History has not been particularly kind to Mary Todd Lincoln. Self-absorbed, petulant and not a little crazy, she was a shopaholic and frequently engaged in feuds with family members. But she was Abraham Lincoln's harbor in many a storm, and she could be cultured, buoyant and witty, something than historians have seldom dwelt on.
Called "Mother" by Lincoln, she was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1818 to Elizabeth Parker-Todd and Robert Smith Todd, who was a banker. Her mother died when she was seven and she had a problematic relationship with Elizabeth "Betsy" Humphreys-Todd, whom her father married in 1826,. That led her to leave home and attend a private school where she learned to speak French fluently and studied dance, drama, music and the social graces.
It was on a visit to Springfield, Illinois with her sisters in 1840 that she met Lincoln, and they married two years later after a tumultuous courtship that included at least one broken engagement. Four children followed -- Robert Todd in 1843, Edward "Eddie" Baker in 1846, William "Willie" Wallace in 1850 shortly after Edward's death, and Thomas "Tad" in 1853. William was to die in 1862.
Mary and Abraham more or less gave their children free rein and had few rules, and Mary was left to raise their children and run their household because Lincoln was often away from home because of his profession as a circuit lawyer.
When Lincoln became interested in politics and began traveling less, Mary quickly became a close adviser. Although her parents had owned slaves, was a fervent abolitionist.
Not unlike Hillary Rodham Clinton 130 years later, Mary was viewed as an outside by the Washington social establishment. Her southern background and socially awkward husband led to questions about her social graces and when the Civil War began she was caught between northern prejudice because of her southern background and southern prejudice because of her northern sympathies.
William Howard Russell, a correspondent for the London Times, described the first lady in less than glowing terms after observing her at her first state dinner:
"She is of middle age and height, of a plumpness degenerating to the embonpoint natural to her years; her feature are plain, her nose and mouth of an ordinary type, and her manners and appearance homely, stiffened, however, by the consciousness that her position requires her to be something more than plain Mrs. Lincoln. . . . Her dress I shall not attempt to describe, thought it was very gorgeous and highly coloured. She handled a fan with much energy, displaying a round, well-proportioned arm, and was adorned with some simple jewelry. She struck me as being desirous of making herself agreeable, and I own I was agreeably disappointed."
Mary's insecurities soon led her to overindulge in redecorating the White House and her own self, leading the White House staff to nickname her as the "hellcat" because of her outbursts of anger.
Her frequent shopping trips to New York and expensive redecorating in 1861 when the Union could barely arm, clothe and feed its army provoked criticism inside and out of Washington, and in one four-month period she bought 400 pairs of gloves. The president attempted to obtain her clothes as gifts, but was surprised when the bills began piling up, a situation further complicated when she actually did receive gifts in the hopes that she would press her husband to provide the giver a job or do a favor.
Following the death of Willie in 1862, Mary wore only black for nearly two years but managed to go further into debt buying new clothes. She also embarrassed her husband by inviting spiritualists and phony mediums to the White House for séances where she tried to get in touch with her deceased son.
"The President glances at my rich dresses and is happy to believe that the few hundred dollars that I obtain from him supply all my wants," she told Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who became her seamstress and confidante. "I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity . . . If he is [re]elected, I can keep him in ignorance of my affairs, but if he is defeated, then the bills will be sent."
With the end of the Civil War, Mary hoped to renew her happiness, but Lincoln was struck down on April 14, 1865 during a performance at Ford's Theater and died the next day.
Mary was inconsolable as a widow who had lost two sons and she wore black for the rest of her life.
She returned to Illinois and Congress in 1870 granted her a life pension of $3,000 a year, while son Tad died in 1871, deepening her grief. Her behavior became increasingly erratic. At one point she believed Robert, her surviving son, to be at death's door and at another point was found walking around Chicago with $56,000 in government bonds sewn into her petticoats.
Robert, a rising young Chicago lawyer, believed that his mother had become a danger to herself and finally her institutionalized.
She attempted suicide in 1875 and attempted an escape later that year from an upscale sanitarium. She was released into the custody of a sister in Springfield the following year after she was again declared competent to manage her own affairs, but the earlier committal proceedings led to an estrangement between Mary and Robert and they never fully reconciled.
Mary spent the next four years abroad but suffered declining health, including severe cataracts that affected her eyesight. This may have contributed to her increasing susceptibility to falls and in 1879 she suffered spinal cord injuries in a fall from a step ladder.During the early 1880s, Abraham Lincoln's widow lived housebound at her sister's home. She died there on July 16, 1882 and was interred alongside her husband in a Springfield cemetery. Mary Todd Lincoln was 63.