The Two Mary Lincolns Disaster

It was inevitable. Mary Todd Lincoln, mother-in-law, and Mary Harlan Lincoln, daughter-in law…

 Mary Lincoln Meets Mary Harlan

mary harlan

Mary Harlan, daughter of Iowa Senator James Harlan, became Mrs. Robert Lincoln.

young robert

Robert Todd Lincoln, about the time he married Mary Harlan. Both Abraham and Mary Lincoln had favored the match.

When the Lincolns came to Washington in 1861, they became acquainted with Senator and Mrs. James Harlan, Republicans of Iowa. In due course, Mrs. Lincoln met Mrs. Harlan’s young daughter, Mary Eunice.

Even though the young Miss Harlan was only fourteen or fifteen at the time, Mrs. Lincoln, with no daughters of her own, took a fancy to the pretty young girl. She always had a fondness for young people, and was romantically inclined. Her oldest son, Robert eighteen at the time, had just started Harvard. It is not unlikely that the social-minded Mrs. Lincoln may have had some future “notions.”

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural

When Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated for his second term in March, 1865, the mood was far different than the one in 1861. Everyone sensed that the end of the Civil War was near. The blood would be stemmed. The killing would stop.

Robert Lincoln was now twenty-one, and graduated from Harvard. He was presently a Captain on General Grant’s staff, home on leave. When he spent the entire evening at the Inaugural Ball waltzing the eighteen-year-old Mary Harlan around the dance floor, the Lincolns were delighted.

A few weeks later, the Harlans, including Miss Mary, were Mrs. Lincoln’s guests on her trip to Richmond, just as the Confederacy was at its last gasp. Captain Robert Lincoln was happy to see Miss Harlan again. If his mother had her hand in matchmaking, she was doing well.

Robert T. Lincoln Marries Mary Harlan

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated only weeks later, Robert’s future plans  were abruptly changed. Instead of returning to study law at Harvard, he was obliged to “read law” with a Chicago firm, still an acceptable form of legal education.

Robert and his Mary corresponded regularly for the next three years with the understanding that once he passed the Illinois bar, they would marry.

Robert, only in his early twenties, was now the head of the Lincoln family. Mary Lincoln, deeply grieving for her husband, had developed a pathological fear of poverty, and the consequences of her emotional turmoil splashed regularly on her son. Only months before Robert’s wedding, Mrs. Lincoln had embarrassed herself, her son, and the country by attempting to sell some of her old clothing. Immediately after the wedding, the humiliated Mary left for Europe, accompanied by her teenaged son, Tad.

Mary Lincoln and The Happy Couple

The former First Lady had been delighted to welcome the new Mary Lincoln into the family, particularly since she knew how fond her late husband had been of the girl who was now their daughter-in-law.

While Mrs. Lincoln was abroad, she corresponded regularly and affectionately with her son’s bride. Mother Mary, the inveterate shopper, sent gift after gift back to the newlyweds in Chicago. When she learned of her impending grandmotherhood, she was understandably thrilled. Her letters were filled with well-meaning advice and suggestions for the mother-to-be, along with an assortment of presents for the baby-to-be.

But “Uncle Tad,” now seventeen, grew homesick for his brother, so the Lincolns came home. Mary was anxious to see her baby granddaughter, also named Mary, ostensibly in her honor. Robert and his Mary opened their home and hearts to them.

The Marys Part Ways

bobs kids

Mamie, Abraham Lincoln II (Jack) and Jessie Lincoln – Bob’s kids. Mamie is the only grandchild Mary ever met.

The former First Lady was unquestionably a difficult woman, who could be imperious and demanding, along with a hefty dose of self-pity. Now living in close quarters, those failings began to rile the young Mrs. Robert Lincoln. It did not take long before the young mother packed up, took little “Mamie” and went on an extended visit to her own parents. Exactly what that straw was (if indeed there was a single issue), has never been determined. It was obvious, however, that no house was large enough for two Mary Lincolns.

It was a bad time for everyone. Young Tad sickened and died before his eighteenth birthday. Once again, a grieving and hysterical mother was plunged into deep despair. Once again it would be Robert Lincoln who would accompany a casket back to Springfield, Illinois, and he would go alone. His mother was overcome and prostrate. His wife was unavailable. She had made it very clear that she would not return as long as her mother-in-law was there.

The Widow Mary, despondent and lonely, moved on and on. She had no place to call home. She would never again set foot in her son’s house. The two Marys would never correspond again. She would never see the two other grandchildren who would be born. Whenever Robert Lincoln attempted to help his distraught mother, it was a solo effort. His own personal anguish when he felt compelled to have her declared “insane” was never fully realized until a half-century after his death. If he received any personal comfort from his wife, it is undocumented.

The End of the Marys

The elder Mary Lincoln, half-blind and diabetic, spent her last year living with her sister in Springfield – in the very house where she had married Abraham Lincoln nearly forty years earlier. The rift between mother and son had mended somewhat, and Robert brought little Mamie (now about eight) to see her. He also brought his wife to see her. Perhaps they made their uneasy peace.

After Mrs. Abraham Lincoln was dead for forty years, an elderly Mrs. Robert T. Lincoln would deny any animosity between them. She would tell Robert’s cousin, Katherine Helm (and Mary Lincoln’s first biographer), that indeed, she loved her mother-in-law, thus sanitizing the record for historians.

But actions speak louder than words. Mary Todd Lincoln was never a part of their lives.


  • Helm, Katherine, Mary, Wife of Lincoln, Harper & Brothers, 1928
  • Lachman, Charles, The Last Lincolns, Union Square Press, 2008
  • Neely, Mark E. Jr., & McMurtry, R. Gerald, The Insanity File: The Trial of Mary Todd Lincoln, Southern Illinois University Press, 1993
  • Randall, Ruth Painter, Lincoln’s Sons, Little, Brown, 1955

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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2 Responses to The Two Mary Lincolns Disaster

  1. energywriter says:

    Thank you for this little bit of unknown history. I’d heard rumors but without facts. sd

  2. nerdtrips says:

    Thanks Feather. I had never heard of the second Mrs. Lincoln. I have been intrigued by the story of Robert Lincoln who had connections to three presidential assassinations. Now to learn about the issues with his mother and his wife, he had a lot to bear.

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