As a girlhood companion remembered her, Mary Todd was vivacious and impulsive, but "she now and then could not restrain a witty, sarcastic speech that cut deeper than she intended . . ." A young lawyer called her "the very creature of excitement." All of these attributes marked her life, bringing her both happiness and tragedy.
She was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on December 13, 1818, the daughter of pioneer settlers. Mary lost her mother before the age of seven. Her father remarried; and Mary remembered her childhood as "desolate" although she belonged to the aristocracy of Lexington, with high-spirited social life and a sound private education. She loved finery, and her crisp intelligence polished the wiles of a Southern coquette.
At age 20, she went to Springfield, Illinois, to live with her sister. Here she met Abraham Lincoln - in his own words, "a poor nobody then." After a stormy courtship and a broken engagement, they were married. Though opposites in background and temperament, they were united by an enduring love. Their years in Springfield brought hard work and a family of boys. Lincoln's single term in Congress, for 1847-1849, gave Mary and the boys a winter in Washington, but scant opportunity for social life. Finally her faith in her husband won justification with his election as president in 1860.
Though her position fulfilled her high social ambitions, Mrs. Lincoln's years in the White House mingled misery with triumph. While the Civil War dragged on, Southerners scorned her as a traitor and citizens loyal to the Union suspected her of treason. Critics saw her spending sprees as unpatriotic extravagance, but when she curtailed entertaining after her son Willie's death in 1862, they accused her of shirking her social duties.
Yet Lincoln, watching her put her guests at ease during a White House reception, could say happily: "My wife is as handsome as when she was a girl, and I ... fell in love with her; and what is more, I have never fallen out."
Her husband's assassination in 1865 shattered Mary Todd Lincoln. The next 17 years held nothing but sorrow. With her son "Tad" she traveled abroad in search of health, tortured by distorted ideas of her financial situation. After Tad died in 1871, she slipped into a world of illusion where poverty and murder pursued her. A misunderstood and tragic figure, she passed away in 1882 at her sister's home in Springfield - the same house from which she had walked as the bride of Abraham Lincoln, 40 years before.