MARY TODD LINCOLN

1818–1882

When Mary Todd became engaged to Abraham Lincoln, they seemed mismatched. She was properly and "carefully" educated and a member of an influential and prosperous Kentucky and Illinois family. Lincoln, in contrast, was a rough-hewn, self-educated, clumsy, gangly, poor, 31-year-old bachelor.

When Mary was 21, during a visit with her sister in Springfield, Illinois, she met many eligible men involved in the political scene, including Lincoln's arch-rival, Stephen Douglas. But "Honest Abe" was her choice and despite her parents' opposition, they were married in 1842. Not only did Stephen Douglas lose Mary; he lost his crucial final debates with Lincoln. Just as charismatic John F. Kennedy's compelling debates with Richard M. Nixon propelled Kennedy into the national spotlight (and a close election win) one hundred years later, Lincoln's victory over Douglas had a similar result.

Mary was thrilled at the prospect of living in the White House, but she was nervous, too. Although regarded as sophisticated and witty in Springfield, she was afraid the Washington "nobility" would look upon her as a country girl and criticize her husband. A few days before the Inauguration, a Washington journalist commented: "The ladies are dying to see how Mrs. Lincoln fills the place of Miss Lane (Buchanan's popular niece/hostess); how Madame is dressed, how she looks, how she will do."

For the Inauguration Ball, Madame did her best - which sometimes was too much. Mary was not a beauty; portraits show her well dressed but overwhelmed by her clothes, like a doll dressed up for an occasion…too many frills, too many flowers, too many ruffles, as if the clothes were replacing her own personality.

Lincoln's first Inauguration and ball on March 8, 1861, was called a "Monster Levée," a "Monster Gathering." The ball, originally limited to two hours, continued for two more, and was described by a terribly enthusiastic writer as "A jam, it was a rush, it was a cram, it was a crush, it was an omnium gatherum of all sorts of people, an 'irrepressible conflict', a suffocating pressure, an overwhelming manifestation of private interest and public curiosity in the new dynasty without precedent for comparison in the history of this government."

During her first year in the White House, Mary utilized the redecorating allowance for First Ladies, and added handmade rugs, velvet wallpaper and draperies, lace curtains, silk and brocade upholstery, new china and luxurious accessories. However she overspent her budget by $7,000, and appealed for more money. The President was outraged and railed about where a $2,500 rug could be placed in the White House.

Washington busy-birds clucked about Mary's social gaffes and her "poor catch" of a husband. Perhaps this pressure led to her excesses in clothes and entertaining; she told her black dressmaker and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley, "I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity." Like a modern-day shopaholic, Mary couldn't resist buying "things," even though wearing her purchases might require two lifetimes. In four months alone she purchased three hundred pairs of gloves; she spent another $500 on one lace shawl, and $5,000 for three evening gowns.

Mary's patriotic leanings were also attacked. One brother, three half-brothers, and three brothers-in-law served in the confederate army - people wondered whether her sympathies were with the North…or the South. Some even suspected she was a confederate spy!

All the criticism and all the rumors exacerbated Mary's emotional and physical problems. She suffered from devastating headaches which sometimes forced her to stay in bed for days at a time, and she also had a dreadful temper. The First Lady seemed to swing in manic extremes from gracious, charming hostess to angry, depressed virago…and the mood swings became more frequent, and less easily hidden. One White House aide records, "The Hell-cat is getting more Hell-cattical day by day." Other officials regarded her as eccentric and observed, "Mrs. Lincoln is - Mrs. Lincoln…She is not easy to get along with."

Mary tried to give the President advice, which infuriated his advisors, and she made other grievous political mistakes, as well: she accepted costly gifts (assuming they were her due, not realizing such acceptance compromised her husband), until he finally shut down this practice.

During the war, the Lincolns continued to give receptions at the White House. One that was particularly criticized was a party in 1862 which was supposed to be limited to 500, but was attended by a thousand guests. Mary was castigated for her extravagance and the bad taste to give such a gala in wartime, but also, two sons were ill upstairs, and she was denigrated as non-motherly and non-loving.

When the guests left, the Lincolns learned that Willie's cold was really typhoid fever, and the couple took turns nursing him, until, on February 20, eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln died. The President put up a gallant front, but Mary Lincoln was devastated and could not attend the funeral in the East Room. She fell into a state of depression from which she never quite emerged. Lincoln was so desperate to bring her out of her black hole that one day he took Mary to the window, pointed to a nearby asylum, and said, "Mother, do you see that large white building on the hill yonder? Try and control your grief, or it will drive you mad, and we will have to send you there."

During the 1985 campaign Mary spent $27,000 on new clothes and told Elizabeth Keckley that if her husband were defeated, "I do not know what would become of us all." At the Inaugural Ball she wore a $2,000 white silk and lace gown with an elaborate headdress and fan. Despite her gala attire, the mood was not festive. The President told Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, prophetically, "I shall never live to see peace; this war is killing me." Reportedly, Mary also had a sense of dread, and had purchased over $1,000 worth of mourning apparel.

On April 14, a month after the Inauguration, the Lincolns went to Ford's Theatre where Miss Laura Keene was starring in "Our American Cousin." John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor and Confederate sympathizer, who had long planned the assassination, shot at the President, who was sitting in a rocking chair in his box. Mary Lincoln's screams alerted the audience to the real-life drama taking place.

The President was carried to a house across the street, where he would die. At the White House, while the devastated Mary remained upstairs, cared for by Elizabeth Keckley, downstairs, the arrangements for Abraham Lincoln's funeral were underway. They included a catafalque on which Lincoln's body would rest in state, guarded by soldiers; chandeliers and windows in the East Room were draped in black and all mirrors were masked with white. (These same funeral plans were repeated a century later when President John F. Kennedy was also assassinated.) Mary Lincoln did not leave her bed for the funeral services and for five weeks afterward. These weren't five calm weeks: she shrieked, she moaned, she wept, and neither Tad nor Elizabeth could comfort her.

In the public rooms of the White House there was chaos, as thousands of tourists, roaming the Mansion in search of souvenirs, stomped on Mary's exquisite rugs, and using scissors and knives, collected strips of wallpaper, bits of lace curtains, whatever they could put their hands on.

While the White House was fast becoming a shambles, the private financial affairs of the Lincolns were in a similar state. Lincoln left an estate of about $100,000, which in 1865 should have meant a comfortable existence for his widow. But she had run up all those bills on credit, and immediately after Lincoln's death, the creditors pounced, and the public was not sympathetic to Mary's plight.

Psychological hindsight seems to indicate that Mary suffered from bi-polar disorder or another form of mental illness which today could have been treated with medication and/or therapy. However, there were no "shrinks" practicing then, and people and families, even Presidents, coped as well as they could. Ten years after Lincoln's assassination, Mary was committed to an asylum, upon the decision of her son Robert and physicians who judged her "insane." She never forgave Robert and refused to live with him after her release. Mary Todd Lincoln died in 1882, a victim of paralysis, and was buried next to Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois.

For much more about Mary Todd Lincoln as well as every first lady from Martha Washington to Laura Bush, read THE PRESIDENTS' FIRST LADIES.