Houses of Pain
Fictional characters sometimes coincidentally have their counterparts in real people. Gustave Flaubert brought one of the most enduring and histrionic literary characters to life with his classic 1856 novel Madame Bovary. Emma Bovary’s persecution complex, her out-of-control spending, adulterous affairs, melancholia, and suicide reflected in reality’s mirror in the persona of none other than the wife of one of America’s most beloved presidents, Mary Todd Lincoln.Credit: Currier & Ives; public domain
Barring adultery and a successful suicide, Mary Todd Lincoln was otherwise the true Madame Bovary. She outpaced the anguished Emma Bovary in one aspect, however: Mary was the only First Lady ever committed to a mental institution. Adding insult to that injury, it was her only surviving son who had her institutionalized.
It stands as a monument to one of the more fascinating and, frankly, pathetic of all First Ladies. The home known today as “The Mary Todd Lincoln House” is in downtown Lexington, Kentucky. It is a quaint Colonial brick structure almost lost in its surroundings, and it is open for public tours.
The rustic expansiveness of the downtown area when Mary Todd was born there on December 13, 1818, has given way to modernity: high rises, restaurants, banks, and the arena where sports eventsCredit: Vic Dillingerâ„¢, Â© 2011 are played often. Within blocks is the largest university in the Commonwealth, the University of Kentucky, and its sprawl nearly reaches the home of the 16th First Lady of the United States.
Mary Todd’s father was a prominent local banker, Robert Smith Todd. The household was affluent, and Mary lived in comfort. The first in a long line of tragedies in Mary Todd’s life struck – her mother, Elizabeth Parker Todd, died when Mary was six. Robert remarried two years later in 1826 to another woman named Elizabeth (Elizabeth “Betsy” Humphreys Todd). Mary’s relationship with her new step-mother was strained (and remained so). Over time, between his two marriages, Robert Todd and his wives produced fifteen offspring (including Mary).
In 1832, the Todd family moved into the Mary Todd Lincoln House. This 14-room residence was very opulent for its day. The family’s financial circumstances allowed Mary to leave home to study in Credit: Vic Dillingerâ„¢, Â© 2011a finishing school operated by a French woman. Her curriculum (as was typical for debutantes of the early 19th century) included dancing, drama, music, elocution, and etiquette as well as the study of French (which Mary learned to speak fluently).
Mary developed into a social butterfly, and by the time she was a young adult she had a good grasp of politics, and she was considered charming and vivacious. In October 1839, (two months shy of her 21st birthday) Mary left Lexington and moved “out west” to live with her sister in Springfield, Illinois. Her sister already had a solid connection to Illinois politics – she was married to the son of a former Illinois governor. Under her sister’sCredit: public domain guardianship, Mary was introduced into the social set of Springfield, and she did not lack male admirers.
She was extremely popular among the neophyte lawyers in town, and was aggressively courted by them. As a popular single girl of breeding, she attracted a lawyer and political up-and-comer named Stephen A. Douglas. His courtship of her ended in failure – another lawyer in town had set his cap for her and won. That man’s name was Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln was not a ladies’ man. He was born in a wilderness area of Kentucky, and moved through a hard-scrabble existence as an Indiana pioneer (steered there by a father whose life really fell apart after his beloved wife, Nancy, died). Lincoln was mostly self-educated, and by the time he caught up to Mary Todd he had been a riverboat operator and a store owner before reading law in Illinois. He had also served as an Illinois state legislator from 1834 to 1840.
His serious experience with women was severely limited. He developed an attachment to a woman named Anne Rutledge, of whom he was genuinely fond. She died in 1835, however; Lincoln was devastated by the loss, and he swore off women for a spell. Considering his stage in life, he succumbed to friend and family pressures of settling down. He then grudgingly agreed to court an available local woman of wealth whom he found repugnant both physically and mentally (she was overweight and crude in her personal habits according to Lincoln. He did, however, point out that she had nice teeth, a rarity on the frontier). In a surprise move this Venus of the Plains stole off with another man. Lincoln, although initially only half-heartedly attempting to woo this woman, later complained bitterly in a letter to a friend about this woman’s gall in dropping him as a suitor.
Mary Todd was already exhibiting signs of the mental disorder that would cripple her on occasion later in life. She was described as “high strung” (“neurotic” in literature, “manic” in today’s psychiatric parlance). But she was also everything Abraham Lincoln needed to have for his ambitions. She was smart, socially connected, she came from a respected old Kentucky family, and she was pretty (and a young Mary Todd really was attractive, despite her haggard look in later photos). She was also about a decade younger than Abe.
Stephen Douglas was erudite and mannered; Lincoln, though genteel in his way, was a frontier rough cob. Although it is certain Mary would have been known to Abe, how she came to be interested in this gangly rail-splitter is unknown. Perhaps the disparity between the two suitors is what attracted her. Lincoln was extremely tall and lean. Douglas, even by the reduced stature of men in his day, was very short; he was also overweight (his nickname was “The Little Giant” as a nod to his diminutive stature and his blustering oratory). Mary and Abe melded however, and were soon engaged. On November 4, 1842, Lincoln (age 33) and Mary Todd (age 23) were wed in a private ceremony at Mary’s sister’s home in Springfield.Credit: public domain
Lincoln’s law practice and his interest in politics grew concurrently. His success as a lawyer allowed them to move into an expansive residence in Springfield in 1844. This house was very close to the luxury Mary had grown up in back home. The Lincoln household grew, too: four sons, all born in Springfield, were introduced to the world like clockwork from 1843 to 1853.
Abe’s political ambitions were further realized by a term in the US House of Representatives (1847-49). He returned to Springfield, and became a circuit-riding lawyer. He was one of the state’s most successful jurists, and his shrewdness, common sense, and honesty earned him the sobriquet “Honest Abe”. Mary was often left alone to raise their children and run the household. Lincoln’s lawyering and campaigning later kept him out frequently, and he was not inclined to make special efforts to keep a strong presence on the home front. In 1850, their second son, Edward “Eddie” Baker Lincoln (born 1846) died at four years old. MaryCredit: public domain sank into a deep depression – Abe threw himself into his work (a behavioral pattern repeated later in the White House). For the tragic Mary Lincoln, she would see all but one of her sons dead before her. The only one to outlive her, Robert Todd Lincoln, would be instrumental in having her committed to a mental institution in 1875.
With greater goals in mind, Lincoln joined the Republican Party in 1856, and was nominated as its candidate in the 1858 Senate election. His opponent was Mary’s former courtier, Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln and Douglas stumped across Illinois, and engaged in seven historic debates, known collectively as “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates”. During these engagements, Lincoln spoke out against the proliferation of slavery (he did not advocate its dismantling where it was already established – he wanted no further expansion). Douglas beat Lincoln in the Senate race, but Lincoln had clearly paved the way for his later Presidential run.
For the 1860 Presidential campaign, Mary’s old paramour Stephen A. Douglas was again Lincoln’s opponent for the highest office in the land. She supported Abe politically and socially as he gained national steam. This time, however, Lincoln beat Douglas soundly. The Lincoln family left their lovely Springfield home in 1861 and moved into an even more spacious manor.
Lincoln’s move to Washington, DC, meant Mary had to leave her comfort zone in Springfield. She had many friends there and was well-placed in the social hierarchy of Illinois’ capital. In Washington, Mary met with a rude reception – she was completely shunned by the élite of the political social set. Lincoln, himself, would have to force invitations from his cabinet members to make their wives include her in their teas and other functions. Even so, when she was invited and in attendance the other wives gave her the cold shoulder.
This rejection was two-tiered and stemmed from Lincoln’s anti-expansion policy toward slavery and his rustic background. They did not consider Mary’s well-heeled genealogy (her Scottish and Irish immigrant forebears had been in the United States before it was the United States). They did not take into account her education (greater than most of theirs) or her acculturation to the classics and political affairs. All they knew is that she was the wife of a rube.
With any kind of mental imbalance such as mania there is generally a balancing force, depression. These highs and lows can wreck a person’s life, and for Mary Todd Lincoln, “high-strung” also meant periods of deep despair. She was lonely – the Civil War had broken out soon after Lincoln took office, and almost all of his time was devoted to affairs relating to it and other matters of concern for the country. Mary threw lavish parties at the White House – the political wives attended out of compulsion but they tended to congregate away from her in cliques, and did not involve her in their gossip or intrigues.
The Washington men, however, seemed to love her, or at least they enjoyed the peeks at her flesh they got from time to time. Despite having a weather-worn face when she reached Washington, Mary Lincoln’s body was apparently in good enough shape to cause a mild stir when she introduced what was a very daring off-the-shoulder gown with a low neckline. One rakish observer wrote later of how smooth and silky appeared the skin of her throat and shoulders, and how “plump her bosoms” were as plainly displayed.
The women, however, unlike with the beloved trend-setting Dolley Madison years before, did not adopt Mary’s daring backless dresses or cleavage-exposing décolletage. She remained a pariah, and her depressions deepened, especially after her third-born son, William Wallace Lincoln (born in 1850) died in 1862 in the White House from an illness. Mary was left crippled by depression, and she failed to leave her room for days afterward, unwashed and without eating. Lincoln could not seem to rouse himself to properly comfort her; he generally stayed away, handling his grief in solace as well.
Once able to bring herself from her depressive catatonia, in a manic state Mary occupied herself with redecorating the White House. However, her spending (though she had been given a budget by Lincoln and Congress) was soon out of control. She bought impulsively and extravagantly – like the fictional Emma Bovary, Mary’s debts mounted exponentially, and she feared creditors making noise to the President about unpaid furniture bills or delinquent contractor’s fees. Yet, she compulsively continued to spend on material things for the Executive Mansion, all the while berating herself, and agonizing over the day when her out-of-control shopping would come crashing into her husband’s lap.
She maneuvered personal loans and “robbed Peter to pay Paul”, taking money from other White House budget areas to cover her spending. Her mental state declined as her spending spiraled – she actually began behaving irrationally in public; several outbursts were notoriously documented, leaving the impression she was a heartless shrew or harridan.
Mary was none of those things. She was a woman who was mentally ill in a time when mental illness was treated as unmentionable and taboo as a subject for discussion. She had suffered severe migraines all her adult life and many bouts of debilitating depression. She also sustained a head injury in a carriage accident during Lincoln’s Presidency. All of these things joined to unbalance her, and she suffered much.
Mary had grown up in Kentucky, and she had Confederate relatives. Her “house” was divided, however, and many of her relatives questioned her staunch Unionist views. Within the Todd clan she had several of her brothers and half-brothers and cousins take opposing sides in the conflict, literally going off to their respective armies and fighting each other on the battlefield.
She made herself useful when she was mentally up to it. In Washington, Mary jumped into relief work. She raised money to help the homeless and the poor slaves who escaped as war refugees and fled into Washington. She tended wounded soldiers at the local hospitals where many of her more delicate society sisters never ventured (because of the smells and the squalor). She brought fruit or flowers to the injured and, since many were either illiterate or incapacitated, she sat and wrote letters dictated to her to their families. She also occasionally visited the battlefields in Lincoln’s company when he went on inspection tours.
In the election of 1864, Lincoln handily trounced his opponent, George McClellan, and was sworn in for a second term. The war officially ended on April 9, 1865. Five days later, Mary and he attended a play at Ford’s Theater. As he watched the theater stage, Lincoln was shot in the back of the head by a Southern-sympathizing actor named John Wilkes Booth. He was carted to a home across the street and made as comfortable as possible. Mary and her oldest son Robert kept vigil along with members of Lincoln’s Cabinet. He died the next morning, April 15, 1865 at 7:22 AM.
Mary Lincoln received condolences from around the world, but condolences did little for her mental anguish. To date she had lost her mother, two sons, and now her husband. She was Credit: public domainleft with sons Robert and Tad. Robert was 23 years old, and inclined to lead an adult’s life. He had served on General Grant’s staff from 1864-1865, and he went on in 1867 to admission to the Illinois bar.
Mary was in a state of complete shock, and was unmovable from the White House for over a month after her husband died (despite Vice-President Andrew Johnson’s assuming the Presidency). She then retreated to Illinois. She had not much in the way of funds. She lobbied for a pension from Congress, claiming she should be taken care of as much as any Civil War widow. She bombarded Senators with letters on the matter, and found an advocate to champion her cause on the floor. On July 14, 1870, the United States Congress granted her a life pension of $3,000 annually. However, this measure passed by only the slimmest of margins, and Mary, with her persecution complex and mental illness taking firmer hold, believed this a personal insult.
In 1871, her son Thomas “Tad” Lincoln (born 1853) died. Mary Todd Lincoln needed something to make her feel better about the deaths of her sons and husband. Spiritualism gained in popularityCredit: William Mumler, some time after 1865, public domain and Mary, previously a dabbler, became an adherent, hoping to communicate with her dead loved ones. Unfortunately, many con artists existed to prey upon such vulnerable people. One of the biggest frauds in the realm of “spirit” photography was a studio portraitist named William Mumler. Not only did he take elegant studio photographs of people, but he also provided specialty photos purportedly showing “ghosts” of loved ones hovering near the subject. In a classic example of the medium’s early days of fraud, a gullible Mary Todd Lincoln sat for a “spirit” photograph. Not surprisingly, the “spirit” of her dead husband, Abraham, was ethereally present, both hands comfortingly on her shoulders, looking down upon her with love and concern.
Robert Lincoln, now a rising young Chicago lawyer, was disturbed by his mother’s increasingly bizarre behavior. Mary was visiting Jacksonville, Florida (she traveled much for distraction), in March 1875. During her visit she developed the strange feeling something was wrong with Robert, and this feeling resolved itself into an unshakeable certainty that he was deathly ill. Her premonition urging her to take action, Mary suddenly left Florida and showed up unexpectedly in Chicago. Robert Lincoln was quite well as she soon discovered, but he determined she was not. She told him many irrational things, fed by her persecution complex and schizoaffective disorder. She claimed someone on the train to Chicago had tried to poison her. She also reported a Jewish passenger (to whom she referred as “a wandering Jew”) had stolen her pocketbook, but mysteriously had returned it to her intact.
While in Chicago on her unannounced visit she spent huge sums on household items that she never used. She bought drapes that never hung in a window and fancy dresses she would never wear (after Lincoln’s death she obsessively wore widow’s weeds of black). Even though she was comfortably well off with her $3000 annual government stipend, she had a paralyzing fear of poverty. Fearful of thieves, she sewed $56,000 worth of negotiable government bonds into her petticoats and wore these garments on the mean streets of Chicago without a thought to mugging or murder. Finally, after Mary almost jumped out of a window to escape a non-existent fire, Robert was at the end of his rope, and he conflated her delusion-driven window adventure as a suicide attempt instead. For her own safety and his peace of mind, he processed paperwork (a warrant for taking her into custody) and had her committed to a psychiatric hospital.Credit: Bellevue Place, public domain
Mary was livid. Before her commitment a sanity hearing was held that went against her. In the wake of the hearing she went to her hotel’s pharmacist and tried to buy a lethal dose of laudanum. The pharmacist, knowing who she was and her circumstances, gave her a placebo instead. She was taken to Bellevue Place in Batavia, Illinois, on May 20, 1875. This was a private sanitarium; Mary believed she was there wrongfully. She wrote many letters of appeal to get out, and within three months of her arrival she was engineering an escape. She smuggled letters out of the hospital to her lawyer and his wife, Myra Bradwell, who was her friend, a feminist lawyer, and a fellow Spiritualist. Mary also wrote to the editor of the Chicago Times newspaper. She sent out a plea to a judge on August Credit: Mary Todd Lincoln8, 1875, that was written on small pieces of paper. It read in part:
“…to become insane.
I pray you to see
that justice is done
immediately to me –
for my mind is
entirely clear and
my health is per-
With a high app-
reciation of yourself
and your wife, son,
and daughter, whom I
love very much,
August 8th 1875”
[the crabbed writing on these two scratch pad pages is because of the small size of the paper she was given]
Her plight was dutifully reported, and soon became an embarrassment for Robert Lincoln, lawyer about town. Many began questioning his motives for putting his mother away, and he lived under a cloud of suspicion (Robert was named conservator of his mother’s finances upon her intake). The commitment of Mary to a sanitarium by her son drove a wedge between them. They never reconciled.
Mary agitated for another sanity hearing (as she had done almost from the moment she was in custody). In the first hearing, the director of Bellevue Place said Mary would benefit immensely from whatever psychiatric programs the hospital had to offer. This is unlikely – sanitariums of the time were more like warehousing facilities, and mental illness Credit: wiki commonswas little understood. However, they probably could not have harmed her much, either. Something that saved her from permanent damage was that neither electro-shock “therapy” nor the pre-frontal lobotomy had been invented. One or both would have been assuredly and indiscriminately used on her as valid therapies in the next century.
At her new trial, however, the same Bellevue director testifying against her initially did an about-face from the earlier commitment proceedings. In the face of the widespread negative publicity, he claimed she was now (after four months of “treatment”) magically well enough to go back to Springfield and live with her sister. Mary was discharged from Bellevue Place in September 1875 into the care of her sister Elizabeth Edwards (with whom she had lived when she met Abraham Lincoln). In 1876, she was legally declared once again competent enough to manage her own affairs, and Robert was removed as her conservator. She almost immediately departed for Europe.
Mary spent the next four years traveling the Continent living most of the time in Italy, and then settling in Pau, France (roughly 40 miles northeast of Lourdes in the Pyrenees). It is probably no accident Mary Todd Lincoln, the Spiritualist, chose this area. The Grotto at Lourdes, in the wake of Bernadette Salubrious’ visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1858, was a well established shrine and healing tourist attraction. Mary Todd Lincoln by this time had severe cataracts, and her eyesight was failing. She had also fallen from a stepladder and sustained a spinal cord injury in 1879. A “healing” visit to the nearby spa at Lourdes would not have been out-of-order for her – Pau had little to recommend it otherwise.
Her health failing, Mary returned to Springfield and the home of her sister, Elizabeth Edwards. She spent her last years confined by both her physical problems and her chronic depression. Mary Todd Lincoln died on July 16, 1882, age 63, her sorrow-filled and anguished life over. She was laid to rest in the Lincoln Tomb in Springfield next to her husband.
Mary Todd Lincoln is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and undeservedly maligned First Ladies. Her histrionic outbursts, her eccentricities, her compulsive spending, were all attributed in her day to bad moral character. It was not considered there may have been something mentally wrong with her. Abe Lincoln, however, might have suspected. In his earliest days of meeting her, their courtship was described as “stormy”. This infers Mary’s volatility may have jeopardized the relationship early on but that Lincoln saw past her “high strung” neuroses and loved her anyway. Perhaps he felt she might simply grow out of whatever ailed her. Regardless, he stuck by her, but not as closely as he should have. [Schizoaffective disorder was only recently suggested based upon her behaviors. That mental condition seems to fit best for her general symptoms of “premonitions”, her persecution complex, the delusions, bi-polar problems, and her compulsive spending.]
Mary’s drinking “fake” laudanum in 1875 was not her first suicide attempt. She was suicidal after the deaths of all three of her children. Lincoln is what kept her from taking the final plunge, thoughCredit: public domain he developed chronic depression himself and was not much use to her in the White House when their son Willie died there.
Mary Todd Lincoln is probably best understood in the context of her times. Mental illness was a character defect, or the result of immoral behavior, or the sign of a degenerate. Therefore, something must have been very wrong with Mary for her to be so flighty, and given to delusions, or over-spending to the ruination of her household. “Understanding” her was not an option: the only person who might have had some idea of what she was going through, himself a chronic depressive, was taken away from her by a mewling assassin’s bullet.
Mary was a First Lady for whom one should extend compassion and sympathy. She should also perhaps, in context, be a bit pitied as well. The fact she went about the business of living publicly, despite all of her issues and tragedies, was nothing short of miraculous. Though there were times she could not get out of bed, Mary Todd Lincoln mostly managed to put on a brave façade, albeit one covering much pain.
Author’s Note: A big budget, major motion picture from Steven Spielberg, Lincoln, opened in theaters on November 13, 2012. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as the President; Sally Field portrays the suffering Mary Todd Lincoln. She bears more than a passing resemblance to the troubled former First Lady, and it is worth checking out.