongly believed that her friend was not insane and they were holding her against her will.  Mary wrote to the editor of the Chicago Times and soon enough, the public embarrassments Robert had tried so hard to avoid were looming above him. Because there was a chance of damaging his publicity, the director of Bellevue declared Mary well enough to leave and return to Springfield to live with her sister Elizabeth. And in 1876, she was also declared competent enough to manage her own affairs. This led to estrangement between her and her son, Robert, who she would not see again until shortly before her death.

The next four years were spent traveling through Europe. Mary eventually took up residence in Pau, France as her health declined. Her eyesight was reduced from suffering severe cataracts. In 1879, Mary also suffered spinal cord injuries after falling from a stepladder. After a few years spent in Europe, she returned to New York in 1881 where she began lobbying for an even higher pension. Along with a monetary gift, Mary was finally granted the increased pension and she returned to Springfield.

When Mary returned to Springfield, she lived with her sister Elizabeth. On July 16, 1882, she was at her sister’s home when she collapsed and fell into a coma. That same day, sixty-three year old Mary Todd Lincoln died. Later on, she was interred beside her husband in Lincoln Tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield.