Mary Todd Lincoln (December 13, 1818 – July 16, 1882): Wife to the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, Mary was instrumental in his political rise. As First Lady, she attempted to increase the social stature and influence of the presidency.
Background: Born to the wealthy, slave-owning Todd family in Lexington, Kentucky, Mary Lincoln benefitted from a refined education. Her father was a close friend of Senator Henry Clay and she enjoyed the political discussions that often occurred in the household. After moving to Illinois, she married Abraham in 1842. Her fierce demeanor, intelligence, and Todd family connections helped strengthen her husband’s early political career.
Devoted parents, Mary was often tasked with raising their four sons (Robert, Edward, William, and Thomas) alone as Abraham traveled the Illinois court circuit. Tragedy often befell the Lincolns, as it did most Americans, through childhood disease. Edward died of tuberculosis at age three in 1850, William of typhoid fever at age 11 in 1862, and Thomas likely of pneumonia at age 18 in 1871.
First Lady: Signifying Mary’s importance, when Abraham Lincoln successfully won the 1860 election, he exclaimed to his wife: “Mary, Mary, we have been elected president!” As First Lady, Mary was determined to renovate the White House and establish a grandeur she felt befitting the presidency. Unfortunately, her attempts to hide excessive spending caused scandal and embarrassment for the Lincoln family. The Northern public also criticized the First Lady for her Southern roots and for several of her brothers and half-brothers fighting for the Confederacy.
Despite these public embarrassments, Mrs. Lincoln staunchly supported the Union war effort by routinely visiting hospitals for wounded soldiers and contributing money to charities supporting freed slaves. The end of the Civil War in April 1865 did not spell the end of Mary’s misfortune, however. Her husband was assassinated by her side days after the war finished. Despite a yearly pension granted by Congress in 1870, Mary lived in constant fear of debt for the rest of her life. Her lone-surviving son, Robert, had Mary briefly committed to a mental institution in 1875 due to her often erratic behavior. The two remained estranged for years afterwards.
How she died: Suffering from migraines, cataracts, several painful falls, and a stroke, Mary’s health deteriorated through the 1870s. She finally succumbed to the various ailments on July 16, 1882. She was buried alongside her husband and three of their sons in Springfield, Illinois.
Sources: Mrs. Lincoln: A Life by Catherine Clinton, National First Ladies’ Library, Wikipedia
Which first lady was declared insane?
Ten years after her husband’s assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln’s only remaining child had her declared insane and admitted to a sanitarium for a time. During the Civil War, most of her family sided with the Confederacy, leading some Northerners to accuse her of treason; Southerners condemned her for not being loyal to the South.
Who is considered one of the most controversial women in American history?
Mary Todd Lincoln ranks among the most controversial women in American history. High-strung and mercurial, at times she exercised poor judgment and often gave offense to those around her, but she is also remembered as well educated, intelligent, unusually assertive for a woman of her time, a helpmate to Lincoln’s political career, and a loving mother.