Encyclopedia Womannica

Mavericks & Legends: Mary Todd Lincoln

Episode Summary

Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) earned the nickname “hellcat” during her time as First Lady in the White House. Her famous temper and expensive taste made her an outsider in Washington. Despite her own turbulent experience, she remained steadfastly loyal to her husband and his ultimate political triumphs.

Episode Notes

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Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s legend earned the nickname “hellcat” during her time in the White House. Her famous temper and expensive taste made her an outsider in Washington. Despite her own turbulent experience, she remained steadfastly loyal to her husband and his ultimate political triumphs.

Let’s talk about Mary Todd Lincoln. 

Mary Ann Todd was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1818, to a wealthy slaveholding family. Her parents, Robert Smith Todd, a banker, and Elizabeth Parker, ultimately had 7 children. Mary was the fourth.  

When Mary was six, her mother died in childbirth. Her father soon re-married, but Mary and her stepmother struggled to get along. 

Because of that tense relationship, Mary spent much of her youth at Madame Mentelle’s finishing school, where she starred in a number of theater productions. By 20, she was fluent in French, and regarded as witty and gregarious. And like the rest of her family, Mary was a Whig. 

Beginning in the late 1830s, the Whig party was one of two major American political parties, alongside the Democrats. They believed in maintaining social order, protection of property, and the importance of preserving a distinct cultural heritage.

In 1839, Mary moved to Springfield, Illinois, to live with her sister, Elizabeth. Mary was popular among Springfield’s elite. Despite having several suitors, she ultimately chose Abraham Lincoln, a promising lawyer and fellow Whig. 

The two married on November 4th, 1842. Abraham was 33. Mary was just 23. The two went on to have four children. In 1850, Mary and Abe’s second son, Eddie, died at the age of four from tuberculosis.

In 1861, Abraham Lincoln became the 16th president of the United States. During her years as the first lady, Mary faced a number of personal difficulties stemming from the nation’s political divisions. 

Lincoln was considered the country’s first Western president, having grown up in Illinois. Mary, meanwhile, was from a border state. Her family had owned slaves. Several of her half-brothers fought and died for the Confederacy. Despite her staunch support of emancipation, Mary was considered by many critics to be coarse and pretentious. She struggled to navigate the social responsibilities and high national intrigue that surrounded the White House during the Civil War. 

Mary was also often ill. She suffered from severe headaches, depression, fatigue and mood swings. She became known for her fierce temper and public outbursts, prompting Lincoln’s personal secretary to famously nickname her “the hellcat.” Mary’s symptoms, coupled with her bouts of excessive spending, have led some historians to suggest she may have suffered from bipolar disorder. Others have floated “pernicious anemia” as the cause. Regardless, daily life was not easy for Mary. 

In 1862, Mary’s favorite son, Willie, suddenly fell ill and died, at the age of 11. Mary was bedridden with grief for weeks. She couldn’t bring herself to ever enter the room in which Willie died again. The president’s grief took a different route. Every Tuesday, at the height of the Civil War, he sequestered himself inside that same room. 

On April 15, 1865, Abraham and Mary attended the comic play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. Just a few days before, the Civil War had essentially ended. Spirits were high. During the third act, Abe and Mary moved closer to one another, holding hands. “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging onto you so?” whispered Mary. “She won’t think anything about it,” replied Abe, smiling.

Minutes later, President Lincoln was shot in the back of the head by John Wilkes Booth. 

Mary accompanied her husband across the street to the Petersen House, where he was brought into a back room. President Lincoln remained in a coma for nine hours before dying the next morning. Just after 7am, Mary was allowed into the room to say goodbye. As one witness described, "She again seated herself by the President, kissing him and calling him every endearing name.” 

Now a widow, Mary moved to Chicago with her two remaining sons, Robert and Tad. 

In 1870, the U.S. Congress granted Mary a life pension of $3,000 a year. At the time it was unprecedented for the widows of presidents to receive such financial support, but Mary had argued fiercely for it. She insisted she deserved a pension just like any other widow of a soldier, as her husband was, in essence, a fallen commander. 

In 1871, Mary’s youngest son, Tad, died unexpectedly at 18. This loss, coupled with the deaths of her husband and two other sons, threw Mary into an overpowering depression. She became obsessed with the health of her surviving child, who was now well into adulthood. She had thousands of dollars in government bonds sewn into her petticoats, and spent large amounts of money on things she never used, like elaborate dresses and draperies. 

Her remaining son, Robert, was a rising Chicago lawyer. Alarmed at his mother’s increasingly turbulent behavior, Robert began proceedings to have Mary institutionalized. After a trial, she was committed to a private institution in Batavia, Illinois, in 1875. Following the court proceedings, Mary attempted suicide.

Three months into her time at Bellevue Place, Mary began planning her escape. She smuggled letters to her lawyer and his wife, a feminist laywer in her own right. She wrote to the editor of the Chicago Sun Times. Her son, Robert, now facing the threat of public embarrassment and scrutiny, relented. 

Mary was released into the custody of her sister, who still lived in Springfield, Illinois. In 1876, Mary was declared competent to manage her own affairs. 

Mary spent the next four years of her life traveling around Europe, ultimately settling in France. But Mary, now nearing 60, suffered from severe cataracts, leaving her nearly blind. In 1879, she fell from a stepladder, and sustained injuries to her spinal cord. 

Mary returned to the U.S. to lobby for an increased pension in 1881. Despite negative press surrounding her spending habits and criticism of her handling of personal finances, Mary, once again, won her case. 

She returned to Springfield, where she died a few months later, in 1882, at the age of 63.

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All May, we’re talking about Mavericks and Legends. We’re highlighting women who went against prescribed gender norms to make a name for themselves -- for better or for worse. Some of these women did incredible things for society and should be celebrated, others had a big impact that was not quite so rosy. The collection of women we’re featuring this month is complex and nuanced, much like all women are. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator, and thanks to all the Womanniacs out there. Check out glow.fm/womannia to support us and become part of our membership program.

Talk to you tomorrow!