She was holding his hand when the gunshot rang out. She wore black for the rest of her life. She was the one that lingered.
Loss was the one constant in Mary Todd Lincoln’s life. Born on December 13, 1818 to Robert Smith Todd and Eliza Parker, she lost her mother before she turned seven. Eighteen months later, her father married a woman she never got along with.
She married Abraham Lincoln on November 4, 1842 and wore a wedding band with the inscription, “Love is Eternal.” She gave birth to four boys, but lost three of them before they became men.
Her father died on July 16, 1849. She lost her maternal grandmother in January. A month later, she lost her second-oldest, Eddie. Her third son, Willie, was born in December that year. He died in the White House, before he turned twelve. Mary was inconsolable. Never again would she set foot in the room where he died. Like thousands of Americans in the nineteenth century, she consulted spiritualists who promised her they could communicate with her lost loved ones.
A year after the assassination, William Herndon, her husband’s law partner, delivered a lecture in Springfield. He told the crowd that Lincoln had been engaged to a girl named Ann Rutledge. When she died, Lincoln’s heart broke and he never again loved another woman. Herndon called Lincoln’s marriage to Mary “a domestic hell.” Mary never liked Herndon, but now she despised him.
Mary took Tad to Europe, where they spent most of their time living in Frankfurt, Germany, where Tad attended school. Three years later, they returned to the states, but Tad became ill during the strenuous trip across the Atlantic. He died shortly after returning to Chicago on July 15, 1871.
The next few years in Mary’s life are very difficult to trace. She spent some time in Wisconsin and Canada, but her exact movements are unknown. In November 1874, she traveled South, visiting Chattanooga, Savannah, and Jacksonville, Florida.
On March 12, 1875, Mary sent her only remaining son an urgent telegram: “My dearly beloved Son Robert T. Lincoln rouse yourself—and live for my sake. All I have is you from this hour. I am praying every moment for your life to be spared to your mother.” Mary took the first train to Chicago to be by her son’s side.
There was no reason to worry about Robert’s health, he was fine. When Mary arrived in Chicago, Robert reserved two rooms in the Grand Pacific Hotel, one for him and another for his mother. She seemed alright. But when Robert awoke in the middle of night, he found her wandering the halls in her nightgown. When he tried to guide her back to her room she protested, screaming, “You’re going to murder me!”
Robert did not know what to do. He found out she was carrying around a large amount of cash, at least $1,000. She talked about committing suicide, was clearly paranoid, and threatened to leave town.
Robert hired Pinkerton guards to watch over her while he sought the advice of his father’s friends, as well as doctors. Eventually, he was put in touch with Dr. Robert T. Patterson, who ran Bellevue Place, a private sanitarium for the mentally insane in nearby Batavia. But Robert knew his mother would never go there voluntarily.
There was a trial. It went on for an excruciating three hours. The last witness to testify was Robert himself. “I have no doubt my mother is insane,” he told the jury. “She has long been a source of great anxiety to me.” The jury delivered its verdict. She was insane and needed to be confined at the asylum in Batavia.
They led Mary from the courtroom back to her hotel room, where they found $56,000 sewn into her dress. Despite being watched by a woman and two guards, Mary slipped out of her hotel room. She went to at least four different pharmacies in search of laudanum, but was unable to purchase any. Though there is debate among historians, Mary may have been trying to commit suicide.
She spent the next few months in the asylum in Batavia, where she had a private room, took carriage rides, and could roam the grounds at her pleasure. Robert visited her each week, but the visits were not pleasurable. She was released in September and went to live with her sister in Springfield.
She quickly made plans to return to Europe. She spent the next four years living in relative anonymity in Pau, France. Again, little is known about her time abroad, but her health seems to have deteriorated rapidly.
By the end of 1880, she again crossed the Atlantic and arrived back in Springfield to live with her sister, Elizabeth Edwards. She brought 64 trunks stuffed full of clothes, lace, furs, and hundreds of kid gloves. She kept the shades drawn and had no desire to leave the house. She was nearly blind, had kidney problems, spinal sclerosis, and was probably diabetic.
Robert visited his mother one last time in 1881, bringing his young daughter along. He told himself that the visit meant he and his mother had reconciled.
On the eleventh anniversary of Tad’s death, Mary collapsed, probably suffering a stroke. They put her in bed, where she lingered until 8:15 the next night.
Mary Todd Lincoln died in Springfield, 125 years ago today.
At her funeral, Rev. James A. Reed delivered one of the most moving eulogies I’ve ever read. He likened the Lincolns to two tall, stately pine trees which had grown so close together that their roots and branches were intertwined. They survived many storms by relying on each other for support. But there was one storm that stood out from all the rest. The taller of the two was struck by lightning and died immediately, while the other reeled in shock. “They had virtually both been killed at the same time,” he said. “With the one that lingered it was only slow death from the same cause…when Abraham Lincoln died, she died. The lightning that struck down the strong man, unnerved the woman…So it seems to me today, that we are only looking at death placing its seal upon the lingering victim of a past calamity.”