Mary and the Other Mr. Lincoln


Abraham Lincoln died intestate. He left no will, thus his estate would be shared equally by Mary, his wife, and his two remaining sons, Robert and Tad, a minor. Robert, only twenty-one, was now the man of the family, and became guardian to his emotionally distraught mother and his thirteen-year-old brother, whose cleft palate and childhood dyslexia made him somewhat babyish. Robert’s personal plans were now dashed. Having graduated from Harvard some months earlier, he had planned to return for law studies once discharged from the Army. Now, formal law school was out of the question.

Mary Lincoln categorically refused to return to their Springfield, Illinois home. It was understandable. One son and her husband had died in the four years since they departed. She could not bear those memories. Six weeks after the assassination, what remained of the Lincoln family went to Chicago. Robert had been accepted by a prominent firm to “read law”, still an acceptable route for an attorney.

Within weeks, however, he discovered his mother’s secret: she was deeply in debt to merchants in Washington, New York and Philadelphia for a long list of purchases she had accrued as First Lady. Between her frantic need to pay these debts and her already fragile emotional state, Robert realize he could not possibly live in cramped quarters with his agitated mother and young brother. He moved out.

Mary’s Problem

Mary was grossly shortchanged by political powers that wanted her to go away “on the cheap.” They gave her $25,000, Lincoln’s one-year salary. She wanted the full four-year salary. It would not happen. Lincoln’s estate would take nearly two years to resolve. She had no home of her own, nor could she afford one. Between her debts and her erratic compulsion for shopping, Mary became a wanderer. In an effort to raise money, she instigated a scheme to sell some of her clothing. The effort not only backfired, but it caused huge embarrassment to herself, to her son Robert, to the country, and most importantly, to Lincoln’s memory.

Mortified, and practically unable to show her face, Mary left the country. Her primary goal was to provide a good education for Tad, whose schooling had been woefully neglected. Her second goal was to live frugally and privately. The word “spendthrift” is an oxymoron that fits Mary nearly to perfection. In Europe she would shop-till-she-dropped, frequently purchasing items she would never use; then she would seemingly punish herself for these indulgences by living in cheap, substandard quarters, lit by a single candle.

Robert’s Problem

Meanwhile Robert had married Mary Harlan and had had a baby. “Uncle” Tad desperately wanted to see his brother so they went home. Robert also had wanted to see Tad, believing that at eighteen, “Mr. Thomas Lincoln” had the right to be consulted on family matters. He also sincerely wanted to be a big brother, and help guide Tad in planning his future. He welcomed them gladly. Unfortunately the Lincoln house was not big enough for TWO Mary Lincolns, and Robert’s wife, forming a bitter dislike for her rather touchy and imperious mother-in-law, took the baby and went back to her own mother.

Then Tad sickened and died. Mary was once again hysterical. Robert was once again burdened with funeral plans, a trip with a coffin to Springfield, a wife and baby who refused to come home, and a devastated mother whose grief could not be controlled. On the verge of a nervous breakdown himself, he consulted his doctor, who advised him to “get away” from that toxic atmosphere immediately. Perhaps lacking the courage to face his mother, Robert left her a note. Mrs. Abraham Lincoln was now alone in a big house, with no one to comfort her except the servants, who had grown tired of the weeping and wailing.

Mary now began a long process of wandering from place to place, from spa to spa, looking for whatever peace she could find. With little to occupy her time productively, she had become excessively hypochondriacal, focusing a series of vague ailments, some real, many stemming from her emotional frailty. She would consult dozens of doctors and receive dozens of prescriptions. She would take dozens of medications.

Robert, realizing that his mother would never really be able to care for herself, arranged for a nurse-companion. Mary would be a difficult patient; the nursemaids would resign in short order. Finally, after a series of unfathomably bizarre incidents (perhaps from drug interaction), Robert consulted with several of Lincoln’s old friends – friends who he trusted, and who he knew would do everything in their power to keep the Lincoln name and reputation from humiliation.

Mary would be declared “legally insane” in a court of law, and, in the most humane treatment available in an age where psychiatry was in its infancy, sent to a sanitarium to “recover.” Within a few months, largely due to her own efforts, Mary was declared “recovered,” and curiously enough, would never show those inexplicable symptoms again.

The relationship between mother and son was permanently scarred. Most people know about Mary, warts and all. Robert, however, was all Todd. Lacking the famous Lincoln wit and sparkle, he was a private man, assiduously shunning the public eye, and acutely aware of being the keeper of the Lincoln flame. His own deep pain at the course of events would remain secreted away for nearly a century.

When his files on Mary Lincoln’s “insanity hearings” were finally discovered, with all the legalistic documents, with all the letters and copies that he meticulously maintained, with all the correspondence and proceedings, through it all, weaves the huge sadness and agony of Robert Todd Lincoln.

He was as tragic a figure as his mother.