“Crazy” Mary Todd, and other historical myths.

I gave you a short review of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln in the August twitterature post, but I’ve been circling back to some of its themes since I read the last page and wanted to dive a little deeper today.

Specifically, I’d like to talk about Mary Todd Lincoln.

Honestly, all I knew about Mary Todd prior to reading this book was that she came from a slave-holding family, was institutionalized at some point, and that historians speculate whether Lincoln’s unhappy home life fueled his ambition. More than one history teacher called her “crazy Mary Todd.”

In Team of Rivals, Ms. Goodwin presents a much richer and more complicated picture of the first lady.

Mary Todd had an unhappy childhood: her mother died at an early age, her relationship with her stepmother was tense, at best. But when she met Abraham Lincoln in Springfield in 1838, she was high-spirited, intelligent, and widely read, with a downright unladylike fascination with politics.

She was undoubtedly high-strung and temperamental, and her propensity to fits of temper was well known. But she wasn’t crazy.

Indeed, it wasn’t until the Lincolns’ second son, three-year-old Eddie, died from pulmonary tuberculosis in 1850 that she even began to resemble the Mary Todd that lives on in popular imagination. Ms. Goodwin writes that Eddie’s death “left an indelible scar on her psyche—deepening her mood swings, magnifying her weaknesses, and increasing her fears.” Having lost her son to illness (after a long line of losing other close family members to the same) she became increasingly paranoid about sickness.

As someone who has struggled with anxiety, my heart goes out to her.

Lincoln was elected president in 1860. Mary was the first “first lady” who was known as such, and the first to figure prominently in the public eye. She was roundly criticized—before she even arrived in the capital—for being “awfully western, loud and unrefined.” The North hated her for being raised in a slave-holding family; the South viewed her as a traitor. The poor woman couldn’t win.

Though Mary Todd relished her role as first lady, its burdens did nothing to assuage her uneasiness. Rumors of an assassination plot against the president elect forced Lincoln—and his family, who was traveling with him—to change his route as he traveled to Washington, D.C. in preparation for his inauguration. I can only imagine how horrifying that must have been for Mary.

Things didn’t get any easier once Lincoln took office on March 4: the opening shots of the Civil War were fired scarcely a month later. Even then, military forces began to gather in the capital. The city became a staging area for the Manassas Campaign; shots could be heard from the White House. Washington soon served as a hospital for the wounded, who spilled into the streets, along with dead bodies awaiting burial.

I can’t imagine living with the horrors of war crowding into my own backyard.

Two of the Lincolns’ sons, Willie and Tad, contracted typhoid fever in 1862, which was likely caused by Washington’s unsanitary wartime conditions. Tad eventually recovered, but Willie’s death was Mary’s undoing. She sunk into a deep depression, overcome by guilt and grief, unable to cope with daily life.

And then, after two more years of war, her husband was shot dead by an assassin. While seated next to her. At the theater, of all places.

Mary Todd Lincoln did not fare well after Lincoln’s death, but the details surprised me. She was institutionalized—that much I knew—but only for several months, and historians debate whether the insanity trial her son initiated was trumped up so he could get control of her finances.

History hasn’t treated Mary Todd Lincoln well. But after reading her story, I have so much empathy for her, which wasn’t the reaction I expected. It’s not hard to imagine how easy it would be to follow her path, even today, after enduring that kind of grief, and loss, and soul-crushing stress: losing a child, enduring a presidential election, living backyard of a civil war, losing a son to wartime illness and a husband to an assassin’s bullet.

We tend to see (or are taught outright) historical figures as caricatures. Add the stigma of (possible) mental illness to that propensity, and no wonder it’s hard to see a real person when we look back at Mary Todd Lincoln.

That’s bad history, of course. But we lose more than historical accuracy when we opt for the cartoon instead of the real woman.

P.S. Talk to your man like Abigail Adams, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s best blogging tips.

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  1. Ginger says:

    I have a special affinity for Mary Todd, as legend has it, she is the friendly ghost at my parent’s home in Lexington.

    They live in what used to be an old schoolhouse, where Mary attended as a girl, and they say she haunts the place because it was one of the few places she was happy.

    I’m not sure I believe in ghosts, and especially ghosts that haunt the only place they were last happy, but it sure is fun to blame “Mary Todd!” whenever we’re up there and lose or drop something.

  2. Not to mention, people were quick to put the crazy label on any woman back then (still do?) when she doesn’t play nicely with her ankles crossed all the time. They often “treated” hysteria (which was more likely not hysteria but depression, side effects from questionable medications, or PTSD from incest) with a hyster-ectomy. Hystera being Greek for uterus. Ahem.

    • Anne says:

      Oh my stars. I had heard that hysterectomy bit at some point in the past but I’d blocked it out. Yowzers.

      I’m also fascinated by the wry commentary that Mary basically got turned into a prop for Lincoln: she’s been rewritten as just another obstacle he had to overcome on his path to greatness. That characterization doesn’t do either of them any good.

  3. Lori says:

    I recently read the novel Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini. This was a great piece of historical fiction and it takes a much more intimate view of Mrs. Lincoln than most other harsh portrayals. I recommend this read.

    • Anne says:

      I came across quite a bit about her dressmaker when I was verifying facts for this post. Glad to know there’s a novel based on that relationship—thanks for sharing!

      • Kirsten says:

        Agreed, great book by Chiaverini. Details how she tried to sell her First Lady wardrobe so she could survive since she got little to no money after being removed from the White House.

    • Betsy says:

      I second that! A great read, and it is well-researched, too.

      Mrs. Lincoln’s inauguration gown, which featured prominently in the book, is part of the permanent display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in DC. It was amazing to see in person after having read this book!

  4. Kelly says:

    Funny Story. My in-laws toured a Lincoln museum back in the spring and sent my kids a postcard. My mother-in-law wrote about how much this family reminded her of our family. So, I now have this great joke that my mother-in-law loves to imply I’m crazy.

    Anyway, I love this post, and I love Doris Kearns Goodwin. She brings to light all the misconceptions traditional history paints and forces her readers to reconsider.

    • Anne says:

      That’s a great story!

      The only other Goodwin book I’ve read is Wait Till Next Year. Now I’m eager to dive into all her historical titles. I’m not sure whether I should begin with Teddy Roosevelt or FDR….

  5. Lynn says:

    I really enjoyed this insightful post. Thanks for writing it! I agree that even having ONE of those traumatic things happen to you could leave a person with severe anxiety/depression/mood swings. I especially can’t imagine the horror of having my husband shot in the back of the head while seated right beside me.

  6. Molly says:

    Thank you for teaching me something new today! As a 5th grade teacher of American history, I always do my best to NOT teach historical figures as caricatures or flat characters. Mary has always eluded me to some degree. I knew about her depression, her son Tad’s death, and her seances to communicate with Tad after his death, but I don’t know anything about her childhood. It sounds like she had quite a rough life.

  7. Betsy says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Anne. I love history, and it’s so true that historical figures are often charicaturized. I don ‘t know how I would have handled all that Mary Todd went through either. You wonder how modern anti-depressants or medication for bi-polar disorder might have helped her.

  8. Thank you for writing this. It’s sad that she will be far more well known for being “crazy” than for the insightful, intelligent person she was. I saw another comment about a book that was written by her dressmaker and may well have to read that.

  9. Tina B says:

    I’ve also read that Mary Todd had horrible migraines and they couldn’t get them under control, thus she was institutionalized as “crazy” but really wasn’t. It was a different medical issue.

  10. Love this post! My major in college was the Civil War, and I have long felt that Mrs Lincoln is one of the most fascinating, complex and misunderstood figures in history. Did you watch Spielberg’s “Lincoln”? Sally Field did a wonderful job. Mrs Lincoln wasn’t perfect, but I believe if more people knew the truth about her life, she would be admired, rather than judged.

  11. Mimi says:

    You might like a fictionalized story of Mary Todd’s time in the lunatic asylum – which also delves into her earlier life: “Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln” by Janis Cooke Newman. It has been a while since I read it but remember being struck at the time at how easy it must have been to have her committed and how powerless she was in spite of having been First Lady.

  12. Kate says:

    Great post! I attended an all-women’s college and ended up switching my major to History when I became fascinated by the way it was taught, with the focus on regular people just trying to live their lives in often very difficult circumstances. We do a disservice to our past when we emphasize the events and dates, reducing the people involved to cardboard caricatures.

  13. Tessa~ says:

    Ahhhhh, writers of History….

    How well do they do their job???

    It takes digging, to separate the “wheat from the chaff”…

    Thank you for sharing this, with us.


  14. For even deeper reading into the Lincoln family, I recommend the excellent biography of her son (Robert Todd Lincoln): Giant in the Shadows, The Life of Robert T. Lincoln by Jason Emerson. Robert Lincoln has taken a lot of heat down through the years for the decisions he made for his mother. Probably needless to say, real people are a lot more complicated than some people would wish.

  15. Anna says:

    Love this! I’m a total card-carrying history nerd. I too deeply empathize with her. I struggle with anxiety, particularly now in this post-partum period, and cannot imagine handling that many life-altering blows. I would very likely crumble under the pressure. The lack of respect shown women by historians is pretty awful. Even in my history classes in undergrad professors would sneer at “women’s history” and “social history” as if it didn’t matter and was a waste of time. One of my major bucket list items is to become a biographer of women so more stories can be heard. I find such comfort in reading about women’s lives knowing that they’ve seen it all before.

    • Anne says:

      “I find such comfort in reading about women’s lives knowing that they’ve seen it all before.”

      I think Eleanor Roosevelt once said something very much like that. Which means, of course, that you’re brilliant. 🙂

  16. Tracy Dunn says:

    You should read “The Emancipator’s Wife.” It’s very well written and all about Mary Todd Lincoln’s life.

  17. Donna says:

    She also lost her beloved son Tad (again, to illness) when he was a teen, several years after the president’s assassination. Only her oldest son Robert outlived her (and he’s the one who had her committed.) Three sons lost to illness, and her husband murdered right before her eyes. All this to a person who was “high-strung” (would she now be diagnosed as HSP, depressed, bi-polar?) and no therapy or medications to help her. Is it any wonder she became a little un-glued? So much tragedy. Sensitive, intelligent, grief-stricken, yes. Crazy? No.

  18. I researched Mary Todd Lincoln for my AP US History class and ever since I have had a soft spot for her. Thanks for this thoughtful post about her– she deserves to be remembered for more than being “crazy” and holding seances.

  19. Amy says:

    Thank you for this post. I’ve been thinking about how history books shape our minds in recent weeks. (Really, you have a knack for writing posts about things I’ve been pondering lately myself.)

    I recently read “An Unlikely Friendship: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley” by Ann Rinaldi, and I think you would love it. It’s YA historical fiction (I’ve been wondering for a while if you’ve ever read Rinaldi – I hesitate to make recommendations here because I’m afraid I’m not scholarly enough). I fell in love with Rinaldi when I was in junior high (“A Break with Charity” and “The Fifth of March” were my favorites).

  20. Judy says:

    I will be reading the Chiaverini book for a book discussion group at my local library this month. I have also downloaded Elizabeth Keckley’s book Behind the Scenes from Project Gutenberg. Team of Rivals sounds good so I am adding it to my TBR list. thanks.

  21. SH says:

    Thank you for such a wonderful article and helping to adjust my family name. I’m a distant member of the family through my dad’s mother. We have had to deal with the mental health stigma for years and it is frustrating to have to explain that she wasn’t crazy.
    The other realization is that she probably did have some psychic tendencies as they have continued to pass down through the family. Not “I see dead people” but just a “knowing” of certain things.
    Again, I appreciate your wonderful article! Thank you!

  22. Emilie says:

    I read a book a few years back called “Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln” by Janis Cooke Newman. Probably the only American historical fiction (and the only thing about American history, for that matter) that I’ve ever read, and I really enjoyed it. This one touches a lot on Abraham Lincoln’s mental health as well, and how the deaths of their children affected them.

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