Mary Todd was born on December 13, 1818, in Lexington, Kentucky. She was the fourth of seven children born to Robert Smith Todd and Eliza Ann Parker Todd. Her mother Eliza died when Mary was six years old. Her father, a wealthy businessman and slave owner, remarried Elizabeth Humphreys in 1826. The following year, Mary began attending Ward’s Academy and at age fourteen she entered Madame Mentelle’s French School for Girls, a boarding school near her family home in Lexington.1
In 1839, she moved to Springfield, Illinois, to live with her sister Elizabeth Edwards. There Mary met Illinois House Representative Abraham Lincoln and the couple married on November 4, 1842. She gave birth to four sons: Robert Todd, Edward Baker, William (Willie) Wallace, and Thomas (Tad). When her husband was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1846, the Lincolns moved to Washington, D.C. where Mary supported her husband’s political career and raised her family, making frequent trips to Lexington and Springfield. In 1849, after Abraham Lincoln finished his term in Congress, the family returned to Springfield where he practiced law. During this time, Mary experienced loss and grief caused by the passings of her father and three-year-old son Edward. As her husband emerged as a national political figure, she continued to support his career, hosting visitors and political allies at their home.2
When Abraham Lincoln became president on the eve of the Civil War in March 1861, Mrs. Lincoln moved into the White House with her sons, Willie and Tad. In charge of a wartime White House, the first lady kept up with the shifting demands on her time, serving as a hostess while coping with reduced privacy and increased public scrutiny. Due to wear and tear from frequent use, Mrs. Lincoln began redecorating the White House, recarpeting the State Rooms, and purchasing ornate furniture, including the famous Lincoln bed. She received negative press attention for her efforts, as the media accused her of lavish spending during a costly war. Despite these criticisms, Mrs. Lincoln supported various efforts associated with the war, including local contraband camps, places where formerly enslaved refugees lived after they fled the South. In 1862, she invested $200 into the Contraband Relief Association, an organization associated with her friend and dressmaker Elizabeth Keckly, and oral histories note that Mrs. Lincoln contributed money and sent gifts to individuals at the camps.3
Tragedy struck repeatedly during her tenure as first lady. On February 20, 1862, Willie died of typhoid fever. The White House was draped in black crape, and Willie’s funeral took place in the East Room, though his mother was unable to attend. Mrs. Lincoln struggled with her sorrow; Keckly wrote: “Mrs. Lincoln’s grief was inconsolable. The pale face of her dead boy threw her into convulsions.” Seeking comfort, she turned to spiritualism, even hosting seances in the Red Room.4
Three years later, on April 14, 1865, Mary witnessed her husband’s assassination while attending a play at Ford’s Theatre. She did not attend his funeral. President Andrew Johnson allowed Mrs. Lincoln to stay at the White House, and she remained there for nearly six weeks after the assassination, before departing on May 22, 1865.5 In a letter to Senator Charles Sumner shortly before her departure, she wrote: “I go hence, broken hearted, with every hope almost in life—crushed.”6
Mary Lincoln settled in Chicago where she found herself in a difficult financial situation, struggling to pay debts and fighting for a widow’s pension. In 1867, she went to New York with Keckly where she attempted to sell her dresses, resulting in public ridicule and scrutiny.7 Her troubles were further compounded after her youngest son Tad died in 1871 at the age of eighteen. In 1875, as she struggled with grief and likely depression, her only surviving son, Robert, instigated a jury trial to determine Mary Lincoln’s sanity. The trial, featuring numerous witnesses, resulted in her admittance to an asylum against her will. She remained at the facility for several months before managing to secure her freedom through her friends and lawyers. She was eventually released into the custody of her sister, Elizabeth Edwards.8 After resisting her son’s repeated efforts to have her institutionalized, Mary Lincoln traveled to Europe and settled in France. Her declining health forced her to return to the United States, and on July 16, 1882, she died from a stroke at her sister’s home in Springfield.9
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