Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln

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Mary Todd Lincoln was born December 13, 1818, in Lexington, Kentucky. She was the first lady of the United States from 1861 to 1865, while her husband Abraham Lincoln served as the 16th president. Happy and energetic in her youth, she suffered subsequent ill health and personal tragedies and behaved erratically in her later years. She died on July 16, 1882, in Springfield, Illinois.

Born Mary Ann Todd on December 13, 1818 in Lexington, Kentucky. Born to a prominent slaveholding family, Mary Todd Lincoln was raised primarily by her strict stepmother. In 1839, she left home to be near her sister Elizabeth in Springfield, Illinois, where she met up-and-coming politician and lawyer Abraham Lincoln. They married on November 4, 1842, and nine months later, their first son was born. In all, the couple had four sons, only two of whom survived into adulthood.

In November 1860, Lincoln was elected as the 16th President of the United States, causing 11 Southern states to secede from the Union. Most Kentuckians from the Todd’s social circle, and indeed her stepfamily, supported the Southern cause, but Mary was a fervent and tireless supporter of the Union. Widely disliked in the White House, Mary Todd Lincoln was emotional and outspoken and spent lavishly during a time when budgets were tight to fight the Civil War. Some even accused her of being a Confederate spy. This tension continued even after the Civil War came to an end in April 1865.

On April 14, 1865, Mary Todd Lincoln sat next to her husband at Ford’s Theatre when he was shot by an assassin. The President died the following day, and Mary Todd Lincoln never fully recovered. She returned to Illinois and, following the death of her son Thomas in 1871, fell into a deep depression. Her sole surviving son, Robert, committed her to an insane asylum. She was released three months later, but never forgave him for the betrayal.

Mrs. Lincoln spent her later years traveling through Europe, though she suffered from declining health. She died on July 16, 1882 at her sister’s home in Illinois at age 63.

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Mary (Todd) Lincoln Family Tree (Pedigree)

Mary (Todd) Lincoln was the wife of President Abraham Lincoln. Before she married Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd was courted by Stephen Douglas, a political opponent of her husband and famous for the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Unfortunately tragedy seemed to be a common theme in Mary's life. In addition to witnessing the assassination of her husband at the hands of actor John Wilkes Booth, she also lived to see the deaths of three of her four children.

In later life, Mary would become estranged with her only surviving son Robert Todd Lincoln. He would have her committed to an insane asylum from which she would eventually be released after rousing the public to her side.

Marriage to Mary Todd

Before Lincoln married Mary Todd, he dated two other women, Ann Rutledge and Mary Owens.
In 1835 Abraham became involved with Ann Rutledge but she died of typhoid on August 25, 1835. Her death devastated the future president who fell into a deep depression.

About a year after Ann’s death Abraham began courting Mary Owens who reciprocated his interest. In 1837 he moved to Springfield to serve in his first term in the Illinois legislature and slowly changed his mind about the prospect of marrying her. Reality on his financial situation hit him, his inability to support himself let alone a wife and children let to the breakup of the relationship.

Mary Todd

A portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln 1861. Source: Library of Congress.

Mary Todd was born in Lexington, Kentucky. Her parents were Robert Smith Todd and Elizabeth Parker. Her father was a banker and a slaveholder. Mary’s mother died when she was six years old and his father remarried two years later. Mary was well educated and grew up in an affluent society. She spoke fluent French, studied literature, dance and drama. She was well read and had an interest in politics, like her family she was a Whig.

Mary had a difficult relationship with her step mother and moved with her sister, Elizabeth, who lived in Springfield, Illinois. Elizabeth was married to Ninian Edwards. The Edwards were an influential Whig family in Springfield. Mary was considered popular among the young men in Springfield and was courted by aspiring lawyers and politicians. She was smart, educated, witty, and graceful and a great conversationalist.

Lincoln became friends with Ninian and Elizabeth Edward who owned a luxurious mansion. They usually had Sunday parties where the best educated society of Springfield gathered. Here he met Mary Todd. By 1840 they announced their engagement. Yet again, Lincoln was filled with doubts of the same kind as with Mary Owens, how could he support a wife accustomed to luxury? Even though he loved her, he broke the engagement.


Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd wedding. Source: Print by Lloyd Ostendorf.

Through mutual friends they were reunited and married on November 4, 1842. She was 23 and he was 33. The wedding ceremony was presided by Episcopal minister Charles Dresser.

Mary and Abraham were very different. Mary was talkative, sociable and liked attention. Abraham was slow, moody and enjoyed a silent room. Mary was accustomed to luxury until her marriage. The newlyweds rented a room in the Globe Tavern on Adams Street where they paid $4 a week. Mary was used to spacious and luxurious accommodation but never complained about her discomfort. Pregnancy came immediately after their marriage and on August 1, 1843 the Lincolns first child was born, they named him Robert Todd Lincoln after Mary’s father. With the arrival of a child the couple moved to a rental house on South Street, they could not afford a house of their own with Abraham’s salary as a lawyer. By 1844 with the help of Mary’s father they were able to buy a small house located on Eight and Jackson Street. The house belonged to Minister Charles Dresser, the minister who officiated their wedding.

In 1846 Mary and Abraham had their second child, Edward. The budget of the household was limited and could not hire a maid. Mary had to cook, clean the house, take care of 2 children and saw her own clothes and her children’s. Lincoln had his suits made by the local tailor, Benjamin R. Biddle. Mary, who had a great disposition, developed bad temper as the result of exhaustion and a change of lifestyle. In addition her husband was immersed in his job when not out of town for business.

All inconveniences aside, husband and wife were devoted to each other. She was immensely supportive and proud of him as Abraham was of Mary.

Mary and Abraham had four sons: Robert, Edward (Eddie), William (Willie) and Thomas (Tad). The only one to survive to adulthood was their older son Robert.

Was Mary Todd Lincoln Really “Insane”?

On the left, Mary Todd Lincoln at age 43. On the right, Sally Field in Lincoln.

In 1875, more than a decade after her husband was assassinated, Mary Todd Lincoln found two men outside her room in Chicago. They had papers ordering her arrest. Taken immediately to a local courthouse, Lincoln found an all-male jury already waiting for her, set to determine if she should be institutionalized for insanity. The arrest—prompted by her only surviving son, Robert—was the culmination of decades of whispers about the former First Lady’s behavior, and it has shaped her legacy to this day.

Remarkably, though, we see only shades of that Mary Todd Lincoln in Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s sturdy new account of several pivotal months in the White House. This alone reflects how far popular thought has shifted on her. As written by playwright Tony Kushner and played by Sally Field, this Mrs. Lincoln is a sharp and cunning—if sometimes fragile—fixture in her husband’s life. That take is the product of a decades-long and continually evolving argument among historians about just who she really was.

Mrs. Lincoln acquired a spotty public image early on, partly due to a scandal over lavish White House expenses and partly due to her Southern roots. (Born in Kentucky, she had family in the Confederacy.) The term First Lady was not yet in wide circulation when the Lincolns reached the White House, and no previous president’s wife had stirred such controversy, according to Harold Holzer, a leading Lincoln historian based at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even so, contemporary media portrayals were fairly restrained, just as they were, Holzer says, for “all ‘the ladies,’ as they called them.” After President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and the loss of a third son in 1871—two others died in 1850 and 1862—Lincoln’s emotional state deteriorated until, after some erratic behavior, the two police officers showed up at her door. She was institutionalized, released months later, and lived out most of her remaining years overseas.

After her death in 1882, historians—all of them initially male—began to mine her legacy, advancing a questionable theory of lifelong mental illness that remains hotly debated today. “This is a really gendered subject, I’ve discovered—there weren’t a lot of women who wrote about her,” said Jean Harvey Baker, author of a 2008 biography. “She got an utterly raw deal.” Early portrayals of Mrs. Lincoln as unhinged and volatile were followed by claims that she suffered from bipolar disorder, a diagnosis which, of course, did not exist in her lifetime.

These accounts naturally influenced portrayals of the Lincolns, who became in fairly short order the most popular White House residents to fictionalize. Mrs. Lincoln was usually relegated to the shadows in these depictions, but she did emerge from the corners occasionally. In D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930), Kay Hammond plays Mrs. Lincoln with some real verve, but she is also pushy and shrill, scolding Ulysses S. Grant in an impromptu meeting because he fills a room with smoke. In Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), Ruth Gordon plays Mrs. Lincoln as a tyrannical shrew with severe posture and a penchant for comically fierce staring. “Why do you take every opportunity you can to make a public fool out of me and yourself?” a weary but ever-compassionate Lincoln begs of her at one point.

Mrs. Lincoln fared somewhat better as time went on and views of her became more nuanced—particularly when new generations of historians began to reevaluate the traditional take on the Lincolns. (It helped that some of these historians were women.) Years of mostly inoffensive television portrayals followed, including one by Mary Tyler Moore. But even today, the old image persists: Not long ago, Gwyneth Paltrow, on Glee, crassly imitated Mary Todd as a loopy waif who self-identifies as bipolar. In an SNL sketch from just this past weekend, Louis C.K., playing Abraham Lincoln, referred to his wife as “historically insane.”

In contrast, Sally Field’s take feels informed by all 150 years of debate about her subject. “All everyone will remember of me was that I was crazy and that I ruined your happiness,” she says at one point in Lincoln—a handy summation of her portrayal over the years. But we also see the Mrs. Lincoln that Holzer and Baker describe, a towering figure herself in the contemporary political scene and an incalculable influence on her husband. In one of the movie’s best moments, Mrs. Lincoln drolly spars with Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) while her husband looks on in mild terror, capably lacerating him even to his own apparent amusement.

Call the scene revisionist, but it reflects the satisfying complexity Spielberg and Kushner see in Mrs. Lincoln, along with Field’s ability to embody her contradictions. Holzer credits Field’s take as “startlingly realistic,” and probably the richest he’s seen. Baker, who had not seen the movie yet, told me that she has long puzzled over history’s angry attitude toward Mary Todd. In her view, Mrs. Lincoln has mostly been used by Lincoln biographers to promote his legacy, a victim of “the need to make Lincoln into a great hero and to use her as a prop.”

Seances in the Red Room

Death plagues us all: it is the only certainty in life and plays an integral role in the human experience. When a loved one perishes, it is their survivors who are left to pick up the pieces. In a time of mourning, grief-stricken loved ones turn to a plethora of coping mechanisms, and over time the way we mourn has evolved dramatically. Often times, people turn to organized religion or spirituality as a source of comfort and connection to those who were lost. Many White House ghost stories, most of which are centered on the Lincoln family, have roots in the nineteenth century when spiritualism and séances were rather common because the Civil War changed not only how Americans understood death but also how they mourned.

The bloodiest conflict in the nation's history was the American Civil War (1861-1865). Fought over the expansion of slavery, the Civil War resulted in approximately 750,000 American fatalities, nearly equal to the total number of American deaths in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. 1 Never before had the nation experienced death like this. It is important that the survivor understands the meaning of their loved one's life and death in order to properly grieve. According to historian Drew Gilpin Faust:

The particular circumstances of the Civil War often inhibited mourning, rendering it difficult, if not impossible, for many bereaved Americans to move through the stages of grief. In an environment where information about deaths was often wrong or entirely unavailable, survivors found themselves both literally and figuratively unable to ‘see clearly what… has been lost.’ 2

When these soldiers perished far away from home, observance of grief was impossible and the state of the soul of the deceased at the time of death was forever lost to the family. Bodies were left on the battlefield for a variety of reasons: lack of a structured, recovery system, attempts to disgrace the enemy and lower its morale, junctures of battle, and discrimination between officers and their subordinates. 3

This photograph, taken by Mathew Brady, shows the south front of the White House during the Lincoln administration (1861-1865).

National Archives and Records Administration

While spiritualism, a belief system centered on a doctrine in which the dead can communicate with the living, existed long before the Civil War, it was not popularized until the mid to late nineteenth century. By 1897, it was believed that spiritualism had more than eight million believers in the United States and Europe, mostly drawn from the middle and upper classes. 4 The uniqueness and scope of death during the Civil War left thousands of families without the proper outlets to grieve. It transformed wives into widows, children into orphans, and mothers into mourners. According to one study on the rise of spiritualism during the nineteenth century, “Spiritualist activity increased rapidly in America at a time when bereaved citizens were seeking new assurance of continuity and justice after death and when traditional religion was becoming less able to offer this assurance.” 5 For instance, séances were used as an attempt to reach out to lost loved ones with the assistance of a trained medium. This professional claimed the mystic ability to communicate with the deceased. 6 Spiritualism expanded so rapidly during and after the Civil War because it offered grieving survivors closure that the war had denied them.

Ordinary Americans were not the only ones to turn to spiritualism as a coping mechanism during the Civil War. In fact, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln, practiced spiritualism in the White House. Mrs. Lincoln was born into a wealthy, Protestant family from Kentucky in 1818. Throughout her life, she suffered an immense amount of loss including her mother at a young age, three out of four of her children, and the brutal assassination of her husband before her very eyes. 7 She first turned to spiritualism as a tool for processing her grief after the death of her second youngest son, William or "Willie", in February 1862. According to a newspaper article published the day after Willie’s death, “His sickness, an intermittent fever assuming a typhoid character, has caused anxiety and alarm to his family and friends for a week past … The President has been by his side much of the time, scarcely taking rest for ten days past.” 8 Willie was only eleven years old at the time of his passing, a victim of typhoid fever.

This portrait photograph shows Mary Todd Lincoln as First Lady of the United States (1861-1865).

First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln became inconsolable after the passing of Willie and desperately searched for an outlet for her grief. Shortly after his death, she was introduced to the Lauries, a well-known group of mediums that were located in Georgetown. Mrs. Lincoln found such comfort from the séances held by the group that she started hosting her own séances in the Red Room of the White House. There is evidence to suggest that she hosted as many as eight séances in the White House and that her husband was even in attendance for a few of them. 9 The séances proved to be such an effective coping mechanism for Mrs. Lincoln that she once remarked to her half-sister that, “Willie Lives. He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of the bed with the same sweet adorable smile that he always has had. He does not always come alone. Little Eddie [her son that perished at the age of four] is sometimes with him.” 10 Through spiritualism, Mrs. Lincoln, like many Americans at the time, found solace in the belief that one could communicate with lost loved ones. Despite this, Mrs. Lincoln did take a step back from her practice after several months due to societal pressures.

William (Willie) and Thomas (Tad) Lincoln pose with their cousin, Lockwood Todd, the nephew of Mary Todd Lincoln. This photograph was taken in Mathew Brady's Washington, D.C. studio in 1861.

The ghosts of Willie and Eddie Lincoln were not the only Lincoln ghosts believed to haunt the White House. The ghost of their father, President Abraham Lincoln, is arguably the most well-known spirit at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The assassination of President Lincoln shook the nation to its core and almost immediately rumors about his spirit began to circulate. Many cite that he appears in both the Lincoln Bedroom and the Yellow Oval Room. First Lady Grace Coolidge, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands have all claimed to have seen Lincoln's ghost. 11 These rumors were perpetrated by White House employee, Jeremiah “Jerry” Smith. He served as the official duster of the White House for over thirty-five years, starting in the late 1860s. He would often congregate around the North Entrance and spin tales of ghost sightings to reporters on slow news days. 12

William H. Mumler took this photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln around 1872 in Boston, Massachusetts. Mumler was a spiritual photographer, who claimed that his technique captured not only his subjects but also their departed loved ones.

Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana

In 1870, Mary Todd Lincoln secretly visited William H. Mumler, a self-proclaimed spirit photographer. Despite the fact that he was accused of fraud, the former first lady requested to be photographed with her late husband. The resulting picture, which depicts the ghost of President Lincoln looking over his wife, was circulated widely, though it was not alone. In fact, “Prints, photographs and literary representations of Lincoln as a spirit abounded in the months and years after his assassination, chronicling his passage into the afterlife from the moment the Angel of Death appeared above his bed.” 13 The nation fought so hard to hold on to Lincoln's ghost because he represented the idea of a spirit coming home and looking over its family from above. During a time when so many families had lost fathers and sons, it was comforting to know that the father of the nation was still looking over them as well. Hearing stories of Lincoln’s ghost gave these families hope that their own fallen father figures were also looking over them as well. Moreover, his ghost demonstrated that he and the soldiers who perished in battle were able to find comfort despite the circumstances of their untimely deaths.

This lithograph print, published by Currier & Ives, shows the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865. The president was carried across the street to Petersen House, where he died the following morning.

The majority of White House ghost stories developed during the nineteenth century when spiritualism reached its peak. This was a side effect of the nation’s shifting conceptions of death and mourning during the Civil War. Today, these stories have lost most of their prevalence due to the fact that death is perceived much differently in the twenty-first century. The level of deaths that occurred during the Civil War no longer holds true in comparison to modern warfare. Fallen soldiers are easier to identify thanks to advancements in DNA and the use of dog tags. Additionally, life expectancy and childhood survival rates have climbed exponentially since the nineteenth century. Death is less commonplace and visible then it was during the Civil War. Spiritualism offered a coping mechanism that was necessary during a time when life was shrouded in death. While today's society looks at the ghost of Lincoln as a silly myth, it once brought solace to a wounded nation.

The First Lady of lunacy

Did loss and grief drive Mary Todd Lincoln insane or was it simply syphilis?

For countless Americans, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 to April 15, 1865) endures as the country's greatest president ever. His personal integrity, commitment to abolitionism, wartime leadership and inspired oration are disputed by few. Honest Abe's wife, however, was a far more controversial figure, due in most part to the spectre of mental illness which lingered over her throughout her troubled life.

Next year will mark the 125th anniversary of the death of Mary Todd Lincoln (December 13, 1818 to July 16, 1882). It should come as no surprise that her husband's near-mythical status overshadows her own life story. Today, most think of Mary as an unlucky witness to American history rather than a participant in it, or at best, the butt of some seriously dark comedy ("Aside from that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"). Like Jacqueline Kenney, she was indeed with her husband the moment he was shot, but unlike the beloved Jackie O, Mary somehow became a national embarrassment instead of a national icon. But was her history of mental illness organic in nature or was it a result of the series of devastating tragedies which defined her life?

Even before April 14, 1865 -- the night John Wilkes Booth fatally wounded Abraham Lincoln in Washington DC's Ford's Theater -- Mary was no stranger to tragedy. She was born to a wealthy family from Lexington, Kentucky and lost her mother when she was only six. In 1842, Mary married the self-taught, young legal star Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, after they were introduced by her sister, Elizabeth. By all accounts, Mary was vivacious, smart and ambitious: the perfect wife for an aspiring young politician. Soon after her marriage, however, life took a calamitous turn.

Between 1843 and 1854, Mary and Abraham had four sons -- Robert, Edward, William and Thomas. Only the eldest, Robert, survived to adulthood. Even by 19th-century standards, it was a poor showing. Edward died of tuberculosis at age three in 1850. William, born later that year, succumbed to typhoid fever at 11. Their fourth child, Thomas, made it to 18, when he also succumbed to tuberculosis in 1871. Mary was devastated (she'd already lost her husband by that point and was extremely devoted to Thomas). Her firstborn, Robert, was by then 28 years old, a successful lawyer in his own right, with a family of his own. But instead of being his mother's comfort, he would become her sworn enemy.

Hints of Mary's erratic personality appeared early in her adult life. She'd always been a nervous person, very impulsive, and prone to lavish spending sprees and grandiose thinking. As First Lady, she fell out of public favour quickly, since many believed her over-the-top redecorating and entertaining schemes at the White House were wasteful and unnecessary (it didn't help that many of her relatives were devout Confederates either). In one four-month period, for example, Mary bought herself 400 pairs of gloves. She refused to tone it down, and Abe himself was forced to defend her publicly on several occasions.

Despite all this, Mary was a very sweet and loving mother. After young Edward died in 1850, she began to exhibit increasingly depressive symptoms. A year and half later, Mary was involved in a carriage accident. She was thrown from the vehicle and hit her head on a rock so hard that she was incapacitated for nearly a month. Her son Robert would later say that his mother was never quite right afterwards. Within three years, more tragedy befell her family, as three half-brothers and a brother-in-law were all killed in the war.

Things worsened once 11-year-old William passed away, less than a year after Lincoln was elected. Mary's grief was so unrelenting that she was nearly institutionalized. Never happy with the First Lady, the public criticized her newfound antisocial side just as they had her earlier extravagance. In desperation, Mary looked towards the growing trend of spiritualism to find relief. She hosted several séances at the White House, hoping to reach her children beyond the grave. Mediums and known quacks were coming and going at all hours the public, however, reserved judgment, even though the President himself was rumoured to be dabbling in the supernatural fun.

Her husband's assassination was an ordeal from which Mary never entirely recovered. Somewhat surprisingly for a lawyer and sitting president, Lincoln didn't leave behind a will, and it took several years for his finances to be resolved and the money distributed. In the meantime, Mary became increasingly paranoid about financial matters, fearing that she'd end up flat broke and on the streets. (Of course, this never would have happened, since she did stand to inherit almost $40,000). At first, the public was sympathetic, since Lincoln's devotion to her was well-known, but her increasingly bizarre behaviour eventually left her a laughing stock.

At one point, Mary committed a very public gaffe when she tried to sell her entire wardrobe, sincerely believing she was on the brink of poverty. Her son Robert was mortified, and, to add insult to injury, the clothes didn't sell. After Thomas died in 1871, Mary's eccentricity morphed into delusion. She became terrified of fire, illness and theft, so much so that she began to keep wads of cash stuffed under her petticoats. Though she was understandably afraid that her last remaining child would die, her irrationality on this matter sometimes bordered on obsession. Robert, for his part, had little patience for his mother's concern.

Robert Lincoln instituted commitment hearings against his mother in May of 1875, insisting she was unable to manage her own affairs. A string of witnesses testified against her, including five physicians and her own son, revealing both private and public follies. Mary bitterly (and perhaps correctly) accused Robert of being after her money. The strange details of her obsessions became a matter of public record.

Some said that Mary claimed to hear voices through the walls servants were forced to stand guard over their fearful mistress while she slept. Her alternating habits of wasteful spending and frugal saving were exposed before the court. Some historians believe she may have had bipolar disorder, though few would go so far as to diagnose schizophrenia, despite the fact that she seemed to suffer at times from psychosis and delusions.

One of Mary's doctors, Willis Danforth, was the star witness. He reported that Mary had told him that an evil Indian spirit was pulling wires out of her left eye, that she was distracted by premonitions of her own death and that she was prone to vomiting up her meals to foil imaginary poisoners. The manager of the Chicago hotel she lived in explained how Mary had shown up in the elevator half-naked, and sent all her belongings to Milwaukee one day believing the city was being consumed by a raging fire.

The jury sided with her son, and Mary Todd Lincoln, former First Lady of the United States of America, was committed against her will. She spent three months at Bellevue Place, an upscale women's insane asylum in an imposing old mansion outside of Chicago. Mercifully, she was allowed to live separately from the other patients while she was there. The public was greatly divided as to the justness of her trial and confinement. She was eventually declared sane enough to take care of her own financial affairs, and the humiliated Mary Todd Lincoln was released into the custody of her sister Elizabeth.

Robert's motivation was always presumed to have been financial. But Mary was also an embarrassment to him. Perhaps he genuinely wanted to help her, or perhaps he wanted to get rid of her and advance his own political career. The year before her death in 1882, mother and son made an uneasy peace, but it was too late. Mary had lived the final years of her life in lonely seclusion.

After Mary died of what was thought to be a stroke on July 16, 1882, an autopsy revealed a brain tumour. How long it had been there is unknown, but it might have explained her mood swings and eccentricities. During her later years, Mary had become nearly blind, as well, and had lost a great deal of weight. Diabetes certainly may have been the cause. She was also known to depend on a wide variety of medicines prescribed by various doctors, including generous amounts of chloral hydrate for her unrelenting insomnia.

Another likely explanation, however, is one which her doctors would have tried to hide during her lifetime: that both she and her husband suffered from syphilis, and that Mary's delusions resulted from tabes dorsalis, a degeneration of the nerve cells and fibres that carry information to the brain. All this is caused by untreated syphilis. Indeed, Mary displayed all the main symptoms of that disease and tertiary syphilis: knife-like back pain, dementia, impaired coordination, weight loss and, eventually, blindness and death.

Any one of these factors surely could have contributed to her strange habits and declining mental health. But even in the absence of all of these possible causes, if Mary Todd Lincoln had encouraged her husband to stay home that fateful April evening in 1865, her life -- and those of countless others -- might have turned out quite differently. Indeed, Mary was reported to have been holding the President's hand the moment he was shot. That alone would be enough to drive anyone insane.

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Mary Todd Lincoln - HISTORY

Born in to a wealthy, political family on December 13, 1818, Mary Todd Lincoln was sophisticated, educated, and versed in politics. On the surface, her success in the White House seemed assured. Yet, few women in American history have endured as much tragedy and controversy.

Mary was the daughter of a prominent Lexington native Robert Smith Todd and his first wife Eliza Parker, who died when Mary was six years old. Mary was the fourth of the eventual sixteen children born in her father’s two marriages. A businessman and politician, Robert provided his children with social standing, education, and material advantages that Mary's future husband, Abraham Lincoln, lacked in his own youth.

Lexington, known as the “Athens of the West” at the time, had numerous educational opportunities for affluent citizens, and Mary completed her extensive education under the tutelage of French immigrant Charlotte Mentelle. At the Todd's large home, maintained by enslaved men and women, Mary mingled with influential political guests. The most prominent of these was three-time presidential candidate Senator Henry Clay, who lived less than two miles away.

A mutual interest in politics was one of the things that drew Mary to attorney Abraham Lincoln, whom she met while visiting an older sister in Springfield, Illinois. Mary exchanged her life of relative ease and privilege for that of a middle-class wife when she married Lincoln in 1842.

Mary’s primary roles from 1842-1860 were wife, household manager, and mother to four sons. Additionally, she actively supported Abraham Lincoln’s political career, offering advice and hosting events. When Lincoln learned that he had had won the presidential election of 1860, he reportedly ran home yelling "Mary, Mary, we are elected."

She took on the role of first lady-from hosting balls to visiting troops-with enthusiasm. However, controversy and tragedy marked Mary Todd Lincoln’s life in the White House. Some mistakenly viewed her as a rustic from the “West." Others questioned her loyalties because of her family connections. While six Todd siblings supported the Union, eight Todd siblings supported the Confederacy through marriage or military service. Not surprisingly, divided loyalties in the Todd family fueled much controversy in the nation’s press.

The White House years were difficult for Mary Lincoln. The pressures and anxieties of the Civil War were unrelenting. Mary watched her husband age under the strain. In early 1862, when their eleven-year-old son Willie died from typhoid fever, Mary was grief-stricken. He was the second of three Lincoln children who would die before adulthood. The heaviest blow fell on April 14, 1865, with Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

Mary survived her husband by seventeen years. During these years, she traveled internationally, fought for a widow’s pension, explored the practice of spiritualism, and continued to raise her youngest son Tad. Sadly, Tad died shortly after his eighteenth birthday in 1871. Four years later, at the instigation of her only surviving child Robert, Mary was confined against her will for several months at an asylum in Batavia, Illinois. Mary Lincoln’s mental health continues to be debated by historians and is frequently the subject of pop culture references to the former first lady.

Mary Lincoln lived independently in Europe for several years following her controversial institutionalization. Illness forced her to return to the United States, where she died July 1882 in the home of her sister Elizabeth, in which she married Lincoln almost forty years before. Her remains are entombed, along with her husband’s, in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois.

Did Abraham Lincoln’s Ghost Appear in an 1872 Photo?



However, Mumler did not magically capture a picture of Lincoln’s ghost. The photographer made a living producing manipulated studio photographs with faded figures visible behind his subjects. This was not digital manipulation like we see in modern photography. The idea of doctoring photographs in the 19th century meant trickery in the exposure and development process of glass plate images.

Still in question around a century and a half later was not whether Mumler captured photographs of ghosts. Rather, the question posed to this day was about which specific method he employed in the creation of such pictures.

Christian McWhirter is a Lincoln historian with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. We asked him about the 40-page slideshow article, which looked to contain misleading information.

One part of the long story made a specific claim about Mary Todd Lincoln. It said she “was actually a firm believer in the paranormal by the time she tied the knot with Abraham in 1842.” McWhirter told us this claim lacked evidence:

No, I do not believe that statement is true. The “spiritualist” movement was certainly beginning to spread by the time Mary Todd married Abraham Lincoln, but all evidence shows Mary spent most of her married life as a Presbyterian.

Following Willie Lincoln’s death in the White House on February 20, 1862, Mary went into a deep, grief-driven depression from which she never really emerged. For solace, she began to reach out to “mediums” and other representatives of the “spiritualist” movement to “commune” with Willie’s ghost. Her husband’s assassination only deepened this depression and enhanced her belief in spiritualism, including her interest in Mumler’s work.

In 1842, all of that trauma was still ahead of her and, while she may have been aware of the spiritualist movement, there is no evidence I’m aware of that she engaged with it at that time.

McWhirter also told us that “there isn’t a consensus” regarding how Mumler produced his mysterious photographs. That included the picture that purportedly showed Abraham Lincoln’s ghost. However, he directed us to someone whose research delved deeply into the matter: author Peter Manseau.

Manseau authored the book titled: “The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost.” We asked him about the reality of Mumler’s work.

“The Apparitionists” is a narrative history rather than a debunking project so I try to leave some of this open-ended to give the reader the experience, wonder, and enjoyment of thinking about what Mumler’s image might mean—but, yes, his photographs are very obviously fake, if by real or authentic we would mean they include the captured images of ghosts.

In our correspondence with Manseau, he told us that there was perhaps more at play than just manipulated pictures.

Mumler’s efforts came in the pioneering days of photography. Manseau said that there was perhaps “‘something more’ happening with the pictures on a couple levels”:

First, [the “spirit photographs”] were created at a time when photography was still relatively new. Many who viewed them were not as image-immersed as we are, nor as savvy about the possibility that photos could be manipulated. So when we look at them and have a hard time understanding how anyone could fall for something so clumsy and unconvincing, which to my mind they are, we need to take into account that people in the 1860s were basically learning a new visual language—how to “read” a photograph—and so we can’t really know what it was like to see Mumler’s images as they did at the time.

The other thing to consider is that Mumler’s images did speak to sincerely held religious beliefs, mainly of the Spiritualist community, about the nearness of the souls of the dead. There was a lot of fraud and showmanship in that community but it also offered solace at a time when grief and loss were widespread. So even if Mumler knew he was making fake images, they felt real to many of his customers, including Mary Todd Lincoln.

We were curious as to how the “ghost picture” with Mrs. Lincoln made it into the hands of the public. It was Mumler who publicized the picture.

“Mumler printed copies and sold them so it was known immediately, but then it seems it was forgotten,” Manseau said. “With everything related to Mumler it must be remembered it was a commercial venture. He wrote letters to newspapers about it and would’ve wanted to sell as many as he could.”

He provided a newspaper clipping with a letter Mumler wrote to The Boston Herald. At the end of the story, the newspaper referred to the likeness of the “shadowy” ghost figure to Lincoln as being “unmistakable.” We have transcribed the clipping below:

Spiritual Picture

Mrs. Abraham Lincoln Sits for a Spirit Picture and Gets It.

From the Boston Herald.

We have received from Mr. W. H. Mumler, “spiritual photographer” of this city, a carte de visite likeness, which is quite accurately described in the letter accompanying the photograph, from which we make the following extract:

“You will see the ‘ghost-like image’ standing behind the lady sitter has both arms in front, one arm being caressingly around the neck, in a perfectly natural manner. To the right is another ‘ghost-like image’ of a boy, while in the rear is yet another undeveloped form. The lady sitter called on the artist for the purpose of having this picture taken some two weeks since closely veiled, so much so that it was impossible to tell if she was black or white. The veil was not removed until the plate was prepared, and not then until the artist asked her if she intended to have her picture taken with her veil down. She excused herself, removed the veil, and the picture was taken with the result before you. The lady gave the name as Mrs. Tyndall, which was recorded on the engagement book. Subsequent events have proved the lady to be Mrs. Lincoln, widow of our lamented president, who the ‘ghost-like image’ looks like I leave you to judge and draw your own inferences. Suffice it to say, the lady fully recognized the picture.

Most respectfully,

W. H. Mumler.”

The resemblance of the principal shadowy image upon the plate to the martyr president is certainly unmistakable. The other developed shadowy figure is less distinct, but that of a tall, handsome boy who might be “Tad.”

“Tad” referred to Thomas “Tad” Lincoln III. He was one of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s sons. He died at the age of 18 in 1871, months before Mumler captured his photograph.

Three years prior to the picture that was said to show Lincoln’s ghost, Mumler appeared before a judge in New York. He had been charged with fraud and larceny in relation to his “spirit photographs.” Years later, in 1888, the Waterbury Evening Democrat reported the history of Mumler’s time in court:

It is now twenty-six years ago since a photographer, William H. Mumler, created a remarkable excitement in this town by taking photographs of people in which, behind the sitter, there appeared the more or less distinct outline of some other person, supposed to be a relative or affinity of the one whose picture was the principal figure.

Oakey Hall, at that time mayor [of New York], sent Marshal John Tooker to have his picture taken, and upon Tooker’s complaint, Mumler was arrested on the charge of conspiracy to defraud and arraigned before Justice Dowling at the Tombs on April 21, 1869. At the instance of that ardent Spiritualist, ex-Judge Edmunds, John D. Townsend appeared for Mumler.

The prosecution was represented by Elbridge T. Gerry, and many prominent New Yorkers were summoned as witnesses. Elmer Terry testified, and his evidence was corroborated by that of Jacob Kingsland, that Mumler had taken a photograph of him, in which the spirit likeness of a dead son appeared, whose photograph had never been taken during life.

No case against Mumler was made, and he was discharged. He still pursues, it is said, the same avocation of spooky picture-taking in Boston.

Manseau told us that “many expert photographers spoke against Mumler.” He said that “they all were credible and proposed ways they could make spirit photographs but none proved conclusively how Mumler had made his.”

One expert photographer who spoke against Mumler was Oscar Mason. On April 26, 1869, he spoke of methods Mumler might have used to produce his “spirit photographs.” Mason was the secretary to the photographic section of the American Institute. He was questioned by the prosecution after creating his own “spirit photography” experiments just days prior.

The New York Herald documented the court proceedings in New York. William W. Silver had also been arrested with Mumler. Silver was the original owner of the photography studio Mumler had used, located at 630 Broadway.

According to Mason, one possible way that Mumler created the “spirit photographs” was by manipulating the positive image. Mason explained one of his own experiments to the court:

This was done by first taking the negative of the lady and then the positive from the negative this positive was slightly manipulated and then used in producing the subsequent picture of Mr. Reiss if in this case the camera was used only in making the negative, the ghost picture of the lady was produced by the process known in technical phrase as “stopped out,” or intercepting the rays of light, on the first negative the ghost pictures showed full, as no light passes through the opaque surface that was left free for the subsequent picture and both figures appeared on one negative it was not done by double printing, but by erasing a portion and then exposing it to a ray of light for an instant before developing for the light I used a common flame of a lamp in this case.

Mason also described another method involving a positive glass plate. A third possibility involved “half an inch of a lucifer match and a small piece of mica.” A fourth method used a microscopic lens.

The newspaper also said that while Mason answered questions, Mumler “blushed occasionally and at some answers.” The Herald reported: “The blush would hurriedly beam his face as if the statements were deeply affecting him.”

As for what ended up happening to Mumler, Manseau told us that he’s seen misleading accounts:

[Some] claim he died penniless and in disgrace after his trial. This does not seem to be true at all. He had a long varied career after 1869 and by the time he died [in 1884] spirit photography was only a single line in his obituary. As I note in the book, he also should be considered among other photographers of his day, many of whom were blurring the line between fact and fiction in their own images, such as Civil War photographers like Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner, who staged battlefield photos.

“We want to think of photographs as objective truth, but manipulation has been part of photography from the beginning,” Manseau said.

In sum, photographer William Mumler did not capture a picture of Abraham Lincoln’s ghost. More than a century and a half later, we still don’t know which specific method he used to create his “spirit photography.” We likely never will.

For further reading, we previously reported on Abraham Lincoln’s last words.

Additional credits for Mumler’s photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln are extended to The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection, Indiana State Museum, and the Allen County Public Library.

Mary Todd Lincoln - HISTORY

The todd family

Mary Todd grew up in a town where people knew and respected her family. Her father and mother were from families who helped found Lexington, served in frontier military conflicts, started businesses, and participated in local politics.

Mary Lincoln's father Robert S. Todd was a prominent businessman and politician.

Mary’s father Robert Smith Todd was born in 1791, a year before Kentucky became a state. Educated at Transylvania College, he studied law but chose to go into business. After co-owning a store, he became a partner in a cotton factory and president of the Lexington branch of the Bank of Kentucky. Involved in local politics as a justice of the peace and sheriff, he worked as the clerk of the state House of Representatives for over twenty years and was later elected to a term in the Kentucky Senate.

Less is known about Mary’s mother Elizabeth “Eliza” Parker, who was born in 1794. The daughter of a prominent landowner and merchant, she may have attended one of Lexington’s female academies. Eliza’s father died in 1800 and her mother, also named Elizabeth Parker, remained unmarried until her death in 1850. Biographers believe that Mary Todd was close to her independent maternal grandmother.

Eliza married Robert in 1812, and the couple built a house beside Elizabeth Parker’s home. They had seven children: Elizabeth, Frances, Levi, Mary, Robert, Ann, and George. Robert died as an infant, and after George’s birth in 1825, Eliza died from complications. Mary was six at the time.

Robert Todd may have met his second wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Humphreys, while working for the state legislature. Betsy’s mother had moved her Virginia family to Frankfort after her husband’s death to be near her siblings. Robert and Betsy married in 1826 and had nine children: Robert (who died as an infant), Margaret, Samuel, David, Martha, Emilie, Alexander, Elodie, and Katherine. The year of David’s birth, the Todds moved into the Main Street home now called the Mary Todd Lincoln House.

Elizabeth "Betsy" Humphreys Todd, stepmother of Mary Lincoln

There is conflicting evidence about relationships within the Todd family. Some sources suggest that Mary and her stepmother did not get along. Others note that as Mary got older, she became closer to Betsy. Some historians describe tension between Eliza’s and Betsy’s children after their father’s death. But family stories and letters reflect affectionate relationships among some of the half siblings.

Like many siblings, the Todd children went their separate ways in adulthood. Sister Elizabeth married Illinois native Ninian Edwards in 1832, and the couple moved to his home state. She gradually brought her sisters Frances, Mary, and Ann to her Springfield home, where they met their husbands. After attending college and medical school, George lived in Cynthiana, Kentucky, the home of his first wife. Only Levi remained in Lexington for his entire life.

Betsy’s oldest daughter Margaret left Lexington to live with her husband in Cincinnati. While Betsy’s oldest son Sam was attending Centre College, his brother David left home to fight in the Mexican War. After his father’s death, Sam moved to Louisiana, where some Humphreys family members lived, and by 1856, David was there too.

Robert Todd died suddenly from cholera in 1849. In settling the estate, Betsy sold the Main Street house and moved to a farm near Frankfort that her family owned. There, Martha and Emilie married and moved to their husbands’ homes in Alabama and to Elizabethtown, Kentucky. In 1860 Aleck, the youngest Todd son, moved to western Kentucky to run a farm owned by the Humphreys family. When Elodie moved to Alabama to live with Martha, the only Todd child remaining at home with Betsy in 1861 was her youngest daughter, Kittie.

When Abraham and Mary Lincoln moved into the White House, Mary’s siblings were living in Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, Alabama, and Louisiana. Not surprisingly, five supported the Union and eight sided with the Confederacy, and the Todds, like many Kentucky families, became a house divided.

Its Afterlife

T he gown, as well as images of Mary Lincoln wearing the original version, have been displayed at the Smithsonian Institute in their First Ladies gallery, which closed in 2011 (National Museum of American History).

An iteration of the dress (Fig. 17) was featured in the Oscar-nominated film, Lincoln , which was released in 2012. For the movie, costume designer Joanna Johnston drew inspiration from Keckley’s original design for the clothing worn by Sally Field as Mary Lincoln (Vanity Fair).

Fig. 17 - Joanna Johnston (English). Sally Field as Mary Lincoln, 2012. Source: Vanity Fair


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About The Author

Eleanor Burholt

Eleanor Burholt is a Fashion Design major at FIT (class of 2022) and a Presidential Scholar, pursuing minors in Art History, Fashion History Theory and Culture, and English. Eleanor has professional experience working with theatrical and research-based costumes. She worked as a Fashion History Timeline intern in Summer and Fall 2020.

Watch the video: Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided - E01: Ambition