Mary Todd Lincoln on Trial (Part 1 of 4)

Now in theatres, the movie Lincoln starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln gives a historically accurate look at their lives and how the pressures they both faced strained their marriage.   While the movie ends with the Lincoln assassination, the downward spiral of Mary Todd Lincoln's life after her husband's death makes for a gripping story in its own right.   In a very real sense, Mary Todd Lincoln's life ended along with her husband's on that fatal day when John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater.   With Abraham Lincoln's death, Mary she lost her husband, her home, and her very reason for living all at once.

Despite her emotional problems, Mary Lincoln successfully coped with numerous tragedies during her married life with Abraham Lincoln.   That included MV5BMTQzNzczMDUyNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjM2ODEzOA@@._V1._SY317_CR0,0,214,317_[1] the deaths of two of her four children even before her husband's assassination.   She also coped successfully with being the First Lady of a nation divided by civil war and the venom that was often directed at her husband.     Between her husband's law practice and his growing political career, Mary was often left to raise their four children alone for months at a time although she coped with all of that with true strength.

As First Lady, she had new problems since her life in Illinois left her unprepared for dealing with the "genteel" Easterners who presided over Washington society.   While Abraham Lincoln could get away with his homespun charm,  Mary just looked coarse and unmannered by comparison.   It was probably not surprising that she was prone to severe episodes of depression and migraine headaches.  The death of her son Willie in 1862 while the Lincoln's were still in the White House led to a period of protracted mourning for Mary.   She coped with the death of her second son Eddie in 1850 by having more children but that was no longer an option by the time Willie died.  Her mourning became so severe and prolonged that her husband was obliged to warn her that her excessive grieving might force him to send her to "that large white building on the hill yonder", i.e., the nearby insane asylum. 

Mary managed to resume her duties as First Lady but she took every opportunity to travel away from Washington whenever possible.  She also focused all her energies on her surviving children and became extremely upset when her oldest son, Robert, entered the army (as shown in the movie).  This added to the growing tension between the Lincolns.  Robert, who was part of Ulysees S. Grant's staff by then, was away from home frequently and Mary only had her youngest son, Tad for comfort.

If the end of the Civil War suggested that she and her husband might actually have a better future together, that hope ended on April 14, 1865.  After witnessing her husband's shooting, Mary Lincoln accompanied her critically wounded husband across the street to Petersen House where she and her son Robert sat and waited for word on her husband's condition.  When she was finally told at 7:23 AM that her husband had died, she became so overcome with grief that War Secretary Edward M. Stanton had to order her from the room.

220px-Mary_Todd_Lincoln2crop[1]Though she managed to cope well with the burden of dealing with condolence letters from government leaders and private citizens, Mary faced enormous pressure as the widow of the martyred president.    She even attempted to answer as many of the letters as she could as well as managing the elaborate funeral, complete with a train carrying her husband's body (and the body of their son Willie) to their home in Springfield, Illinois. 

The death of her husband not only cost her her marriage and the White House where she had lived for nearly a decade, it also left her financially destitute.   Although she managed to keep them hidden from her husband, Mary ran up enormous debts while living in the White House due to her extravagant spending.    These bills came due after her husband's death and she  lost the virtually unlimited credit she had enjoyed as First Lady.   Though she demanded that Congress provide her with the pension that she felt was owed her as a president's widow, that was slow in coming.    While Congress granted her $22,000 (the remainder of her husband's salary for 1865), that only lasted a short while.

Acting as executor of her husband's estate, Supreme Court Justice David Davis found himself in frequent arguments with Mary once he discovered that she owed more than six thousand dollars (a hefty sum in 1864 currency).   She tried to keep the debts hidden from Justice Davis and her eldest son as long as she could but she became increasingly desperate.   Driven by the need to settle her debts and fearing that she would be left penniless, Mary tried to sell her old clothes to dealers in New York City.   While the clothes failed to sell,  the public revelation that Mary Todd Lincoln was trying to sell off clothing to settle debts led to the 1867 "Old Clothes scandal" and the publication of letters that Mrs. Lincoln wrote to dealers blaming Congress and the Republican party for her poverty.     When the newspapers got wind of these letters condemning Republican politicians for having "unhesitatingly deprived me of all means of support and left me in a pitiless condition",  Mary was forced to leave Washington and go into exile in Europe.

While traveling to various European cities, Mary continued to pressure Congress for a pension.   After a barrage of letters, she was granted a lifetime pension of $3,000 a year although she felt entitled to more than that.    Shortly after returning to the United States in 1871, Mary was faced with her next great tragedy.   Her youngest son, Tad, grew ill with pleurisy and died that same year.   More miserable than ever, Mary Todd Lincoln spent the summer of the following year in Waukesha, Wisconsin.   Although her official reason for visiting Waukesha was to attend a health spa (Waukesha was famous for its waters), sources also showed that she spent considerable time visiting spiritualists to communicate with her dead son and husband. 

After leaving Wisconsin, she travelled to Canada and then travelled to Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia.  As the widow of the Great Emancipator, she avoided newspaper reporters whenever possible and always travelled with a nurse due to her poor health.   Mary was also extremely paranoid about protecting her privacy and continually kept the shades drawn on the windows in her hotel room.  She also avoided using gas lighting in her rooms and relied on candles alone (she told her nurse that gas was the invention of the Devil).

In 1875, Mary developed an overwhelming fear that her sole remaining son, Robert, was seriously ill.   Since she was still in Jacksonville, Florida, she had  to rely on the local telegraph office to check on his condition.   After sending off a hysterical telegram to Robert's law partner,  she demanded that her son contact her immediately.   In a following telegram, she told Robert to "rouse yourself and live for my sake.  All I have is yours from this hour.  I am praying every moment for your life to be spared to your mother."    After seeing the telegrams, Robert Lincoln (who, by the way, was in excellent health) instruced the telegraph office to report on his mother's mental condition.   

Although the Jacksonville telegraph operator tried to convince Mary that her son was fine, she left for Chicago that same day accompanied by her nurse.  The operator sent Robert the following message, "Mrs. Lincoln and nurse left this evening for Chicago [.] She will not be convinced that her son is not dangerously ill[.] Nurse thinks Mrs. L. should be at home as soon as possible."    When Robert met her at the train station, she was surprised that he seemed healthy but also told him that someone tried to poison her on the train.   They stayed together at the Grand Pacific Hotel when Mary tried to leave her room to go to the lobby despite only being only half-dressed.   As Robert tried to stop her, she screamed that he was trying to murder her.    Robert Lincoln managed to calm his mother but also began making arrangements to have her committed to a mental hospital.

To be continued




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