In honor of Lincoln’s birthday this week, today’s historical personage is Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln. Most people think of her as just a short fat crazy little lady. But was Mary truly mentally ill, or was she merely an eccentric ahead of her time?
It is impossible to deny that Mary had her problems from childhood on. Born on 12/13/1818 to Robert and Elizabeth Todd of Lexington, KY, she was raised in a wealthy household. After her mother’s death, Mary’s father remarried when Mary was 8. Almost from the onset, Mary had a difficult relationship with her stepmother Betsy. She was sent away to be educated at a girls’ finishing school where the curriculum focused on music, dance, and French. At around age 20, Mary moved from Lexington to live with her sister and brother-in-law in Springfield, IL and never returned to live at her family home again. Mary was a popular young lady when she first arrived in Springfield and was courted by both Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Mary stated publicly that she wanted to marry a man who would become president. She accepted Lincoln’s proposal, but Abraham had reservations about marrying Mary and called off their wedding once in January 1841. In the fall of 1842, they began courting again and were married the next day at Mary’s sister’s home in a private cemetery after a one-day engagement.
All four of Lincoln’s sons were born in Springfield (Robert, Edward, William, Thomas). Lincoln’s work required him to travel as much as six months out of every year, which Mary viewed as abandonment. By all appearances, theirs was a troubled marriage. Both suffered from depression and exhaustion. In addition, they were opposites in personality, temperament, and communication style. Lincoln’s law partner Herron hated Mary, which caused additional stress for Abraham.
When Abraham was elected president and they moved to Washington, he and Mary were considered to be rough Westerners and her manners in particular were criticized. She had difficulty adapting to her social responsibilities, and the protocol expected at the White House overwhelmed her. While Lincoln was president, the press treated Mary harshly since Mary’s family was from a slave state, accusing her of being a Confederate spy and meddling in her husband’s affairs of state. Even her bold fashion choices were publicly criticized
After Lincoln was assassinated, Mary insisted that he be buried in Springfield. Mary returned to Illinois to live. Her surviving son Robert was a lawyer living in Chicago and became alarmed at her increasingly erratic behavior. Mary traveled to Chicago to visit him and began spending huge sums of money on clothing and items she would never use. She was institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital in Batavia IL in 1875 after being publicly tried for insanity. She was so enraged over this that she planned to commit suicide by taking an overdose of laudanum before she could be taken to the hospital, but the chemist realized her plan and refused to sell her the drug. She was released after 3 months into her sister Elizabeth’s care, and in 1876, was once again deemed competent to manage her own affairs. She never reconciled with her son Robert. Despite failing eyesight due to cataracts, Mary spent the next four years in Europe, particularly in France. She returned to Springfield in 1880 and died there in 1882 at age 63.
So was Mary really crazy or just odd? Some of Mary’s troubles were unquestionably physical. She suffered from migraine headaches and protracted depression all her life. She also experienced a head injury from a carriage accident while living in the White House. Later in life, as her eyesight dimmed, she was subject to frequent falls.
But Mary undoubtedly suffered many psychic blows as well. She was sitting next to Lincoln when he was shot at Ford’s Theater on 4/14/1865, which would have traumatized a far more stable person than Mary was. Two of her sons died as children, and her third son Tad died as a young man, which caused Mary much grief. A contemporary said that following Tad’s death, grief became Mary’s chief occupation. She had a number of irrational fears, including dogs, lightning storms, and burglars. She was prone to public outbursts, religious fervor, disturbing mood swings, and excessive spending, which causes some researchers think she suffered from bi-polar disorder while others think it may have been narcissistic personality disorder.
Finally, some of Mary’s mental stress may have been caused by financial difficulties. Mary had an extreme fear of poverty. She spent the last 17 years of her life living in boardinghouses. While her government pension would have been sufficient for a more frugal widow, Mary was known for her extravagant purchases of multiple items – a dozen pairs of gloves, ten sets of curtains. The country was scandalized when she held a public sale of her used clothing in New York in 1867.
All of these factors add up to a troubled, very unlucky lady who contributed to her own problems through a series of poor choices and circumstances. While Mary undoubtedly suffered mental distress, exercising better judgment might have helped her find a mate more suited to her temperament, and a situation that would have placed less stress on her somewhat fragile reserves than the public life of First Lady. Her own family looked upon her as “Crazy Aunt Mary,” yet another victim of the strain of insanity that ran through the Todds.
Tomorrow: Conspiracy Thursday