Mary Todd Lincoln
December 13, 1818, in Lexington, Kentucky
July 16, 1882, in Springfield, Illinois
Mary Lincoln served as first lady throughout Abraham Lincoln’s tenure as president, from 1861 until he was assassinated in 1865. Mary was 42 years old when she became first lady.
It might seem that Mary’s southern heritage would have served as an asset in the White House during this period of divisive turmoil between the North and the South, but, to many, her southern roots were a source of distrust and some even believed that she was a spy. It certainly did not help public opinion about her in the North when one of her brothers, as well as three of her step-brothers, joined the Confederate army. Of course, she was nothing if not devoted to the Union. Mary not only supported her husband’s political career, she was also a rock-solid advocate of the antislavery movement. In fact, she was the first first lady to invite African Americans to the White House as guests. Furthermore, her own grandmother had operated a safe house on the Underground Railroad––the highly secretive system of routes and safe houses used by slaves to escape to free states––and in her younger years Mary had helped her.
Mary’s life had been consumed with loss––the death of her mother when Mary was only six years old and the deaths of two of her four sons, one of whom died during Lincoln’s presidency. The final straw for Mary, however, was the assassination of her husband. After suffering years of grief, Lincoln’s death plunged her into such a deep depression that she was not able to leave the White House to attend his funeral. Following her husband’s death, Mary traveled to Europe with her youngest son, who became ill and died not long after returning to America. She spent several months in an institution, but recovered enough to return to Springfield and live her remaining days at her sister’s home.
Todd family tradition has noted Mary and Abraham met at a ball, at which the future president said to her, “Miss Todd, I want to dance with you in the worst way.”
After Lincoln’s assassination, Mary questioned, “Did ever woman have to suffer so much and experience so great a change?”