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by William H. Benson

February 12, 2004

     Their friends and family often wondered what they saw in each other.  He was tall, 6’ 4”, gangly, ugly, poor, even-tempered, messy, poorly dressed, and given over to melancholy moods.  She was short, plump, neat, clean, well-dressed, anxious, jealous, insecure, sensitive, wild-tempered, blinded by severe headaches that drove her to bed for days, and possessed no sense of humor—her husband’s best trait. 

     Depending upon her mood, she would pinch pennies for months and then abruptly go on a shopping binge that would run up enormous debts.  And whereas he was utterly opposed to what he considered an immoral institution–slavery, she sympathized with the South, having grown up in Kentucky, surrounded by slaves, and had enjoyed their help.

     Despite their differences, Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd married.

     What they shared in common was ambition, particularly political ambition, and she told her friends, “Mr. Lincoln is to be president of the United States some day.  If I had not thought so, I would not have married him, for you can see he is not pretty.”

     In their home in Springfield Lincoln kept a low profile.  “There are no fewer than six eyewitness descriptions of her furies, one relating to how she drove him out of the house with a broomstick.”  A Valentine she was not, but then neither was he.  Lincoln chose to be gone and out of the house every year for three months in the fall and then again three months in the spring, riding the legal circuit to earn money for the family and leaving Mary with the care of their boys.

     About her husband Mary said, “He is of no account when he is at home.  He never does anything except to warm himself and read.  He never went to market in his life.  I have to look after all that.  He just does nothing.  He is the most useless, good-for-nothing man on earth.”

     Repeatedly her heart broke under a series of losses that each reduced her into something unrecognizable.  In 1850 her second son Eddie died when he was only four-years old. In 1862 just a year after the Lincoln family had moved into the White House, their son Willie, then eleven-years old, died.  Nothing would console Mary who took to her bed for months.

     One day Lincoln pointed through the window to the asylum for the insane and told her, “Do you see that large white building on the hill yonder:  Try and control your grief, or it will drive you mad, and we may have to send you there.”

     Three of her brothers served in the Confederate army, and all three died during the Civil War, a war her husband commanded for the Union side.  And she was sitting beside her husband at Ford’s theatre watching the play Our American Cousin when the actor John Wilkes Booth put a bullet in her husband’s head.  And in June of 1871 when her youngest son, Tad, her favorite, died at the age of eighteen, she would not be comforted.

     Mentally unbalanced and emotionally deteriorated, her surviving and eldest son Robert took her to court and had her judged insane, a case said to be “one of the saddest spectacles ever witnessed in a courtroom in this city.”  She was held in confinement for four months, and upon her release she wrote a scathing letter to Robert, demanding the return of her valuables, clothes, silver, and paintings and severing all relations with her son.  On June 15, 1876 a court in a surprise reversal pronounced her sane.

     She died on July 16, 1882 at the age of sixty-four, a most miserable and unhappy woman.  A friend said, “I think she was never entirely sane after the shock of her husband’s murder; but on most subjects she was entirely clear.”  


     Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, the same day as Charles Darwin, the English scientist.  It was agreed by family and friends that Mary Todd was not strongest of women as she tried valiantly to adapt to life’s cruelest demands—the death of brothers, children, and husband and the betrayal of her son.  Survival of the fittest, adaptation, and natural selection may be a scientific theory molded together to explain facts, but it does little to explain the human psyche—its needs, fears, and temperaments, especially in one so sensitive and so fragile as Mary Todd Lincoln.