A Story of Sadness, Spiritualism and Sorrow
On November 4, 1842, future president Abraham Lincoln married Mary Todd in Springfield, Illinois. It was a complicated and often turbulent marriage, but Mary remained devoted to Abraham throughout his entire life – and even after his death.
|A young Mary Todd, who Lincoln fell in love with in Springfield and married in 1842|
The two met at a Christmas party in Springfield in 1839. They were attracted to each other from the start. Mary’s sister soon noted with disapproval that when Lincoln would call, he would sit in rapt attention to everything Mary said. She believed the young man, who the wealthy family considered to be unsuitable, was paying far too much attention to Mary. Mary seemed to be returning his attentions for a time, but the following year found her still being courted by other men (including Lincoln’s rival, Stephen Douglas) and Lincoln still pining away after her. At the close of the year, he made his decision, he would marry her. Whether or not Lincoln formally proposed to her or not, Mary promised to become his wife. For some reason, though, on New Year’s Day 1841, Lincoln decided to break off the engagement.
Some have speculated that Lincoln was intrigued by the idea of marriage, but afraid of it also. He feared his loss of freedom but was unsure that he wanted to live without Mary. His friend and law partner, William Herndon, noted that Lincoln was acting as “crazy as a loon”. He didn’t eat, he didn’t sleep, he let his work slide and refused to meet and dine with friends. Another friend, Dr. Anson Henry, suggested that Lincoln take a trip out of town and try to ease his state of mind.
A short time before, one of Lincoln’s closest friends, Joshua Speed, had moved to Louisville, Kentucky and so Lincoln decided to travel there and stay with him for a little while. Unfortunately, things were no better for him in Louisville. Speed was also in the midst of a turbulent relationship with a local woman named Fanny Henning. After a short visit, Speed returned to Springfield with Lincoln and wrapped up his business affairs to move to Kentucky permanently. He would soon be marrying Fanny, but he left his good friend with one piece of advice: either give up Mary for good or marry her and be done with it.
In the summer of 1842, Lincoln again turned his attentions to Mary Todd. A friend cleverly arranged a surprise dinner so the two of them would meet again and it worked. By November, marriage was on Lincoln’s mind again. In fact, it was so much on his mind that on the morning of November 4, he and Mary announced they were going to be married --- that same evening.
Their friends were in great haste to make the preparations, surprised by the announcement. There was no time for Joshua Speed to travel from Kentucky, so Lincoln asked another friend, James Matheny, to stand in as best man. Matheny would later write that during the ceremony, Lincoln “looked and acted like a lamb being led to the slaughter.” While he was getting dressed, his landlord’s son asked him where he was going and Lincoln answered, “To Hell, I suppose.”
Despite the haste in making arrangements and Lincoln’s obvious foreboding, the ceremony proceeded without a hitch and Lincoln was now a husband.
The Lincolns had their honeymoon at the Globe Tavern, where they lived during the first years of their marriage. There was every indication that their marriage was a happy one, despite Mary losing track of her socialite friends and her sister’s warnings that her husband was unsuitable. It was not long before they were expecting their first child and Robert was born just three days short of nine months after the wedding.
During the Civil War and the Lincoln’s years in the White House, their son Willie died, a loss from which Mary never recovered. It was during this time that she turned to Spiritualism and séances began to be held at the White House. Mary seemed to feel great relief from her contact with the dead but later, after Lincoln was assassinated and Spiritualism fell out of popular favor (it would revive again in the early 1900s), Spiritualism would become her undoing.
For months after Lincoln’s death, Mary spoke of nothing but the assassination until her friends began to drift away, their sympathy at a breaking point. She began to accuse her husband’s friends and his Cabinet members of complicity in the murder, from his bodyguards to Andrew Johnson.
Mary lay in her bed for 40 days after the assassination and in the years that followed, she deteriorated mentally and physically into a bitter old woman who wore nothing but black mourning clothing for the rest of her life. Her attachment to Spiritualism turned into a dangerous obsession, reaching a point where she could not function without aid from her “spirit guides.”
Mary had a great fear of poverty. She often begged her friends to help her with money. Unlike the widows of generals and governors, for whom money was easily raised, Mary’s handful of supporters found it impossible to raise funds on her behalf because she was just too unpopular. In fact, she was despised across America. Newspapers wrote unflattering stories about her and she was ridiculed by members of Washington society.
In 1868, she abandoned America and took her son Tad to live in Germany. They lived there in hiding for three years before coming home. In July 1870, Congress approved a lifetime pension for Mrs. Lincoln of $3,000 per year. This pension awaited her when she returned to America, as did an inheritance from Lincoln’s estate. She was finally wealthy woman. This fear was over, but heartbreak soon followed.
Travel and an ocean crossing had dire circumstances for Tad. He developed tuberculosis and his health began to fail. He lingered for many weeks and then died in July 1871. Tad’s death, which followed the death of two other children and her husband, further aggravated Mary’s grief, which was enhanced by her previous history of mental instability.
Mary turned to the only thing that she believed that she had left – Spiritualism. For a time, she moved into a commune, where she began to develop her psychic “gifts,” which enabled her to see “spirit faces” and “communicate beyond the veil.” She claimed to have daily conversations with her late husband. Many took advantage of her, tricking her out of money and using her name to promote their own “abilities.” One of these was so-called “spirit photographer” William Mumler, who produced thousands of blatantly fake photographs of ghosts during his infamous career. Although he claimed not to recognize Mary when she called at his studio, he “miraculously” managed to produce a photo of her and her late husband by deft manipulation of the photographic plates.
Mary’s sole surviving son, Robert, a rising young Chicago lawyer, was alarmed as his mother's behavior became increasingly erratic. In March 1875, during a visit to Jacksonville, Florida, Mary became absolutely convinced that Robert was deathly ill. She traveled to Chicago to find him in fine health. On her arrival, she told her son that someone had tried to poison her on the train and that a “wandering Jew” had taken her pocketbook but would return it later.
While staying with Robert in Chicago, Mary spent money lavishly on useless items, such as draperies that she never hung and elaborate dresses that she never wore, due to the fact that she only wore black after her husband's assassination. She often walked around the city with $56,000 in government bonds sewn into her petticoats. She was afraid of banks and still feared losing all her money. After Mary had an “episode” during which it was feared she would jump out of the window to escape a non-existent fire, the family began to feel that she was going insane.
Fearing that his mother was a danger to herself, Robert was left with no choice but to have Mary committed to a psychiatric hospital in Batavia, Illinois in 1875. After the court proceedings had ended, Mary was so enraged that she attempted suicide. She went to the hotel pharmacist and ordered enough laudanum to kill herself. However, the pharmacist caught on to her plans and substituted the drug with a harmless liquid.
On May 20, 1875, she arrived at Bellevue Place, a private, upscale sanitarium in the Fox River Valley. With his mother in the hospital, Robert Lincoln was left with control of Mary Lincoln's finances. By this time, Robert was wealthy in his own right and had no plans for his mother’s money, which Mary refused to understand. She was sure that he planned to steal everything from her.
Three months after being installed in Bellevue Place, Mary Lincoln engineered her escape. She smuggled letters to her lawyer and his wife, who was not only her friend but also a feminist lawyer and fellow Spiritualist. She also wrote to the editor of the Chicago Times, known for its sensational journalism. Soon, the public embarrassments Robert had hoped to avoid were looming, and his character and motives were in question. The director of Bellevue, who at Mary’s trial had assured the jury she would benefit from treatment at his facility, now in the face of potentially damaging publicity declared her well enough to go to Springfield to live with her sister as she desired.
Mary was released into the custody of her sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Edwards, in Springfield and in 1876 was once again declared competent to manage her own affairs. The committal proceedings led to Mary severing all ties with Robert. She called him a “wicked monster” and despised him for the rest of her life. Before she died, she wrote spiteful letters to him, cursing him and telling him that his father had never really loved him.
Mary went into exile again and moved into a small hotel in France. Her eyes were weakened by cataracts and her body was wracked with pain from severe arthritis. She refused to travel back to the United States until several bad falls left her nearly unable to walk. Her sister pleaded with her to come home and finally she returned to Springfield, moving into the Edwards house, the same house where she and Lincoln had been married years before.
Mary lived the last years of her life in a single room, wearing a money belt to protect her fortune. She kept all of the shades in her room drawn and spent her days packing and unpacking her 64 crates of clothing. She died in July 1882 at the age of 63 – a faded shell of the exuberant young socialite that she had once been and a sad victim of the Lincoln assassination who found herself cursed to live for 17 years after the death of her beloved husband.