Mary and Robert Lincoln: A Family Tragedy

The Widow Mary would have a tenuous and tragic relationship with her son Robert Lincoln for the remaining years of her life.

The Family Situation

Abraham Lincoln died without a will, thus his estate would be shared equally by Mary, his widow, and his two remaining sons, Robert and Tad, a minor.  Robert, only twenty-one, was now the man of the family.  He became legal guardian to his emotionally distraught mother and his twelve-year-old brother, whose cleft palate and childhood dyslexia made him somewhat babyish.  Robert’s own future plans were now dashed.   Having graduated from Harvard some months earlier, he expected to return for law studies once discharged from the Army.  Now, formal law school was out of the question.

mary in mourning

Mary Lincoln would wear mourning clothes from the time of her husband’s death in 1865, to the time she died in 1882.

Mary Lincoln understandably refused to return to their Springfield, Illinois home.  She could not bear the memories.  One son and her husband had died in the four years since they departed.

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 to a legal education.  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 boarding house quarters with his agitated mother and young brother.  He moved out.

Mary Lincoln’s Problem

Mary was shabbily treated and grossly shortchanged by political powers that wanted her to go away “on the cheap.”  By and large, Congress did not like her.  She had very few partisans.  They gave her $25,000, Lincoln’s salary for the year.  Mary wanted the full four-year salary.   It would not happen.

Lincoln’s estate was comfortable, but not opulent.  It was also divided into thirds and took nearly two years to resolve.  Mrs. Lincoln had no home of her own, nor could she afford one.  Between her debts and her erratic compulsion for shopping, she 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, the former First Lady 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 shopped-till-she-dropped, frequently purchasing items she never used; then she would seemingly punish herself for these indulgences by living in cheap, substandard rooms, lit by a single candle.

Robert Lincoln’s Problem

Robert Lincoln

Robert Todd Lincoln, about the time of his father’s death in 1865.

Within six years after his father’s death, Robert Lincoln had married the former Mary Harlan and had had a baby.  “Uncle” Tad, nearly eighteen, desperately wanted to see his brother so they went home.  Robert also had wanted to see Tad, and help guide him 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 touchy and rather 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 solitary trip to Springfield with a coffin, 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 or stamina, or both, to face his mother, Robert callously left her a note.  Mrs. Abraham Lincoln was now alone in a big house, with no one except the servants, who had grown tired of her incessant weeping and wailing, and offered no comfort.

The Lincoln Tragedy Continues

Mary now began a long process of wandering from place to place, from spa to spa, dragging the trunks and crates of her life, looking for whatever peace she could find.  With little to occupy her time productively, she had become excessively hypochondriacal, focusing on a series of vague ailments, some real, many stemming from her emotional frailty.  She consulted dozens of doctors and received dozens of prescriptions.  She took dozens of medications.  Robert, realizing that his mother could never really care for herself, arranged for a nurse-companion.  Mary was a difficult patient; the nurse-maids resigned in short order.  No one could live with her.

Finally, after a series of unfathomably bizarre incidents (perhaps from drug interaction), Robert consulted with several of Lincoln’s old friends – friends he trusted, and who would do everything in their power to keep the Lincoln name and reputation from as much humiliation as possible.  Mary was 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 private sanitarium called Bellevue Place, in Batavia, Illinois, to “recover.”   Within a few months, largely due to her own efforts, Mary was declared “cured” and curiously enough, never showed those inexplicable symptoms again.

The relationship between mother and son was permanently scarred.  Robert Lincoln was a private man, assiduously shunning the public eye, and acutely aware of being the keeper of the Lincoln flame, whether he liked it or not.  His own deep pain at the course of events remained secreted in a hidden compartment of his private office for nearly a century.  When his files on Mary Lincoln’s “insanity hearings” were finally discovered, containing legalistic documents and all the letters that he meticulously maintained, through it all, weaves the huge sadness and agony of Robert Todd Lincoln.

He was as tragic a figure as his mother.


  • Clinton, Catherine –  Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, Harper Collins, 2009
  • Lachman, Charles – The Last Lincolns: The Rise & Fall of a Great American Family, Union Square Press, 2008
  • Neely, Mark E., Jr., & McMurtry, R. Gerald – The Insanity Papers: The Case of Mary Todd Lincoln, Southern Illinois University Press, 1986,

About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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One Response to Mary and Robert Lincoln: A Family Tragedy

  1. energywriter says:

    Some of this I knew, some not. Great information. sd

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