Mary Todd Lincoln was the fourth child of Robert and Eliza Parker Todd born on December 13, 1818 in Lexington, Kentucky. She would become First Lady as the wife of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
The Todds were a wealthy, political family which reportedly rejected the idea of slavery, yet owned one slave for every member of the family. Her own anti-slavery ideology would grow to match those of her father who supported the Kentucky Colonization Society in its efforts to send the freed slave to Liberia.
She began her formal education at the Shelby Female Academy, also known as “Wards.” There she studied reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic, history, geography, natural science, French, and religion. She participated in French plays, parlor dances, marched in local parades, and took up acting.
Graduating in 1832, she sought to continue her education at Madame Mentelle’s for Young Ladies.
In 1839, she moved to Springfield, Illinois to live with her sister Elizabeth Edwards. There she met Abraham Lincoln–in his own words, “a poor nobody then.” He’d come to Springfield for his appointment to the 9th Illinois Assembly.
Their relationship, based on mutual interest in politics, turned from friendship to courtship, but in 1841, Mary and Lincoln went their separate ways after an argument. Lincoln was to escort Mary to a party and was late in arriving, so she left without him. He finally showed up only to find her flirting with Illinois legislator, Edwin Webb. At the end of the evening, a fuming Lincoln ended their relationship.
They reconciled and married on November 4, 1842. Seemingly, the only planned part of the festivities was the plain gold wedding band that was placed on Mary's finger with the inscription "Love Is Eternal."
Mary’s father made the journey to Springfield to meet his daughter’s new husband and to see his new grandson, as well as his other grandchildren he had yet to meet. He showered Mary with attention and gifts which included a $25 gold piece and deeded 80 acres of Illinois land to the newlyweds, plus promised a yearly sum of $1,100.
When her husband was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1846, the Lincolns moved to Washington, D.C.
When Lincoln learned that he had won the presidential election of 1860, he reportedly ran home yelling "Mary, Mary, we are elected."
She gave the White House a desperately needed makeover using a $20,000 stipend awarded to each president since William Harrison, but none had chosen to take advantage of. Mary Lincoln went on a two-week shopping trip, spending the entire $20,000 that was supposed to last four years.
Despite being careless with her spending, she reportedly managed to save $70,000 of his $100,000 salary during his presidency. In 1856, after Lincoln was defeated in the Senate, Mary sold off the 80 acres given to her by her father for $1,300.
After the Battle of First Bull Run, the first full-scale battle of the Civil War, Mary became a regular at the newly-established hospitals around DC where she provided food and comfort to the wounded. She supported various efforts associated with the war, including local contraband camps, places where formerly enslaved refugees lived after they fled the South.
Rarely was a kind word printed about her by the press. "Being under scrutiny as a fashion symbol, the first lady’s popularity was as precarious as a roller-coaster ride – sometimes up and often down. [...] The rumored costs of her attire became the subject of Washington gossip and prompted bitter critiques by journalists, especially as Union soldiers fell by the thousands, maimed and wounded, dying in camp and on the battlefield."
While the Civil War dragged on, Southerners scorned her as a traitor to her birth, and citizens loyal to the Union suspected her of treason. When she entertained, critics accused her of unpatriotic extravagance. When, utterly distraught, she curtailed her entertaining after her son Willie’s death in 1862, they accused her of shirking her social duties.
When their eleven-year-old son Willie died from typhoid fever, Mary was grief-stricken. He was the second of three Lincoln children who would die before adulthood.
The final blow was on Good Friday, April 14, 1865. Mary and Lincoln took a carriage ride to attend a showing of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre along with Senator Harris's daughter Clara and her fiancé Major Henry Rathbone.
At around an hour and a half into the performance, Mary intimately slipped her hand into her husband's and leaned over to ask of him what the others in their group would think of her bold display of affection. Before she could absorb his response, a man entered the box and pointed a revolver at the back of the president's head, and pulled the trigger. Lincoln slumped over. Mary's screams echoed throughout the theatre. She uttered in disbelief, "Oh my God, have I given my husband to die?"
Lincoln was quickly removed from the theatre and taken to a private home across the street. A hysterical Mary and her companion Clara followed closely behind, their gowns spattered with Major Rathbone's blood. Lincoln's unresponsive body was laid on a bed in a second-floor bedroom and Mary clung to him begging for a response. The men in attendance were unable to tolerate Mary's hysteria. At a time when she should have been consoled and allowed to remain at her husband's side, she was forcibly removed from the room and taken to a downstairs parlor. For the next nine hours, she anxiously awaited his death.
She did not attend his funeral. For the next 40 days she became bedridden and refused callers who came to offer their sympathy, which in turn created talk of her impropriety in dealing with Lincoln's death.
Mary Lincoln decided to move to Chicago on the same day that the Union chose to celebrate their victory in war. Mary, Robert, and Tad boarded a train for Chicago.
She found herself in a difficult financial situation, struggling to pay debts and fighting for a widow’s pension. In 1867, she went to New York where she attempted to sell her clothes purchased while first lady, resulting in public ridicule and scrutiny.
She sold her gowns and returned jewelry and other items to the place of purchase. She refinanced the remaining debt with a wealthy financier and was able to pay off the vast amount of her debts.
In 1875, Robert Todd Lincoln, the only one of her four sons to survive to adulthood, had his mother briefly committed to a mental asylum, an experience she endured for several months.
Mary survived her husband by seventeen years. During these years, she traveled internationally, fought for a widow’s pension, explored the practice of spiritualism, and continued to raise her youngest son Tad who died shortly after his eighteenth birthday in 1871.
On July 15, 1882, on the anniversary of Tad's death, she collapsed in her bedroom and that evening fell into a coma. She died from a stroke on July 16, 1882 in the home of her sister Elizabeth, in which she married Lincoln almost forty years before.
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