The widow of Abraham Lincoln was a pathetically lonely woman, with no one to love and no one to love her.
Mary Lincoln: The Lonely First Lady
Despite a large family of siblings-and-halves, by her own admission, Mary Todd Lincoln’s childhood was “desolate.” The few years she spent as the eligible Miss Todd, living in Springfield, Illinois with her married sister Elizabeth Edwards, were arguably her most carefree. She had her little coterie of friends and companions, and life was good.
Once she married, as customary for Victorian times, her husband became “her all.” As young Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, she devoted herself to her husband, her growing family and her home. Life was still good.
Eighteen years later, Mrs. Lincoln was in the White House, where she was generally left to her own devices. President Lincoln had little time (and perhaps inclination) for domesticity. Her oldest son Robert was away at college. Her young sons Willie and Tad were old enough to rely on playmates. What might have been a glamorous social setting became a lonely island in many ways, due to the Civil War, and the fact that Mary had alienated much of Washington society with her imperious personality. Despite her exalted position, life was not quite so good.
Then disaster struck. Within those four years she lost her son Willie to typhoid and her husband was assassinated before her eyes. Life would never be good again.
Mary Lincoln: Lonely Widow
During the next decade, Mary Lincoln would lose her remaining sons: Tad, to pleurisy at age eighteen, and Robert, by estrangement.
Robert Lincoln, man of the family at twenty-one, had inherited a particularly difficult situation with his mother. Their personalities were different by nature, and Mary by anyone’s calculation, was more than a handful.
After Tad’s death, the grieving Mary became so erratic and bizarre at times, that Robert felt compelled to have her sanity legally tried, resulting in a few months of involuntary residence at Bellevue House, an exclusive 19th century sanitarium.
Enter Lewis Baker
Mrs. Lincoln, mostly by her own efforts, won her release from the rest home, and was pronounced “cured.” The proviso was that she would stay with her sister Elizabeth Todd Edwards, back in Springfield, in the very house where she had once lived as an eligible young woman. The two sisters had been distant for several years. It seems that Elizabeth’s husband Ninian Edwards had been involved in some questionable dealings during the Civil War, and President Lincoln refused to run interference.
Edward Lewis Baker was Elizabeth Edwards’ grandson. He was seventeen years old, and in a way, resembled the beloved Tad, who had died a few years earlier. Lewis’ father had a diplomatic position, and the Bakers were living overseas. The young man declined to go along, and was living with his grandparents. Lewis had some ambitions to become a journalist, and found particular delight in the company of his “crazy” great-aunt Mary, now also in residence.
Mary Lincoln had always enjoyed the company of young folks, and Lewis’ obvious interest in her “Washington stories” and his complete disregard of the innuendos and gossip of her madness was endearing. She showered him with sincere affection and well-meaning advice for his future. Lewis, in turn, gave Mary a modicum of warm human relationship that had been gone from her life for more than a decade. She had someone to love.
Mary Lincoln and Lewis Baker in Lexington
Within a few months of living care/of Elizabeth Edwards, Mary decided to return to Europe. She had lived there for three years before Tad’s death, and it provided the solitude and privacy that she needed and claimed to want. She would go alone – a frail, friendless woman in her late fifties.
Lewis Baker was her companion on the trip from Illinois to New York where she would board her ship. En route, there was a brief a detour to Lexington, Kentucky, where Mary and Elizabeth Todd were born and raised.
After more than forty years, the town had changed dramatically, mostly due to the Civil War. None of the Todd family still lived there. None of her Parker cousins remained. Ellerslie, their old plantation, was a decaying ruin. Her childhood town house had been consumed by fire years earlier.
But Lewis Baker was the perfect companion for this you-can’t-go-home-again sentimental journey. He had known very little about his grandmother’s early life, and Aunt Mary was the consummate guide to a past long gone. The two of them would bond in a way that they both needed.
As far as we know, Mary Lincoln wrote very few letters those last years of her life, and even fewer “personal” letters. Most of those (at least the only ones that have surfaced) are to Lewis Baker. They are affectionate and full of motherly advice about his future plans and education. Lewis Baker seems to be the only one left that she really cared about.
Mary Lincoln: The Last Years
Three years after she had gone to Europe, Mary Lincoln returned to Springfield, Illinois for good. Her health was failing precipitously. She was losing her eyesight, probably due to cataracts, possibly complicated as some modern doctors suspect, by undiagnosed diabetes. She had also fallen in her room and may have broken some bones in her back, resulting in pain that would remain for the rest of her life.
It was Lewis Baker who came to meet Aunt Mary in New York and escort her back to Springfield to live once again with her sister. By this time Lewis was a young man with his own life and his own responsibilities. While he still had true affection for his great aunt, he was going forward, and Mary Lincoln, now completely reclusive, would finish her days living in the past.
Baker, Jean- Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography – W. W. Norton & Company, 1989
Emerson, Jason – The Madness of Mary Lincoln – Southern Illinois University Press; Reprint edition (May 2, 2012)
Turner, Justin and Turner, Linda Turner – Mary Lincoln: Her Life and Letters – New York. Alfred A. Knopf. 1972.