Mary Todd, whose nickname was Molly, was the child of wealthy parents and received her education in prestigious all-girls schools where she excelled in cultural studies and the arts. Her father socialized with the politically influential and, as a result, she acquired a keen interest in politics. Molly met Lincoln in 1840 when she was 21 and he was 31. She fell in love with the tall, gangly and kind Lincoln and, despite her family’s objections to his poverty and lack of political prospects, accepted his proposal of marriage. However, in early 1841, he inexplicably broke off their engagement. The split lasted until the fall of 1842, when they resumed their relationship. Some reports suggest they were reunited a year earlier but kept their relationship a secret. Regardless, after reuniting they wasted no time with a long engagement and were married on November 4.
Mary Todd, even more so than her husband, was a staunch abolitionist. She supported his political career as he rose from the Illinois legislature to become one of the country’s most charismatic political orators to speak out against slavery. His views aroused the ire of southern slave-holding interests. Even early on in his career, Lincoln received death threats from pro-slavery southerners, and Mary Todd was labeled a traitor to her southern Kentucky roots. During the Civil War, she felt a deep sense of estrangement and tragedy; most of her male family members fought on the side of the Confederacy. To make matters worse, she was often criticized in newspapers and social circles for what was perceived as undue influence on her husband’s political appointments. One reporter went so far as to blame Mrs. Lincoln for causing the president’s health to deteriorate, giving him a gaunt frame and hollow cheeks. Those features were more likely caused by a debilitating wasting syndrome called Marfan’s disease and the burden of governing a nation at war with itself.
During their marriage, a devoted Lincoln watched apprehensively as his dear wife developed illnesses and erratic behaviors, most likely in response to the death of their 11-year-old son Willie in 1862. She also suffered a head injury during a carriage accident in 1863 and thereafter complained of migraine headaches. Biographers and scholars have suggested that she suffered from severe depression and anxiety. (It is suspected Lincoln also suffered from depression.) On top of everything, after years of threats, her husband was indeed assassinated on April 14, 1865, while she sat next to him at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. It is perhaps not surprising in light of the deaths of her son and husband that Mary Todd developed a spiritualist philosophy that the living could communicate with dead.
After Lincoln’s death, Mary Todd was forced to petition Congress for a widow’s pension. The death of a third son, Tad, in 1871 threw her over the brink into insanity and she was placed in a mental institution by her son Robert. After two attempts at suicide, Mary Todd was released into the custody of her sister Elizabeth. She lived with Elizabeth in Springfield, Illinois (where her husband and son were buried), until her death in 1882 at the age of 63.
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