The Sadness of Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln

Much has been said and written about the madness of Mary Todd Lincoln but I’m thinking today about her sadness.  Everyone pretty much agrees that Mrs. Lincoln went insane. Abraham Lincoln seemed to be aware of it. He once told her, after the death of their son Willie, that if she didn’t try and control her grief, she might have to be sent to an asylum. Mary exhibited many signs of her gradual insanity: the sudden unexpected and unpredicted fits of rage, her obsessive shopping sprees ( during a 3 month period she purchased 300 hundred pairs of gloves), and episodes of deep depression and weeping. Eventually, she was committed to a private sanitarium (in Batavia, Illinois).
Mary Lincoln was a pathetic person who deserved much sympathy. Unfortunately during her lifetime, especially her later years, there was very little sympathy given her. Her erratic behaviors had so damaged her standing in the public’s eyes that she was much disfavored. Even today when people speak of Mary Todd Lincoln they mention that she was “crazy”- with little or nothing else to say of her sadness.
Consider this: Mary Lincoln was mentally ill. She didn’t cause it but she did endure it. As a mother, she lived to see three sons die. That had to be so hard. In the Civil War, she lost several family members to death. Then she had her husband murdered. To make it worse, she was sitting next to him when he was shot (PTSD?). In her later years, she suffered from serious medical problems including diabetes.
Of course, it was Mr. Lincoln’s death that she never recovered from. It is said that she wore mourning black for the rest of her life after his assassination. She, herself, longed for death so that she could be with him. She was suicidal at times. In 1882, she returned to Springfield. She was almost blind by then. She was also partially paralyzed. She went to live with her sister in the house she had married Abraham so long before. She mostly kept herself isolated. She didn’t have company or visitors. On July 15, 1882 she died. She was 64 years old. She finally got her wish…
Yes, I’m thinking of the sadness of Mary Todd Lincoln today. I’m thinking she was quite a person. In spite of her physical and mental problems-in spite of her great losses, in spite of a public that didn’t really understand her or  have sympathy for her- she endured it all. She had her good times to be sure. But I think over all, she was a very sad person. She didn’t end well-and that’s truly sad. 
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5 Responses to “The Sadness of Mary Todd Lincoln”

  1. B. Nash says:

    Rita: Thank you for visiting AbesBlogCabin and for leaving such interesting and thought-out comments. I agree with you 100%. Please come back and visit. Blessings to you and yours.

  2. Rita Rinaldi says:

    Having just seen Spielberg’s Lincoln film, I came away with great sympathy for Mary Todd Lincoln. The film attempted to depict her as a deeply troubled, unhappy woman with many good reasons for feeling that way. The issue of her being “crazy” was discussed by her and Lincoln in the film, but it portrayed her as fundamentally sane, which I was happy to see. The film didn’t go into her more erratic behaviors (such as the shopping sprees).

    When I spoke to two men, both Lincoln buffs, about the film, they both said to me, “oh, Mary Todd Lincoln, she was nuts, she spent all her husband’s money,” as if that was all there was to the woman. So there still is a very deep popular notion that we can write her off as another “female nut case.” But your poignant paragraph above speaks more to who Mary really was and what her situation really was.

    Some scholars today who look at her symptoms are inclined to think she wasn’t crazy, but did have a mental illness, probably bipolar depression. Her wild spending habits would be seen as part of the manic phase of this disease, and the long periods of deep excessive sadness and crying as part of the depressed phase. Many people suffer from this terrible affliction and are not considered insane. They can take medication today that will keep the disease in check, although it’s not a cure. In Mary’s day, any woman who was frustrated with her role in life could be labeled insane and shipped off to an asylum for the convenience of disgusted husbands.

    It’s a sad commentary that even today, many who should know better just dismiss Mary Todd Lincoln as a crazy lady, when the truth is so much more complicated than that. Unfortunately I think this is because we still have remnants of sexism in our culture that minimize the suffering of women.

    Thank you for highlighting some of the many reasons that Mary Todd Lincoln might have been feeling a little more “unhinged” than your average person. The sadness of Mary Todd Lincoln was tragic indeed.

  3. B. Nash says:

    Love that you’re back for a visit!

  4. B. Nash says:

    Your points are all valid-and I welcome your input. Have you read the book “The Madness of Mary Lincoln/” It goes into great detail examining what the author believes was her mental illness. Of course, it’s anybodys guess.

  5. DJ Haas says:

    I have always had difficulty in Mrs. Lincoln being judged insane because: 1) she shopped excessively (so did Jackie Kennedy – and she wasn’t considered insane; Imelda Marcos bought tons of shoes…); 2) excessive sadness and weeping – that is grief, not a warrant for insanity; 3) fits of rage… when I researched MTL, I worked with an OBGyn… we discovered many things written about her in letters, in diaries, etc. that mentioned her fits seemed to fall around “that time of the month.” I honestly believe she had PMS in pre-Midol days! Also, she received a severe head injury in an assassination attempt that was meant for her husband… from that point on she was even more irrational. I honestly believe there was more damage done at that point.

    You are so right when you said she was sad!

    Thanks for your post!

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