Mary Todd Lincoln: a woman Grieving or a Woman of Insanity Kelly Norton

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Mary Todd Lincoln: A Woman Grieving or a Woman of Insanity

Kelly Norton

ECI 435

Dr. Lee/Crystal Simmons

October 4, 2011

Mary Todd Lincoln was born in 1818 in Lexington, Kentucky. Her family was rather well-off, being plantation owners as well as slave owners. Her childhood was difficult and Mary Todd found herself to be the black sheep of the family because her views on human rights were far beyond her time and certainly beyond what was accepted in Kentucky. Agewise, Mary Todd was in the middle of 16 children, seven full and 9 half, brothers and sisters. At seven years old Mary Todd lost her mother in 1825. As Mary Todd aged, she moved away from the family plantation to live with her sister where she met and, after a difficult courtship, married Abraham Lincoln. In the beginning her marriage was difficult as her family was disapproving of Lincoln. Things never got easier for Mary Todd Lincoln as she would be continuously criticized by the media throughout and following President Lincoln’s presidency. Was Mary Todd Lincoln’s mental illness attributable to her tumultuous childhood, or was it because of the harshness of the media? This inquiry will be answered through analysis of letters written by Mary Todd and newspaper articles written during the Civil War and post Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

Mary Todd’s beliefs are well beyond her time; and if women had more say and influence on the world, she would be considered a revolutionary. In 1818 when she was born, Kentucky, as well as other southern states, was still very involved in slavery. Eventually, Mary Todd builds a friendship her seamstress, a freed slave named Elizabeth Keckley. Turner and Turner note that is one of many inappropriate and questionable relationships, “[s]he developed the habit of confiding in servants, entrusting them with her secrets, sending them on confidential errands, exacting personal favors which put her under obligation to people whose loyalty could not always be tested.”1 At such a young age, Mary Todd is never able to guess the full impact of this relationship on her relationship with her family. Her brothers and brothers-in-law are fighting and dying in the Civil War for the confederacy. Her relationships with many of her family are destroyed before the Civil War began and she does not mourn the loss of most of them. Later in life she struggles with money, she reestablishes a relationship with her sisters Elizabeth and Frances, the latter of who is also struggling with financial difficulties.2

Mary Todd’s relationship with Elizabeth Keckley continues throughout her life and she often confides in Keckley about difficulties in all facets of her life. In March of 1867, Mary Todd writes to Keckley about her financial troubles and told Keckley that she needs to sell part of her wardrobe to improve her living conditions. She makes a request for Keckley to meet her in September in New York to help sell her clothing. That September when Mary Todd arrives in New York without Keckley, she begs for her to come, promising to pay for all of her expenses. Keckley likely finds it difficult to believe that Mary Todd is capable of paying her expenses as the reason for the trip is a lack of funds. 3 After their trip together, Mary Todd writes about her trip home and a conversation she is privy to. Two gentlemen riding in the train car that she was in are talking of Mary Todd’s lifestyle and her selling her clothes for money. One of the men said that “she will convert the proceeds into five-twenties to enable her to have means to be buried.” The other man only replied, “That woman is not dead yet.”4 This conversation is notable as Mary Todd is beginning to witness society and the media openly referring to her illnesses, both physical and mental. When Mary Todd returns home, she writes letters to Keckley almost daily talking about how much she is hated and about the Republicans speaking unkindly of her and her mental state.

On October 24, 1867, Mary Todd writes to Keckley about an incident when she is forced to move from her home. I believe that this letter marks the beginning of Mary Todd’s turn for the worst mentally. As she was moving, she says that a child in the neighborhood is upset that she is leaving and wishes that she could continue living in that house. The child’s father asks why he is so upset over Mary Todd Lincoln and then the parents leave for a while. “[O]n their return they found their young boy had almost blinded himself with gunpowder. Who will say that the cry of the ‘widow and fatherless’ is disregarded in His sight!”5 Mary Todd seems to be proud of this moment. The fact that a child mourning her leaving a neighborhood being the only positive thing that she can find comfort in at the time is concerning and points to, if nothing else, a severe depression. As Mary Todd conveys this story to Keckley, it also becomes clear that she is over reliant on any positive response to her as a person.

In a letter written on October 29, 1867, to Keckley, Mary Todd refers to yet another story from the Tribune in which her loyalty to the North is called into question. The story discusses the fact that three of her half brothers are killed in the Civil War fighting for the South. Mary Todd seems almost to be trying to convince Keckley that she does not support the South and that her loyalties, now and always, remain with the North and the fight for abolishing slavery. She refers to her childhood in this letter and not fondly. She claims that she does not “harp upon these half brothers, whom I never knew since they were infants, and scarcely then, for my early home was truly at a boarding school.”6 After Mary Todd’s mother died, her father remarried. She and her step-mother had a difficult relationship, which influenced her relationship with her father. It seems that this simple remark has an undertone of discontent with her childhood and proves yet again that her family was not a significant part of her adult life.

During the Civil War, Mary Todd is believed to be a traitor and the newspapers often criticize her because of her family. Her physical appearance was constantly in question as the President’s wife, and eventually leads to the financial troubles. In Harper’s Weekly, a newspaper written during the Civil War, on November 8, 1862, questions her loyalties and talks of the way that one of her brothers treats Union soldiers in a prison. “One of these two was for some time employed at Richmond as jailor of Union Prisoners. His brutality and cruelty were such, however, that Jefferson Davis finally removed him from the post, and sent him to join his regiment.” The article continues “…sentiment which has given rise to the gossip and scandal respecting the views of the lady who presides over the White House.”7 Lincoln, being open about anti slavery and being elected president based on this platform, readily defends his bride. It is clear that Mary Todd is not trading information with the South and that her loyalties are always to the North; however, it is not without value to say that she has internal struggles with the Civil War itself as she knows that her family members are dying fighting for something that she believes so strongly against.

As her financial situation deteriorates, newspapers continue to press that she is well off and that she is receiving that which was owed to her. In an article, “Evening Journal,” it is declared that Mary Todd and both of her sons are to each receive $36,765.30 through settling the estate of President Lincoln. Mary Todd writes to David Davis to request that the information be provided to her family in detail. She writes him the next day, November 18, 1867, to tell him “that in no hands save your own, could our interests have been so advantageously placed-please accept my grateful thanks for all your kindness to myself & family.”8 At this point, the letter writing becomes very distorted and difficult to understand. It appears through her letters to Keckley that her financial difficulties continue; however, in a letter to Davis it sounds as though she believes that she has finally received what she felt was fair. The back and forth nature of the letters and the unidentifiable financial reality makes Mary Todd look further mentally disturbed. Her letters are nonsensical and difficult to follow during the month of November in 1867.

In 1875, Robert Lincoln, son of President Lincoln and Mary Todd, has Mary Todd committed for insanity. There are no letters written by Mary Todd while she was in the asylum. Save one letter written in December of 1875 to an ailing friend, Mary Todd did not send any letters between 1874 and 1876. The first published letter after that period is to Robert after her stay in the asylum, saying “they think it advisable to offer up prayers for you in Church, on account of your wickedness against me and High Heaven.”9 The other parts of the letter are Mary Todd’s attempts to close out her relationship with her son. She asks for all of her belongings back from him, including paintings and clothing, and told him of several “prominent, respectable, Chicago people such as you do not associate with,” that have sent her letters of support denouncing that she was crazy and needs to be institutionalized. Mary Todd never testifies in her own sanity trial but it is clear from this letter that she greatly disagrees with Robert and feels that she was being held unjustifiably.

In 1877 most of the letters that are written are about financial transactions between Jacob Bunn and Mary Todd Lincoln. However, in a letter written to Elizabeth Todd Edwards, Mary Todd’s sister, Mary Todd expresses her sorrow of finding out about her niece, Florence’s, death. “The information saddened me greatly & rendered me quite ill. I have drank so deeply of the cup of sorrow, in my desolate bereavements….”10 The poetic nature in which Mary Todd speaks of death and grieving further indicates that Mary Todd loved with all of her heart; and when she suffers a loss, it affects her greatly. Having experienced the loss of so many people that she is close to and whom she loves, it is no wonder that at times the mental stability of Mary Todd Lincoln is questioned. At this point Mary Todd would gladly die as she is ready to take her place next to her husband and children. In 1882, Mary Todd Lincoln finally gives in to her body dying from a diabetic comma.

Based on the research provided, I would say that Mary Todd was not actually suffering from a mental illness at all. I believe that she did go through periods of depression and that she greatly mourned the loss of her son and husband, both of which happened in a short amount of time. The media did not give her time to deal with the issues, but rather, pushed her to needing to constantly defend herself against accusations, both founded and unfounded. As much as Mary Todd was ahead of her times in the way of human rights, she also was more advanced than most in spirituality. People today mourn their losses as they please, some seeking the assistance of a spiritual counselor as Mary Todd did, and telling of a story of seeing her dead son, Willie, standing at the foot rest of her bed. Even those who would question the believability of this story would not label Mary Todd as insane and would not push for an arrest to be locked in an asylum.

Irrational, dramatic, eccentric, and emotional are all labels appropriate for Mary Todd Lincoln. Insane is not a word that characterizes her behavior and shows that representation of a person by the media has always been a driving force in society’s opinions. Even Robert, Mary Todd’s son, believed her to be insane and led the way for her to be committed. If Mary Todd were living today, or perhaps have not been married to a president, she may have been more famous than she actually was. Speaking out against a topic such as slavery carries great social implications, but Mary Todd does so anyway. She befriends people that she deems worthy despite the fact that they more often than not betray her in the end. Being a woman and living as the President’s wife, a very crucial President at that, left Mary Todd with advanced thoughts and opinions, shadowed by the issues surrounding Abraham Lincoln. In fact, Mary Todd brings to life the cliché that “behind every man great man is a great woman,” as she pushed for her husband to stand up for his convictions and push for a major change in society.


Mary Todd Loncoln. November 8, 1862. (accessed September 20, 2011).

Turner, Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt. Mary Todd Lincoln, Her Life and Letters. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1972.

1 Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln Her Life and Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1972), 99. The dangerous nature of these relationships frequently jeopardized national security as well as having significant social implications.

2 In a letter written by Mary Todd Lincoln to Jacob Bunn as published in Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln Her Life and Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1972), 642.

3Letters written by Mary Todd Lincoln to Elizabeth Keckley in reference to a trip to New York as published in Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln Her Life and Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1972), 417-34.

4Recounted story by Mary Todd Lincoln in a letter written to Elizabeth Keckley as published in Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln Her Life and Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1972), 437-40.

5In a letter written to Elizabeth Keckley by Mary Todd Lincoln as published in Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln Her Life and Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1972), 445-46.

6As published in Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln Her Life and Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1972), 447.

7Harper’s Weekly is a newspaper that was published during the Civil War. In its beginnings, the newspaper had a southern alliance, but after Lincoln was elected president, the newspaper quickly gained a support for the Republican party. “Mary Todd Lincoln,” Harper’s Weekly. November 8, 1862/September 20, 2011.

8From a letter written by Mary Todd Lincoln to David Davis, trusted friend and advisor to President Lincoln as published in Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln Her Life and Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1972), 456-58.

9In a letter written by Mary Todd Lincoln to her son Robert as published in Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln Her Life and Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1972), 615-16.

10In a letter written by Mary Todd Lincoln to her sister Elizabeth Todd Lincoln as published in Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln Her Life and Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1972), 626-27.

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