Mary Todd Lincoln is best known as the wife of one of America’s most revered historical figures. But the Lexington-born eventual first lady was a smart and shrewd figure in her own right, according to historians who have studied her life.
“Mary Todd was an incredibly well educated woman, particularly for her era,” says Gwen Thompson, Executive Director of the Mary Todd Lincoln House. “Her father was liberally minded in regard to female education. Records suggest that all of his daughters received really impressive formal education.”
Mary Todd traveled from Lexington to what was then the frontier of Springfield, Illinois, where her sister, Elizabeth, lived.
“Abraham Lincoln was already an attorney and he was involved in Illinois politics,” says Thompson. “So he was running in the same social circles as she was and that is how they came to meet.”
“Mary Todd is remembered as someone who is vivacious,” says Jonathan Coleman, Ph.D., curator for the Mary Todd Lincoln House. “She was a wonderful conversationalist. She could be quite quick and witty and sometimes a little harsh with her tone.
“When Mary makes it to Springfield, she’s considered to be quite the catch,” says Coleman. “She can make attention for herself at Springfield’s parties. She’s remembered by one young man as someone who can make a bishop forget his prayers. So she has a number of courtiers. Very famously, there was an interest by Stephen Douglas, who became Lincoln’s political rival later in life.”
Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln’s courtship spanned multiple years before they were married in 1842. She fully supported his bid for the presidency and embraced the domestic and hosting duties of a First Lady. However, the Civil War divided Mary Todd’s family as it did the nation. Eight of her 14 siblings openly supported the Confederacy; four of her brothers died fighting for the South.
“That led to accusations that perhaps Mrs. Lincoln was not entirely loyal to the Union,” says Thompson. “And those accusations were unfounded. But you can see how that situation would certainly be great fodder for Abraham Lincoln’s political rivals.”
Mary Todd’s life after Abe was fraught with difficulties. She was with him at Ford’s Theatre when he was shot, but had been removed from his bedside when he passed. Some accounts say she was taken away for her own well-being, but others suggest she was removed because her distress was irritating the men in the room.
“Mary’s life is one absolutely wrecked by tragedy,” says Coleman. “One of her earliest memories must have been the death of her mother when she’s just a six-year-old girl. And after her marriage to Lincoln in 1849, she’ll lose her father very quickly within a few days to the cholera epidemic. Then she’ll lose her first child, Eddie. And then she’ll lose her son Willy, and then she goes on to lose her son Tad. It’s a life of woe.”
Mary Todd’s only surviving child, Robert, had her institutionalized due to what he saw as signs of instability.
“She was institutionalized for about three months in a private sanitarium,” says Thompson. “It’s only in recent years that it came to be known how involved she was in getting released. Letters were discovered showing that she was sort of being her own advocate.”
Fortunately, Mary Todd was eventually released from the institution. She returned to Springfield and lived with her sister Elizabeth for the remainder of her life.
This segment is part of Kentucky Life season 25, episode 14, which originally aired on February 15, 2020. Watch the full episode.