While others commemorate the life of Mary Todd Lincoln on her birthday, I’d like to talk about the cause of her supposed madness, which eventually led to her being exiled in a state hospital by her son Robert before returning to the care of the Blair family, who were very close to the Lincoln’s. At the beginning of July, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, in the midst of John Hunt Morgan’s raid of countrysides across Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio, while men were dying by the thousands in a field in Gettysburg Pennsylvania, and in the middle of celebrations across D.C. after word that Vicksburg had been captured, Mary Todd Lincoln was the victim of a carriage accident intended to hurt her husband, President Lincoln.
The Lincoln’s were on their way to the White House from the “soldiers home.” A cottage on the outside of D.C. they spent much time at getting needed rest and relaxation away from the drama of the White House. The President went horseback in front of Mary, who rode in a carriage. It’s believed a Confederate sympathizer, “Copperhead” enemy of the Lincoln’s rigged the carriage for tragedy the night before by unfastening the nuts and bolts holding the driver’s seat to the carriage. Tragedy is exactly what come from this despicable, cowardly design. When the carriage come across a series of hills, the driver’s seat come loose–just as the architect had wanted–throwing the driver out of the carriage. Now, faced with no driver and horses running frantically and uncontrollably forward, Mary jumped out of the carriage in an attempt to avoid disaster, while all the while facing it. She landed on her back, smashing the rear of her skull on a sharp stone. Unfortunately, in addition to the impact of the stone, the wound become infected, keeping Mary handicap for weeks after.
Robert Todd Lincoln, who later become estranged from his mother over financial issues, gives us the best explanation and insight into how this accident had an impact on her psychological faculties saying she, “never quite recovered from the effects of her fall.” Today, research shows that irrational, erratic behavior after such a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is common. In fact, a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information(NCBI), U.S. National Library of Medicine(NIM), and the National Institute of Health (NIH) evaluated post traumatic aggression and found a prevalence of 28.4% in people with a Traumatic Brain Injury. They also associated Traumatic Brain Injuries with early onset depression, poor social function, and an increased dependency on others in daily activities. All these things we can read into Mary Todd Lincoln after this accident. Accounts of Mary before the accident are not perfect, but nobody is or ever was without faults. However, after the accident her behavior become wildly out of control. When you combine these things with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) it’s quite easy to see her as another victim of the Civil War and a victim of primitive medicine. In addition to this, at least one doctor is adamant that she also suffered from a severe vitamin B deficiency known as pernicious anemia (PA). Which as it progresses causes lethargy, decreases in cognitive function, paranoia and even hallucinations. If this is true, from the modern perspective we can certainly see Mary’s legacy in a much different light than her contemporaries.
She lost an adolescent child, Willie, she watched her husband get shot in a theatre, and she lost her 18 year old son Tad to a heart condition, who had taken on the responsibility of being her caretaker. In fact it was said, after the war that Tad and Mary were inseverable, undivided everywhere they went. For many years folks thought Mary was simply vain. They accused her of supporting the Confederacy, being a spy, spending too much money, and after the war she was exiled, considered a national stain and embarrassment. You can find many stories concerning scandal surrounding Mary, especially after the accident and especially concerning money. Actually, Mary was guilty of just a few things: first and foremost she was the victim of a horrific attack intended for her husband, but she was also guilty of being overly affectionate, protective and loving of her family. As you read and learn more about Mary you learn quickly, she loved much harder than most people love. So much, in an age of boarding school’s, paddles and discipline, she refused to strike her children, and her husband agreed, famously saying, “love is the chain whereby to lock a child to its parent.”
In the Victorian Age, a lady was judged by her appearance and her home. When Mary entered the White House, it was following the only President who had not married. James Buchanan had his niece serve as his First Lady. Suffice to say, the White House was much like a boys club when she walked in with her children charged with making it a respectful home for her family. The house was not in great shape. If not for the nation being at war, and arguments being made that soldiers were suffering without provisions, seemingly at her expense; her appetite for parties, nice gowns and curtains, would have been celebrated. In that way, subsequent First Ladies followed her example, continuing to this day to take great pride in their lavish redecorations of the White House. She was unapologetically loyal to her husband, who refused to hold grudges. Where Abe was quick to forgive and forget, to gain political capital, Mary kept a mental list of the people who crossed her husband, taking it personally and she used her influence as first lady to get back at the people on her list. On more than one occasion, Old Abe had to veto his wife’s decision to ban certain people from social gatherings at the White House. I don’t know about you, but as far as I am concerned, that is the kind of wife I would like myself, someone passionately loyal and faithful to her husband and family. Someone, who has my back. One can imagine Abe smiling inside as he evokes his Executive power over her decision to tell people they are not invited to the grand parties at the mansion for some slight made against Abe in the past.
As we celebrate the birthday of Mary Todd Lincoln, I am glad many of us are beginning to look back at her life and see her for who she truly was as a human being. Mary lost everything because of the Civil War. She was forced to sacrifice everything we hold dear to us in life: her children, her husband, even her own health and sanity. We, should all be thankful for those sacrifices. Especially considering the impact her husband had in redefining our nation for the better. Mary went from being a beautiful, well sought after young lady, to the laughingstock of our nation, and that itself is a national stain. Folks of her time may not have said this, and it may seem simple to some to speak to someone that passed way over 135 years ago, but as they say… I also say, better late than never.
“Thank you, Mary Todd Lincoln for your sacrifices and service to our nation and I apologize history has given you an unfair shake for so long. And I am sorry you lost so much in our pursuit to be the best nation the world has ever seen.”
Blakemore, E. (April, 13 2018). Mary Todd Lincoln Became a Laughingstock After Her Husband’s Assassination. Retrieved from History.com: https://www.history.com/news/mary-todd-lincoln-assassination-facts
Christensen, J. (2016, July 6). What was behind Mary Todd Lincoln’s bizarre behavior? Retrieved from cnn.com: https://edition.cnn.com/2016/07/06/health/mary-todd-lincoln-pernicious-anemia/index.html
Emerson, J. (2008). The Madness of Mary Lincoln. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.
Goodwin, D. K. (2005). Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Pomroy, R. R., & Anna, L. B. (2010). Echoes From Hospital And White House: A Record Of Mrs. Rebecca R. Pomroy’s Experience In Wartimes (1884). Kessinger Legacy Reprints.
Rao, V., Rosenberg, P., Bertrand, M., Salehini, S., Spiro, J., Vaishnavi, S., . . . Miles, Q. S. (2009). Aggression after Traumatic Brain Injury: Prevalence & Correlates. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 21(4), 420–429.