Heartbreaking Facts About Mary Todd Lincoln, America's Most Tragic First Lady

Mary Todd Lincoln was the wife of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Her biography is full of both fascinating and heartbreaking facts, making her a first lady with a rich and often tragic past. 

Born in Kentucky in 1818, Mary Todd spent her childhood in the lap of luxury and privilege, although not very happily. At the age of 6, she suffered her first major loss with the passing of her mother. Thereafter, she had to live with a stepmother who was not at all fond of her stepchildren. In 1842, her life changed when she married an up-and-coming lawyer by the name of Abraham Lincoln. The Lincolns moved to Washington, DC, in 1860 after Abraham's historic presidential win. But life in Washington was challenging, and Mary Todd Lincoln often faced challenges as first lady thanks in no small part to the Civil War and the premature death of her children. In addition, Mary Todd Lincoln’s siblings, many of whom were confirmed Confederates, did no favors for her reputation in the nation's hostile capital.

In 1865, her life changed again when her husband was murdered at Ford’s Theater. What did Mary Todd do after Abraham’s assassination? Tragedy and heartache continued to follow her, even in widowhood. Mary Todd Lincoln trivia reveals a woman who has been ridiculed and perhaps misunderstood, both in her lifetime and in the history books.

  • She Was Holding Her Husband's Hand When He Was Shot
    Photo: T. M. McAllister / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    She Was Holding Her Husband's Hand When He Was Shot

    Mary Todd Lincoln was not just sitting next to her husband when he was shot - she was holding his hand. The Lincolns were sitting in a box at Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865, with their two guests, Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris. Mary Todd was apparently holding her husband's hand when she asked Abraham, "What will Miss Harris think of my holding onto you so?" Her husband replied, "She won't think anything about it."

    Her hand did not leave his - they were still holding onto each other minutes later, when John Wilkes Booth walked into the booth and fired a bullet into the back of her husband's head.

  • People Thought She Went Insane After Her Husband's Death
    Photo: Nicolas H Shepherd / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    People Thought She Went Insane After Her Husband's Death

    Already grief-stricken by the loss of two of her children, Mary Todd Lincoln was absolutely heartbroken by the death of her husband in April 1865. Her behavior became increasingly paranoid and erratic, especially upon the untimely passing of her youngest son, Tad, in 1871.

    Adding to her depression was her fear of poverty and the paranoia that assassins lurked around every corner. She also shopped compulsively and suffered from migraines.

  • Three Of Her Four Sons Passed Before She Did
    Photo: Currier and Ives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Three Of Her Four Sons Passed Before She Did

    Though Mary Todd Lincoln had four sons during her marriage to Abraham Lincoln, she buried three of them in her lifetime. Eddie and Willie both passed in childhood - Eddie at 4 and Willie at 11 - and Tad at the age of 18.

    Her last surviving son was Robert, the only one who reached adulthood and outlived his parents. 

  • She Was Committed To An Asylum By Her Own Son
    Photo: Daniel Huntington / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    She Was Committed To An Asylum By Her Own Son

    Following the assassination of her husband in April 1865, Mary Todd became increasingly depressed and agitated. It got to the point that Robert, her only surviving son, had her committed to an asylum outside of Chicago in 1875. 

    Mary Todd Lincoln was committed to Bellevue Sanitarium in Batavia, IL, ultimately orchestrating her own release from the institution a few months later and moving to Europe for a time.

  • Medications From Doctors May Have Contributed To Her Erratic Behavior
    Photo: Edward Anthony / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Medications From Doctors May Have Contributed To Her Erratic Behavior

    Mary's adulthood was plagued by both physical and emotional pain. Apart from the personal losses she sustained, she also suffered from migraines and insomnia. To ease her suffering, her doctor prescribed her chloral hydrate in 1873. Among other things, an overdose of chloral hydrate can produce hallucinations, which might explain her paranoia. 

    That's just one theory about what was contributing to Mary Todd Lincoln's health issues. Historians and medical professionals have put forth many other theories - some have suggested that she had pernicious anemia, while others claim she was bipolar

  • She Had A Wicked Stepmother

    Mary Todd was only 6 years old when her mother passed. Her father soon remarried, giving his brood of seven children a new stepmother named Betsey Humphreys.

    Mary Todd routinely clashed with her stepmother, and Humphreys didn't make life easy for her new stepchildren. She relied on shame, humiliation, and embarrassment as punishments and even referred to Mary Todd as a "limb of Satan."