Mary Lincoln: The Tragedy of Time

A thought.

Mary spent seventeen years as the Widow Lincoln.

Mary Lincoln: Choices of Tragedy

Millions of words have been spent on Mary Lincoln, her various tragedies, her various ailments and the peculiarities of her personality and disposition in general.

mary in mourning

Mary Lincoln was 46 years old when she became a widow.

Many Mary biographers have focused on her losses. She lost her mother when she was only six. But that was in 1825. Thousands and thousands of little children lost parents in early childhood. It is unfortunate, but hardly tragic. She lost a son when he was three. He had been sickly since birth. Infant and child mortality was very high at that time, and while it might always leave a hole in any mother’s heart, it was too common an occurrence to be considered “tragic.”

The death of her son Willie, not quite twelve, was different. Mary was in her early forties, at the pinnacle of whatever goals in life she might have dreamed of. She lived in the White House as First Lady. She was at the top of any social pecking order. On the other hand, she was unpopular and she knew it. There was a horrific war going on, which would get far worse before it ended.

The death of her son, so young and so full of promise, plunged her into an understandable abyss of grief.   Victorian mores, different from the mourning traditions of a century earlier, encouraged the grieving process, and Mary Lincoln was a child of her times. She would observe the traditions for nearly two years (the socially prescribed period), including wearing the deepest black, and limiting her social duties of First Ladies as much as possible. She was just beginning to emerge from this blackness in April, 1865 when the unthinkable happened.

Her husband was murdered in her presence. She was sitting beside him in the theatre, holding his hand. They were enjoying themselves. She had no time to prepare, or to even “say goodbye.” The violence of the situation traumatized her for life.

Mary Lincoln’s Choices:

Mary Lincoln (1818-1882) was forty-six years old in April, 1865 when her widowhood began.

gals at work

Women in the workforce quadrupled in the 1870s – but .5% and 2% does not say much. Anyway, Mrs. Lincoln was not about to work in a factory.

What was she going to do with her time? Victorian custom precluded any suggestion that a woman find employment, and Mary was unprepared for employment anyway. The thought of a former First Lady clerking in a shop was unthinkable.

Now, as a widow, she had nothing in her life, except time. Most women, widowed or not, busied themselves with home and family and perhaps charitable activities. Mary had no home. The Lincoln house in Springfield held too many memories for her, so it was sold. She could not afford a real house of her own, so she spent most of those seventeen years in residence-hotels. She did not have to dust a table or cook a meal. While Tad lived, he was in boarding school much of the time. When he died at age eighteen in 1871, her last tie to tending family was gone.

Tad at 18

When Tad Lincoln died at 18, Mary had no one left to “mother.”

Her eldest son Robert Lincoln had his own life, one in which his mother was by and large excluded. Mary’s excessive emotions and erratic personality were an embarrassment to him, and a source of annoyance to his wife. Mary would cuddle only the oldest of his three children, and that was only as a baby. She had no close friends or the inclination to make anything other than superficial acquaintances, thus no support system to help her through the long days.

Robert Lincoln

Robert Lincoln, Mary’s eldest son, had a life of his own, including a wife who disliked her mother-in-law.

By the 1870s, women’s clubs had sprung up across the country.  Veterans 0rganizations and orphan relief  groups were welcoming women as active participants.  Subsequent First Ladies were happy to lend their names, their prestige, and their time to worthy causes.  But Mary Lincoln had no hobbies.  She did not paint or play card games.  She did not knit or crochet.  She was active in no church.   Perhaps she felt it was beneath her status as former First Lady.  Perhaps she felt she was above peers.  We will probably never know.

This constitutes its own overlooked tragedy.  She had a huge block of time on her hands. With no occupation for her lonely hours, like so many in similar situations, Mary focused on herself and her physical discomforts and ailments. Mary had suffered from migraine headaches all her life; menopause added its own symptoms, and loneliness and financial worries aggravated her myriad physical complaints. She was subject to chills and low grade fevers; to colds and ague; to insomnia and general malaise.

She consulted numerous doctors over the years, each prescribing as best he could what he hoped might provide some benign relief. There were some German physicians (said to be the best in Europe) who realized that most of Mary’s problems were psychologically either induced or exacerbated. (And this at a time when Sigmund Freud was still in medical school!) When they realized they could not be helpful, a change of climate was prescribed as a last resort. She would go away and no longer trouble them.

So she wandered. She wandered around Europe. She wandered from spa to spa in the United States. A few months here, a “season” there, always looking for the “miracle cure” for her various ailments.

In between spas and springs and healthy climates, she shopped. What else was there for her to do? She spent her days browsing at counters in various stores, chatting with the merchants or sales staff who were anxious to fawn over her, and perhaps leading her to purchase items she did not need, nor would ever need, in return for a brief chance at pleasant human interaction. It became her daily activity; her occupation, as it were. There was nothing else for her to do.


Baker, Jean – Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography – W.W.Norton & Co. 1999

Clinton, Catherine – Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, HarperCollins, 2009


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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7 Responses to Mary Lincoln: The Tragedy of Time

  1. I agree that women of means in the nineteenth century had too much time to think about their problems. However, Mary did show signs of being mentally unstable when she married Abraham, who did not have much money at the time. One friend described her as either “being in the garret or the cellar.” Early in her marriage, she had young kids to care for and little household help while Abraham was away making a living as a traveling lawyer. When he was home, her husband also frequently left the house with young Robert during one of Mary’s tantrums, for which she nearly always apologized later. It’s not realistic to diagnose someone from history, but I think Mary tended to be more emotionally vulnerable than some other people.

  2. You are right about historical diagnoses. Mary was a very complicated lady from the get-go, and the “opportunities” for tragedy were numerous. Loss, Trauma, Neglect, Loneliness, Inadequate health care (mental & physical), etc., etc. My essay on the “time” aspect is merely one aspect that I have always believed to be overlooked. -FSF

    • As you said, having extra time on her hands was certainly unhelpful for someone as emotional as Mary. Some have suggested that Lincoln himself had mental health problems, but was somewhat aided by the fact that he had so much work to do and needed to think about others besides himself. Mary was intelligent and probably would have felt at least somewhat better if she had the option of a career.

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