Mary Todd Lincoln was born on December 13, 1818 in Lexington, Kentucky to Robert Todd and Eliza Parker Todd. Her mother’s family, the Parkers, and her father’s family, the Todds, were two of the most prosperous and well-known families from the Bluegrass region. Her grandfather, Levi Todd had helped establish Lexington and her father was involved in politics as a member of the Whig party and was also a merchant. Eliza Todd passed away in childbirth when Mary was six and her father married Elizabeth Humphreys. The Todds lived on West Main St in Lexington, today’s Mary Todd Lincoln House.
As a member of Lexington’s elite, Mary was afforded an in-depth education. She studied at Frenchwoman Charlotte Mentelle’s boarding school, which was located across from Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. The Todd family lived less than two miles from the Clays was well acquainted with them. Though it is unclear whether Mary’s future husband would ever meet the esteemed politician, Clay once promised a young Mary that she would be among his first guests in Washington should he ever become president. After completing twelve years of school, Mary was one of the most well-educated women of her day.
But how did Mary Todd end up in Illinois in order to meet Abraham Lincoln? In 1832, Mary’s older sister Elizabeth married Ninian Edwards, son of a former governor of Illinois, and upon his graduation from Transylvania University, the couple moved to Springfield, which had become the new Illinois capitol. In 1839, Mary followed her sister to Springfield and at a dance, she met Abraham Lincoln, a junior partner of her cousin John Todd Stuart’s law firm.
Abraham and Mary were very different. Mary grew up very wealthy, whereas he grew up relatively poor and from a rural family. However, they shared a love of the written word and a deep interest in politics, and those among other things, linked them. The Todds did not necessarily approve of this backwoods nobody and tried to convince her that marrying Abraham was a mistake. They wed in 1842.
Mary’s new life as a lawyer’s wife seemed much different than the life of leisure she enjoyed in her youth. Abraham was often away working for long periods of time, which meant that Mary had to tend to household business as well as raising four sons. Though she lived a very domestic life, she also took great interest in politics and had very ambitious goals for her husband. Many say it was her ambition that took him to the White House. During her time as first lady, Mary worked hard to make the White House a fashionable place. She was often criticized for extravagant spending during the Civil War. She was also accused of being a Confederate sympathizer, because she was from Kentucky and her sister Emilie was married to Benjamin Hardin Helm, a Confederate general, who fell at Chickamauga. Mary invited Emilie to come stay with her in the White House in 1863.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s life after she became first lady was marked with tragedy. Her son Willie died of typhoid fever in 1862 at age eleven and the stress of the war burdened her as she saw the toll it took on her husband. Upon his assassination in 1865, Mary never recovered from shock. She struggled financially, fighting for Abraham’s pension, but living on the money from his estate. Her son Tad died of pneumonia, which only added to the grief and pain she felt. Robert Todd, her son, decided that it was best she stay in an asylum, but she fought for her freedom and was released after several months. Though she lived for nearly two decades after her husband’s death, Mary never recovered from the anguish that she felt upon his murder.
Mary Todd Lincoln died on July 16, 1882, and was buried in the Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield.
To learn more about Abraham Lincoln in Lexington, please visit our exhibit “Lincoln and His Wife’s Hometown” which discusses Mary and her family’s interaction with her husband during his four visits to Lexington.