Lincoln’s wife – ‘that woman’

This is the story that Isn’t in the film on Lincoln. But I couldn’t look at Robert Lincoln in it, without thinking of how he betrayed his mother and had her certified as insane and bundled into a mental home ten years after her husband died.

After her husband’s death and then the death of Tad, Robert was her only son. He left her to grieve alone in her cheap hotel when Tad died and went off on holiday for a month. Later, after she had had a premonition that he was in danger, he decided he’d had enough.

Reasons for certifying her were her obsessive grief, belief in spiritualism and premonitions  – her husband had dreamt of his death shortly before his assassination – compulsive shopping, and embarrassing efforts to raise money – like selling her clothes – because she couldn’t afford to buy a house when she left the White House, and was lobbying for a pension..

Two men arrived at the hotel where she lived, took her off to court, where Robert had bribed six doctors who’d never seen her, to say she was insane, and the jury – of men – certified her. After three months, she managed to smuggle a letter to a woman friend who was also a lawyer though barred from practising because she was a woman, and finally extricated herself from the asylum. She went to live with her sister.

The actor playing Robert was a remarkable likeness, as was Sally Field, who wore copies of the same clothes that Mary Lincoln had been seen in, and also looked uncannily like her. Mary Lincoln, for all the slurs and vicious attacks on her in the newspapers of the time, was her husband’s most loyal and percipient supporter. She’d seen his greatness from the days of their courtship, when she turned down another suitor – Stephen Douglas –Lincoln’s political rival, and said she intended to marry a man who was going to be President, and it wasn’t him!

When her confidant Elizabeth Keckley, and she fell out, Keckley wrote a book about Mary’s years in the White House. Who of us would want our lives exposed by a friend we’d fallen out with? Over the years newspapers picked up every piece of malicious gossip, true or not and ran with it, while Robert’s explanations for his behaviour added to the picture of an unbalanced and unlovable woman. The lasting effects of all this negative publicity shows in her entry in Wikipedia in which all the slurs of that time are repeated as though they were true.

One of the last massive  public snubs this unhappy and difficult woman endured was when one of my favourite people, Ulysses Grant, and his wife Julia, were given a triumphant reception in Pau, where Mary Lincoln was living in frugal exile in France, and they failed to even call on her.

In psychological terms, she never got over her feeling of being a victim, which she was, attracting the very events which re-inforced her victimhood. She was a victim both of the times she lived in, and of her own frequently tactless behaviour. Displaced as a year- old baby by two more brothers, she became the forgotten middle child in a family of six, and then her mother died when she was six years old.

A new stepmother arrived swiftly in the family and one of her methods of dealing with her unwanted stepchildren was to shame and humiliate them, which to a vulnerable six year old would have been devastating. As more and more children arrived in the family via the stepmother, the older children became more side-lined and alienated.

Mary became a boarder at a school in walking distance from her home, and at seventeen left this unhappy house to live with her sister. She was pretty, mad about fashion, accomplished, speaking French fluently,  highly intelligent, and fascinated by politics, an unusual quality at a time when most girls left school and thought of nothing but clothes and who they would marry .

When she met and married Lincoln, unlike most other women then, Mary had neither slaves not servants. She kept her house like a new pin, became a noted cook and hostess for her husband’s political supporters, and brought up their children in a very modern way, easy-going and tolerant, as was Abraham. But the deaths of three sons and her husband devastated her already scarred psyche.

After each death she did become emotionally unbalanced, no doubt driven by that first deep wound of her mother’s death. And history has not been kind to her.  Today, she would have been understood and received the counselling and therapy she needed to exorcise her pain. Today we would have understood that her extravagant shopping was an attempt to comfort herself… who of us has not enjoyed some retail therapy at some time in our life?

Today, her child-rearing methods would have been accepted, as would her need for an outlet for her talents and energy. Today it would not be possible to bundle her off out of sight into a mental home because she was an embarassment. But it was okay to do that to a woman in the 1870’s.

Today, she would have received proper medical treatment for the post childbirth problems she suffered for the rest of her life, as well as for her constant migraines. She would not have been treated as a hysterical neurotic with no rights. (“Get that woman out of here,” a man said when she was weeping over her dying husband.)

Today, she would not have had to leave the White House with no means to buy a house for herself and her children, would not have had her husband’s estate withheld from her for two years because of dilatory executors, and she would not have had to beg for a pension. After leaving the White House she lived in cheap hotels for the rest of her life.

She had a happy marriage and a devoted husband, and had no need of VAWA, and the protection against violence that so many women need today all over the world. She needed the protection of rights and respect, and in Western countries at least, today women can no longer be treated like chattels or second class incompetents – they are equal under the law, they have a vote and a voice.

The contrast between Mary Lincoln’s treatment then, and women’s rights and opportunities today shows us that we have made progress, that civilisation is inching its way to a better world, and that though there are still so many areas of pain and poverty that need to be tackled, we can still hope to ease the suffering, knowing that we’ve achieved so much already.

Don’t miss that film ‘Lincoln’!

P.S. If I seem neglectful at reading your blogs, it’s I’m having great trouble with Word Press. According to the teenage son of the garage proprietor I’ve lost my cookies or something, but he can’t fix it… So it means a long drive into the nearest town to the computer man to get it done… I have visions of a computer buff scoffing a plate of chocolate brownies, but presumably computer cookies are something else….

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Summer and salad days. We have a glut of cauliflower, thanks to a generous neighbour. We’ve done cauliflower cheese of course, but my favourite way with cauliflower is raw. This recipe is for one person, just increase the amounts for each person. Grate a cup, to a cup and a half of cauliflower, chop lots of parsley, hard boil one egg and chop three or four dates. Pour a tablsp of almond chips – not flakes- into a non stick frying pan, and watch carefully until the almonds brown in their own oil. Tip into the grated cauliflower immediately or they go on cooking, and mix everything together gently with enough good mayonnaise to bind it. Sometimes I add grated carrot, sometimes chopped banana, but this is the mix I like best. It’s filling enough on its own for a meal.

Food for Thought

The success of any great moral enterprise does not depend on numbers.              William Lloyd Garrison   1805 – 1879     One of the great heroes of Abolition, whose life was sometimes endangered by his crusade against slavery. He also campaigned for women’s suffrage, and civil rights for blacks.






Filed under cookery/recipes, great days, history, love, politics, slavery, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, womens issues

53 responses to “Lincoln’s wife – ‘that woman’

  1. Interesting. I wondered about that in the movie she was not put away, is that right or did I miss something?


  2. Indeed, we have made great strides! We stand on the shoulders of giants….


  3. that gave me chills… I have no idea about her story! thank you for sharing


  4. Wow and today she would not have been committed (certified) to begin with as society protects helpless victims against prosecution without cause. What a fascinating portrayal of a woman we have not given thought to until now. I must see the film. Now I know why it has attracted so many. It has all the elements of today’s mindset (by some) but with none of the procedures that protect the mentally ill or woman at that time. Hooray for her!


  5. What a wonderful look back at a woman I knew so little about. So sad that she was treated that way. I wonder how her son turned out… Nasty man!


  6. Yes, it’s hard to believe that a son would do that to his mother… but I’ve ceased to be surprised by un-integrated human nature


  7. wow that was a great piece of research, i have not seen lincoln yet.. and am ashamed to say i know very little of his or her story, but what you write rings so true .. there are other dreadful stories of women incarcerated during this period (and later) because they did not fit in.. c


  8. She was a woman before her time. It can be hard enough to find your place in the world but when you think differently to all around you, it’s even more so. Poor Mary. Thanks for sharing more about her. 🙂


  9. Amy

    I’ve seen the movie, but knew nothing about Mary Lincoln’s life and her son Robert. I like how you tell the story and compare it with today’s women. Great post,thank you, Valerie!


    • Amy, lovely to hear from you, so glad you enjoyed it, Did you enjoy the film?


      • Amy

        I did, It was a well-filmed movie! There was an article in Smithsonian Mag. Nov. 2012, “Lincoln goes to Hollywood”, Not sure if you have already read it. in the article s. Spielberg said that ” I did not want to make a movie about a monument. I wanted the audience to get into the working process of the president.”, and he did.


  10. I have yet to see the movie. Through the years I just heard faint stories that Mary Lincoln was insane. Thank you for sharing this piece of research about the real story behind the rumors.

    The cauliflower recipe sounds wonderful. I will have to try it one of these days. Thank you, Valerie! Dee


  11. Hello Dee, hope you enjoy the cauliflower!…. the film is very powerful… I had a good cry at various times, it was so moving!!!!


  12. Valerie, thank you, for once again furthering my education. About all this I had no idea.!


  13. Wonderfully done. I knew a part of her story but not all. What a baseless cad her son was. I had always found amazing he could do this to his mother, when he had Lincoln as a father. But then, he still had the society surrounding him as well. I knew theirs, that is Mary and Abe, was truly a love story though not without some bumps. Abraham Lincoln was not without warts of his own.

    Thank for this one. It reminds us of how far we have come.


    • Thank you Val, I always love your comments…yes, I don’t think it was an easy marriage for her either, with him away so often either on the law circuit or on politics in Washington… also often late for meals, because he’d forget! It would have driven me mad!!!!!


  14. What a wonderful post. I would hope that history eventually puts her in the perspective that you so wonderfully describe, and does not burn her at the stake. Perhaps you should consider re-doing that Wikipedia entry. Unfortunately, Wikipedia is often treated as gospel and having the wrong information on there gradually alters history, as people accept it as fact.


  15. I agree with you, Valerie. Mary Todd Lincoln, was an extraordinary woman and way ahead of her time. I did see the film and I was especially moved by the relationship between Mary and Abe. I was also impressed by how well fleshed the character of Lincoln was, less so by the other characters in the drama. After a bit, they just became a bunch of talking heads and the reasons for their convictions were buried in the script. It’s a strong movie, well-worth seeing! Lost your cookies, indeed! This made me laugh! xoxoM


  16. well at least someone is making an effort to set the record straight! great read.


  17. thank you valerie for laying out strong research toward rebuilding history behind us..these words can change perception one reader at a time..public opinion discards too many people’s efforts. your blog is one tool to educate those of us who have little time to find facts.
    i will watch this movie with a stronger eye now.


    • Thank you so much for commenting, and for what you say…I hope you enjoy the film, though it shows a different aspect, the work of Lincoln for Emancipation – very moving, the struggle between good and evil….


  18. I had decided NOT to see the movie Lincoln, as I was afraid they would take Mary and rip her apart so he would seem more wonderful. I had read the book Mary, Mrs. Lincoln and felt horrible for her and for what had happened to her life. That son needed to be ashamed of his actions…! I also wish there could have been medicines for her..she did so need them.


  19. Very good article on Mary T Lincoln. You are right Sally Field did a terrific job portraying her.


    • Thank you and thanks for commenting – it was a fascinating film wasn’t it!


      • We were disappointed because we thought it would be more on his life, not just the 13th amendment. And if he told one more story I would have ran out of the theater like that one person when they were in the telegraph room!! ha ha Seriously it bothered me that he could have ended the war sooner but kept it going – I think of all the lives lost on both sides. But then hindsight is always better isn’t it?


      • I think that what the film was showing was that he couldn’t have got the 13th amendment through if they had already won the war, People were not going to vote for it – which was why they showed us that interview right at the beginning with the married couple who wanted help, and they said if the war was won they wouldn’t want emancipation… they would vote for emancipation is it would help win the war, but not the other way round…
        I’ve just been re-reading my Bruce Catton and other books on the Civil War, and it was very clear that the South were only going to negotiate if Lincoln accepted they were another country, whereas Lincoln considered them fellow citizens and was determined to hold the Union together. Neither would the South have accepted Emancipation if there was a negotiated peace. the Union had to defeat them in order to insist on abolition.
        The film was based on a book which was showing what a skilled politician Lincoln was, that he achieved Emancipation in the face of majority opposition. knowing slavery would always be a blot on the country until they did eradicate it.
        Anyone who set foot in England for example, automatically became free from 1772 onwards, so the US was lagging well behind in moral values.
        As you can see, I’m a Lincoln fan!


      • You should have directed the movie!! Maybe I should watch it again since now I know what it was about. We were just expecting it be different,and were disappointed it was not on his life. We know that it needed done, but I guess I keep going back to all the lives lost, but then if he had done it differently there could have been more lives lost. We will never know. I can always count on you to keep me on my toes. Now I will know who to go for more information on Lincoln. Thanks for the added bit of history.


      • Yes, if he had done it differently the slaves would not have been freed… history Is fascinating isn’t it…


      • it sure is, I can’t get enough of learning about it. There is always something new to think about.


  20. Hi Valerie

    What an fascinating post! I haven’t seen “Lincoln” yet but when I do I will now be as interested in her as in him. What a troubled life and how interesting that you are able to relate her later problems to her early upbringing and a damaged psyche. It just goes to show that it is worth doing the inner work if it means that we get to live better later.

    I am the most non teckie person you could come across but I too have had trouble with cookies and wordpress. I followed a few instructions and have managed to clear the problem myself a few times which is a miracle.

    It’s something to do with the broswer. Say you are using Firefox, go to the top of the screen, find the HISTORY tag and it should say clear history. That gets rid of cookies but also all of any saved sites you have. Click clear recent history, or clear all. You are probably nervous to do so, I was and you might want to wait for your teckie friend, but it worked for me.

    Warm regards


    • Hello Corinne,
      Thank you so much both for your comments and for your attempts to help me!
      I didn’t seem to have things like history and other things you mentioned on my screen..
      Anyway, finally the electrician’s teenage son arrived, and sorted me out – I actually need my cookies re-instated – it all sounds crazy to me, but at least I’m back on the air!!!! With all my cookies!!!


  21. Hi Valere

    It’s actually the TOOLS bar at the top. Sorry. Click Tools and then clear recent history and you should get a box with clear cookies, clear cache etc. That’s what I clicked. It cleared and the problems cleared too. But that is from one non-teckie to another.



  22. Beautiful, Valerie. I still remember when I first learned about what Robert Lincoln did to his mother. I know Mary was a train wreck but that was such a terrible thing for him to do to her. Especially in those days, mental institutions were even more awful than they are now. She was a mess, poor thing, but her son should have done better by her. She had nobody else left. Robert doesn’t seem to have been a particularly nice person, from all accounts. Maybe because he was bitter at all the attention focused on the boys who died, or maybe in spite of it, but he wasn’t kind. And you’re so right, we’ve come a very long way. Still a way to go, but so much further than when poor Mary was around 100+ years ago.


    • Thank you Madame, and so good to hear from you… yes, we have come a long way, but I felt that Mary was eccentric rather than mad, and he just couldn’t handle her unconventionality… I also wonder if he wasn’t taking out his anger about his alcoholic wife on his mother… truth has as many skins as an onion, as that French proverb goes!


  23. Another awesome post, Val. It is so enlightening to read your article for they are filled with so much history that often goes unnoticed or ignored. I was not familiar this part of Mary Lincoln’s life. If was part of school history courses, I simply do not remember. However, something this astounding would not be so easily forgotten. The more I read comments, the more I want to see the movie. Thanks for sharing 🙂


    • Lovely to hear from you Sharla, so glad you enjoyed it. No this wouldn’t be taught at school – what would have been taught was what her son Robert and the newpaper gossips wrote abut her. And they were cruel, and her reputation was mud and still is, unless you’ve read the new research…


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