Mary Todd Lincoln – a summary

Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln had four children – all but one predeceased Mary. But before meeting Mary Todd, Lincoln was almost engaged to another Mary. Among Lincoln’s papers can be found three letters written to Mary Owens.  Mary was the daughter of Nathanial Owens, a plantation owner from Green County, Kentucky.  She had a sister who lived in New Salem, Illinois, and Mary paid a visit there in 1833.

Mary Owens – ‘in want of teeth’

Abraham LincolnAbraham Lincoln had met Mary during that visit in 1833, and when her sister planned a trip home three years later, she posed a question for Lincoln.  She asked him if he would marry her sister, Mary, if she came home with her.  Lincoln, in jest, said that he would.  He regretted his words when Mary Owens arrived in Springfield as a woman engaged to be married—to Abraham Lincoln.

Not only was Lincoln shocked that he had been taken seriously, the Mary Owens of 1836 was not the same woman he recalled from 1833.  In a letter to a friend, he described her as ‘…over-sized, weather beaten, and in want of teeth.’  However, Lincoln had given his word that he would marry the woman and determined that he would find some good in her.  He decided that she was intelligent and had a handsome face, if not pretty.

Nonetheless, he wrote three letters to her discouraging the marriage.  In the last, dated 7 May 1837, he tells her that he is unhappy living in Springfield, Illinois and discourages her from moving there.  He tells her that he cannot provide the kind of life she was accustomed to and that the hardship such a life would bring would make her unhappy.  He concluded by telling her, ‘If it suits you best not to answer this, farewell – a long life and a merry one to you.’  She didn’t answer – it was the last of their correspondence.

Mary Ann Todd

Mary Todd LincolnLincoln seemed destined to marry above the station into which he had been born.  In 1839, a young woman named Mary Ann Todd moved to Springfield.  Her father was a slaveholder named Robert S. Todd of Lexington, Kentucky.  Mary’s mother, Eliza Parker Todd, had died and Mary did not get along with her new stepmother, Elizabeth Humphries Todd.  Mary had come to live with her sister, Elizabeth Edwards, one of six siblings.  Her father and Elizabeth had nine more children together.

(Picture: Mary Todd Lincoln in about 1846, photograph taken by Mathew Brady).

The term ‘accomplished’ might have been applied to Mary during her time.  She had attended finishing school, studied French, dance, drama, music, and the ‘social graces.’  She was known as an outgoing, intelligent, vivacious young woman.  Out of the young men who vied for her attention, she chose Abraham Lincoln, the law partner of her cousin, David Todd Stuart.  They were an excellent example of opposites attracting.

Lincoln was a dirt poor, self-educated farm boy from the frontier wilderness who worked to pull himself up to a better place in the world.  Mary was an accomplished young woman from a wealthy, prominent Kentucky family.  Lincoln opposed slavery while Mary’s father, and many other family members, were slaveholders.  He was somber and quiet.  She was outgoing.  He was six feet four inches tall, and she five feet two inches tall.

Once they were engaged, their wedding day was set for 1 January 1841.  For some reason, Lincoln chose that day to break off the engagement.

One of Lincoln’s closest friends, Joshua Speed, returned to Kentucky to take over his father’s plantation after he’d passed away.  Speed met a woman, married and appeared happy.  It seemed to reassure Lincoln that married life could be happy and content.  Lincoln and Mary Ann Todd reconciled, and on 4 November 1842, they became married.  Their first child was born seven months later amid speculation that the child’s conception had been the cause of the sudden reconciliation and marriage.

Robert Todd Lincoln

Robert Todd LincolnThe Lincoln’s eldest child, Robert Todd Lincoln, was born 1 August 1843.  Robert graduated from Harvard Law School and was admitted to the bar in 1867.  He served briefly in the American Civil War under General Ulysses S Grant, and moved to Chicago after the war.  He practiced law, and for time was president, and later, chairman of the board for Pullman company, manufacturer of railroad cars.  He was offered political appointments and made secretary of war.  He was appointed minister to England and his name was discussed as a potential president, but he never ran for the office. (Pictured: Robert Todd Lincoln in about 1865).

He was the only one of the Lincoln children to live to adulthood and is the only member of the immediate family not buried with the rest of the family in Lincoln’s tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois.  At his request, Robert was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.

Edward Baker Lincoln

The Lincolns’ second son was Edward Baker Lincoln, known as ‘Eddie,’ born 10 March 1846.  In December 1849, while Lincoln was serving in the United States House of Representatives, and living in Washington, DC, Eddie became gravely ill with what is thought to have been diphtheria or possibly pulmonary tuberculosis.  He died on 1 February 1850 and was buried in Washington.  When his father was buried in Springfield, Eddie’s body and that of his brother, Willie, who also died in Washington, were moved to join their father.

William Wallace Lincoln

William Wallace Lincoln was the third son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, born 21 December 1850.  Known as ‘Willie,’ he attended school in Springfield and is considered to be the son who was most like his father.  When the family moved into the White House in 1861, a tutor was hired for Willie and his brother Tad.  Shortly after Christmas in 1861, Willie became ill, possibly from typhoid fever.  He died on 20 February 1862.  Willie lay in state in the Green Room of the White House and was place in a crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington.  When his father and brother, Eddie, were moved to Springfield for burial, Willie was also moved there.

Thomas ‘Tad’ Lincoln

Lincoln and Thomas Tad LincolnThomas ‘Tad’ Lincoln was the most precocious of the Lincoln sons.  Born 4 April 1853 with a speech impairment, his behavior was often unpredictable and difficult, possibly because his parents doted on their youngest.  Tad and brother Willie were known for their pranks and undisciplined behavior while they lived in the White House.  Tad was even given a pretend military commission by Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, that included a uniform tailored to fit the child. (Pictured: Tad with his father in about 1865).

On the night his father was killed at Ford’s Theatre, Tad was attending another play called Aladdin or The Wonderful Lamp at Grover’s Theatre.  He was told of the tragic events, but was not allowed to go to his father.

After his father’s death, Tad left the White House with his mother to move to Chicago.  At the age of twelve, he could neither read nor write and entered school in 1866.  He went on to become editor of the school newspaper at Brown School in Chicago and in 1867, testified at the trial of John Surrat, one of those accused in the conspiracy to kill his father.

A Happy Marriage?

Historians have varying opinions about the status of the actual relationship between Mary and Abraham Lincoln.  Some claim that it was a happy marriage while others claim that Mary was known to become so angry that she once ran her husband out of the house with a broom.  What we do know is that they were devoted to their children and to one another.  Mary was among Lincoln’s political advisors and supported his political efforts, including the responsibility of moving their home and four small boys to keep up with his political aspirations.  She even stood behind his efforts in opposition of slavery, which alienated her from some of her slaveholder family.

The move to the White House in Washington, DC, proved to be the most difficult move of all.  Washington had become a place of more than just politics.  It was a social hub of sorts, and Mary had a difficult time being the wife of a president.  She felt that the White House had a reputation to uphold and overran the budget allocated by Congress for redecorating.  Her efforts in Washington itself were in vain.  The Lincolns were seen as being from what was, at that time, the western frontier of the country, and were considered by some to be ‘course and pretentious’ in spite of Mary’s education and social position.

Many knew that Mary Todd Lincoln had her husband’s ear and tried to take advantage of it.  The president and his first lady were far more accessible at that time.  The United States Secret Service, which holds responsibility for the president’s protection today, was not created until the night Lincoln was killed.  Office seekers often walked into the White House and the president’s office without being challenged.  Lincoln was constantly navigating through political and social rivals, spoils-seeking solicitors, newspapers and general intrigue, as was Mary.

Social and political pressure weren’t the only troubles the Lincolns endured.  They had lost one son before Lincoln was elected to the White House.  They lost another son in 1862, and several of Mary’s siblings were lost to the war.  She suffered a serious head injury in a carriage accident, which some believe might have been one of the many attempts on Lincoln’s life.  Mary began to have migraines and her behavior was reported as erratic, with sudden temper fits, mood swings, and public outbursts and over spending.

Aside from the troubles he and Mary shared, Lincoln had worries of his own.  A war had erupted that some held him responsible for.  He spent his first term in office attempting to maintain a balance between pressures from all sides while continuing to do what he felt was right.  His primary concern was to end the war that had begun in 1861, just after he took office. It did not end until shortly before his death in 1865.


Assassination of LincolnLincoln’s death was the first presidential assassination in United States history and was literally played out on a public stage.  Mary was reportedly holding Lincoln’s hand as they watched a play, Our American Cousin, at Ford’s Theatre, only a few blocks from the White House.  John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Southern sympathizer, forced his way into their box and shot the president point blank.  A doctor who was in the audience made what he knew was a futile attempt to save the president’s life while Mary sat beside him sobbing.  When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton arrived, he ordered Mary removed and did not allow her to return.  As a result, she was not with her husband when he died. (Pictured: Lithograph of Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Click to enlarge.)


After Lincoln’s death, Mary and her son, Tad, moved to Chicago.  In 1868, she took Tad with her to Europe where they remained until 1871.  It was shortly after their return to the United States that Tad became ill and died in July 1871.  Once again, Mary’s behavior became erratic.

In March 1875, she arrived in Chicago to visit her eldest son, Robert.  She told him that someone had tried to poison her and that her purse was stolen.   She had come to Chicago convinced, she said, that Robert was gravely ill, but found him fine and well.  Mary was known to wander about with $56,000 in bonds sewn into her petticoats.  Her irrational fear of poverty was one of the concerns that led her son, Robert, to take extreme measures.

Mary was institutionalized after attempting to jump from a window to escape a fire that didn’t exist.  On 20 March 1875, Robert had his mother committed to an institution in Batavia, Illinois.  With the help of her lawyer and friends, Mary managed her own release into her sister’s custody.  She travelled again to Europe, but declining health, cataracts and damage to her spine forced her home in 1879.  During the last years of her life, Mary lived with her sister, Elizabeth Edwards, in Springfield, Illinois, once again.

On 16 July 1882, Mary Todd Lincoln died at the age of 63.  She was buried beside her husband and three of her four sons in Springfield, Illinois.

Abraham Lincoln                   February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865
Mary Todd Lincoln                December 13, 1818 – July 16, 1882
Robert Todd Lincoln             August 1, 1843 – July 26, 1926
Edward Baker Lincoln          March 10, 1846 – February 1, 1850
William Wallace Lincoln        December 21, 1850 – February 20, 1862
Thomas Tad Lincoln             April 4, 1853 – July 15, 1871

american_civil_warKat Smutz

Read more about the Civil War in The American Civil War: History In An Hour by Kat Smutz, published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

See also Abraham Lincoln and his legacy and the assassination of Lincoln.