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Mary Todd Lincoln:
Public Perceptions as First Lady
Synopsis of Mary Todd Lincoln's Life
Mary Ann Todd was born on December 13, 1818, in Lexington, Kentucky. She was one of seven children born to Robert S. Todd and his wife, Eliza Parker Todd - prominent family in Lexington. Mary's mother passed away in 1825, and her father remarried the following year (Baker 1986).
She appeared in school plays and learned to speak French fluently. Mary was ambitious, scholarly, and an excellent conversationalist (Baker 1986). In 1839, Mary moved to Springfield, Illinois, to live at the home of her older sister, Elizabeth Edwards. Mary, who stood about 5' 2," was active and popular in Springfield's society - courting Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln won her heart, and the two were married in 1842. Abraham surprised Mary with a wedding ring engraved with the words, 'Love is Eternal' (Anderson 1975).
Over the next eleven years the couple had four children. They were Robert (1843-1926), Edward ('Eddie') 1846-1850, William ('Willie') 1850-1862, and Thomas ('Tad') 1853-1871 (Ross 1973). Sadly, Robert was the only child of the Lincolns to live to adulthood. Throughout her adult life, Mary was known as a very loving and caring mother; she was extremely devoted to her family.
In 1844, the Lincolns bought a home in Springfield at the corner of Eighth and Jackson. Abraham had by then become a successful attorney and politician. In 1846, Lincoln was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Mary and the children lived with him in Washington for part of his term. However, Abraham did not run for office again, and the family was back together again in Springfield in 1849 (Helm 1928).
Abraham concentrated on his law practice until 1854 when his mind again turned to politics. In 1856, Lincoln received support for the Republican Vice-Presidential nomination; in 1858 he engaged in a well-known series of debates with Stephen A. Douglas (Helm 1928). Lincoln received the Republican nomination for President in 1860 and was elected over three other candidates in November. In February 1861, the Lincolns left Springfield headed for Washington, D.C. Abraham was inaugurated as the 16th President on March 4, 1861 (Helm 1928).
As First Lady, Mary spent a good deal of time refurbishing the White House. She also made many trips to hospitals to take food, flowers, etc. To injured soldiers (Anderson 1975). First Lady Lincoln read to the soldiers, wrote them letters, and once raised over a thousand dollars for the Christmas dinner at a military hospital. Tad often accompanied his mother on these visits to see the soldiers (Willie had died in the White House early in 1862; Robert was away at college). Additionally, Mary provided support for the Contraband Relief Association, assisting African-Americans who came to the North during the Civil War (Anderson 1975).
Mary Todd Lincoln was opposed to slavery, and she strongly supported her husband's Pro-Union policies. On the other hand, Mary received criticism for her numerous shopping sprees throughout the war, and also because many of her relatives had chosen to side with the South in the war. In fact, several relatives died fighting for the Confederacy. Mary caused controversy as First Lady; she made both friends and enemies while her husband was President (Baker 1986).
On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Five days later Abraham and Mary attended a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre. It was that night that John Wilkes Booth shot the President as Mary held his hand during the play (Sandburg 1932). It was a tragedy from which Mary never would recover.
In May of 1865, Mary, Robert, and Tad finally left Washington to live in Chicago. In 1867, as a final resort to her plaguing thoughts of becoming 'destitute', Mary tried to raise some money by selling her old clothes through dealers in New York -- quite unsuccessfully (Anderson 1975). Robert became mortified at his mother's increasingly embarrassing behavior, as Mary's eldest son was on his way to becoming a successful attorney.
In 1868, Mary and Tad left the United States and lived in Europe until 1871. There, Tad attended school in Germany. Mary visited several countries during the three-year hiatus. Her arthritis began acting up in Europe, and Mary sought comfort in health spas (Helm 1928).
Tad died in Chicago shortly after the two returned to the United States. Again, Mary mourned a loved one. She continued to travel often, and her behavior and irrational fears became an increasing concern to Robert. He began to fear for his mother's well being, and he instigated an insanity hearing (Neely & McMurtry 1986). Various witnesses testified to Mary's erratic behavior and habits. Unbelievable, Mary was declared insane by a jury of twelve men. The court admitted that the cause of Mary's disease was unknown and if it was temporary or permanent (Neely & McMurtry 1986). Mary spent a little less than four months in a private sanitarium called Bellevue located in Batavia, Illinois.
In September of 1875, Mary went to Springfield to once again live with her sister's family. In 1876, a second jury found her sane (Neely & McMurtry 1986). After declared sane, Mary once again traveled to Europe and spent most of her time in France. Her health being in a state of decline, she once more visited health spas. Mrs. Lincoln most likely was suffering from undiagnosed diabetes in addition to spinal arthritis and other ailments; she had suffered from migraine headaches for a number of years (Helm 1928).
Mary returned to the United States in 1880 and again went to the Edwards' home in Springfield to live (Ross 1973). At this point in her life, Mary Todd Lincoln's sight began to slowly degenerate. Mary stayed all by herself in her shaded room in the Edwards' house, with her son, Robert, visiting her once in 1881 (Sandburg 1932). Her health continued to deteriorate. On July 16, 1882, Mary passed away at the age of sixty-three. The exact cause of death may have been a stroke; however, the attending physician deemed the cause of death to be from paralysis on the death certificate (Anderson 1975).
Mary was buried next to her beloved husband in the Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield. Buried with her was the wedding ring Abraham had given her in 1842. Though quite thin from wear, the words 'Love is Eternal' were still visible (Ross 1973).
Public Perception of Mary Todd Lincoln
"We, the undersigned jurors in the case of Mary Todd Lincoln, having heard the evidence in the case, are satisfied that said Mary Todd Lincoln is insane, and is a fit person to be sent to a state hospital for the insane..."
(Neely & McMurtry 1986)
It's hard to think of another couple in American history in which the husband was so glorified and the wife so vilified. In May of 1875, the former First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, went to trial on the charge of insanity (Neely & McMurtry 1986). Judge Marion R.M. Wallace presided. Mary's son, Robert, testified against her at the trial. The jury found her deranged and recommended that she be placed in an asylum. Mary was committed to Bellevue Place, a private sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois. Mary Todd Lincoln spent approximately four months in the asylum (Neely & McMurtry 1986).
Was the public perception of Mary Todd Lincoln during this time that she was insane? Though at first condemned by her peers -- yet later redeemed -- below is a summation of instances that possibly contributed to Mary's mental instability and eventual institutionalization.
In 1862, Mary's favorite son, Willie, died in the White House (Ross 1973). This led to a tormented period of mourning. According to Elizabeth Keckley, Mary's seamstress, her grief was so overbearing that Mr. Lincoln warned she would have to be sent to an asylum if she couldn't control it (Helm 1928).
On July 2, 1863, Mary was involved in a carriage accident just outside Washington, D.C. She was thrown to the ground and hit her head hard on a rock. Although Mr. Lincoln seemed to minimize the incident, Robert Lincoln felt his mother never totally recovered from it (Anderson 1975).
As First Lady, Mary had displayed some irrationality concerning money (Baker 1986). Because her husband was president, merchants seemed willing to give her an almost limitless credit. This led to extravagance.
Mary was sitting adjacent to her husband when he was assassinated at Ford's Theatre. She was holding Abraham's hand when John Wilkes Booth's bullet struck the back of his head. Her grief was so profound she didn't leave the White House for over five weeks. Finally, on May 22, 1865, dressed in black, she boarded a private railroad car and traveled to Chicago (Sandburg 1932).
Mary was very concerned about the huge plunge in her standard of living after leaving the White House. She found it nearly unbearable (Neely & McMurtry 1986). She was overcome…[continue]
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