Mary Lincoln (1818-82) was a sad and complicated figure — an intelligent, ambitious and attractive young woman whose later life was bedeviled by tragedy and physical and emotional breakdown. Her life and her impact on her husband’s career and presidential decision-making have been extensively debated by historians, and their analyses are impossible to summarize in a brief encyclopedia item.
Mary Todd married Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 4, 1842 at the home of her sister, Elizabeth Edwards, in Springfield. There remains an air of mystery about what attracted the sophisticated Mary to the relatively uncouth Abraham Lincoln. However, a comment by Mary, quoted on the website of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, is an interesting footnote:
“I would rather marry a poor man — a man of mind — with a a hope and bright prospects ahead for position, fame and power than to marry all the houses (of) gold.”
Here are some sources for further reading:
The Mary Lincoln biography on Firstladies.org is an excellent place to start, offering such basic information as Mary’s height, eye color and education, as well as brief analyses of important aspects of her life. Here is firstladies.org on some of the challenges Mary faced in the White House:
With the difficulty of making medical conclusions about Mrs. Lincoln long after she lived, precise assessment of what mental and physical problems she may have suffered is impossible. She did manifest behavior that suggests severe depression, anxiety and paranoia, migraine headaches, even possibly diabetes. Certainly all of her ills were exacerbated by a series of tragic circumstances during her White House tenure: the trauma of Civil War, including the allegiance of much of her family to the Confederacy and their death or injury in battle; an 1863 accident which threw her from a carriage and knocked her unconscious; the accusations by northerners that she was sympathetic to the Confederacy and the ostracizing of her as a “traitor” by southerners; the sudden death of her son Willie in 1862; and, of course, the worst incident of all, the assassination of her husband as she sat beside him in the Ford’s Theater.
The discussion of Mrs. Lincoln on whitehouse.gov is breezier and briefer, but still worth a look.
Useful books include:
- Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, Catherine Clinton, Harper, 2009
- The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, Daniel Mark Epstein, Ballantine, 2008
- The Mary Lincoln Enigma: Historians on America’s Most Controversial First Lady, Frank Williams and Michael Burkhimer (eds.), Southern Illinois University Press, 2012
- Mary Lincoln’s Insanity Case: A Documentary History, Jason Emerson, University of Illinois Press, 2012
- The Madness of Mary Lincoln, Jason Emerson, Southern Illinois University Press, 2007
- Mary Lincoln: Southern Girl, Northern Woman, Stacy Pratt McDermott, Routledge Historical Americans, 2015
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