Emilie Todd: Mary Lincoln’s Little Sister

Mary Todd Lincoln came from a huge family. There were fourteen children.

Children and Steps:

Mary Todd was the fourth of six children born to Robert Smith Todd and his first wife, Elizabeth Parker.   She died when Mary was only six, and a year and half later, her father remarried, as was very common at the time. He and his new wife, Betsey Humphreys would have another eight surviving children.


Emilie Todd Helm, Mary Lincoln’s baby sister, was said to be the prettiest of all the Todd sisters.

Emilie Todd (1836-1930) was nearly eighteen years younger than her half-sister Mary, just a baby when Mary left the Todd house in Lexington, KY to make a permanent home in Springfield, IL.  Needless to say, there were no shared memories of youth.

When Mary and Abraham Lincoln were married, they made a few rare visits to the Todd house in Lexington. It is said that Lincoln, who was old enough to be her father, scooped her up in his long arms saying, “So this is ‘Little Sister!’ And of all the Todd half-siblings Mary had, it would be Emilie who had the “sisterly” relationship, even though the girl was only a few years older than her “nephew” Robert.

Emilie Visits Springfield

young mary lincoln

Mary Lincoln helped “host” her sister Emilie’s visit to Springfield. She and Emilie became particularly close.

Years would pass with only sporadic contact between Mary and Emilie. Living in Springfield with her full-sisters, Elizabeth Edwards, Frances Wallace and Ann Smith, Mary had little occasion to go to Lexington. She had never been close to her stepmother, and once her father died, and her own family was still young, the ties loosened.


Ben Hardin Helm declined Lincoln’s offer of high Union command, and joined the Confederate army, even though his home state of Kentucky remained in the Union.

But in 1854, when Emilie was eighteen, she paid a visit to her four Todd half-sisters. She did not stay with the Lincolns, but according to her later recollections, she saw Mary nearly every day, and it was Mary that she loved the best. And also according to those recollections, Mary treated Emilie, said to be the prettiest of all the Todd sister, to a new bonnet – at a time when the Lincoln funds were tight.

Not long after that visit, Emilie married Ben Hardin Helm, a young West Point trained attorney and legislator from Kentucky. Lincoln liked him. Shortly after Lincoln became President, he offered Helm a plum position: Paymaster of the Union Army. Helm declined. His sympathies were with the South, even though Kentucky did not join. He enlisted in the Confederate army, became a Brigadier General and was killed in the fall of 1863 at the battle of Chickamauga. He was 32.

Emilie Comes to Washington

Emilie Helm and her young daughter who had traveled to Tennessee to retrieved General Helm’s body, sought “safe passage” to return to Kentucky. Union soldiers were quick to accommodate, so long as she took an obligatory oath of allegiance to the Union. Emilie adamantly refused. The soldiers, knowing her close relationship to the Lincolns, were in a quandary, and telegraphed the President for instructions. “Send her to me,” was the order.

Older Emilie Helm

Emilie Todd Helm never married after her husband’s death, and became a very attractive and wealthy widow.

Emilie and her daughter Katherine duly went to Washington, and was warmly embraced by the Lincolns who had always had a great fondness for her.   Lincoln was particularly grateful to have her there, since Mary was still mourning deeply over the death of their young son a year earlier, and he was concerned about her mental and emotional health. He believed that the two sisters could find comfort by mourning together. Tad Lincoln was delighted to have a young cousin to play with = even if she was a girl.

Lincoln was solicitous of General Helm’s death; Emilie was tender in her response noting that her husband felt compelled to follow his conscience – like most of Mrs. Lincoln’s other half-siblings. And it was Emilie who told Lincoln in confidence that she was becoming concerned about her sister’s growing infatuation with spiritualism.

Lincoln had hoped to have Emilie and little Katherine spend the summer with them at the Soldiers Home, but her presence was becoming a source of complaint to various Congressmen (“harboring spies in the White House”). He let the Congressmen know in uncertain terms that while his sister-in-law was possessed of the “Todd tongue”, he firmly maintained the right to invite guests without their permission. Emilie was uncomfortable, however, and decided to return to Lexington, Kentucky.

When she left the White House, it would be the last time Mary Lincoln saw her little sister.

Some months later, Emilie wrote to Lincoln requesting permission to send clothing to Confederate prisoners being held in Chicago, and in November 1864, requested a pass to sell her cotton. By this time, Lincoln (and probably Mary, too) was becoming annoyed by her ardently Confederate Todd-half-sibs. They had become more an embarrassment than any comfort. Lincoln denied the pass, and revoked previous passes, saying “Deal with her for current conduct, just as you would any other.”

Emilie and Katherine Helm: The Mary Book


Mary’s niece Katherine Helm was a talented amateur artist and painted the portrait that is now the “Official” Mary Lincoln portrait. She also wrote Mary’s first biography, more than 40 years after her aunt’s death.

Emilie Helm was still in her twenties when she became a widow – and a wealthy one at that.   She never remarried – nor did her little daughter Katherine.

When Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, none of Mary’s family rallied to her side in Washington. While the Widow Mary would be in sporadic contact with her full-sisters during the remaining seventeen years of her life, there is no evidence that she ever saw any of her Todd-halves again. There is no correspondence between Mary and Emilie that has surfaced.

Later in their lives, Mary’s niece Katherine Helm, a small child during the Civil War, decided to paint what is now the “official” White House portrait of Mary Lincoln.  She also wrote a biography of her Aunt Mary, titled “Mary, Wife of Lincoln” and written in the ponderous Victorian style that was still popular in the 1920s.  It was the first biography ever penned about Mrs. L. and contained wonderful information about the early years of Mary Todd,  based in large part on information provided by Emilie Todd Helm, who was still living – and would eventually reach the ripe old age of ninety-four.  “Little Sister” outlived all the Lincolns – including her nephew Robert, who lived to be eighty three himself.


Berry, Stephen – House of Abraham: Lincoln & The Todds, A Family Divided by War – Houghton Mifflin, 2007

Clinton, Catherine – Mrs. Lincoln: A Life – Harper Collins, 2009

Helm, Katherine, Mary, Wife of Lincoln, Harper & Brothers, 1928





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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4 Responses to Emilie Todd: Mary Lincoln’s Little Sister

  1. nerdtrips says:

    I had never heard of Mary’s half-siblings. Another example of a divided family during the Civil War.

  2. mickeypamo says:

    Mary Todd Lincoln is my great great great great aunt by blood. Many of my people are from Peoria and Springfield. Lincoln’s photo is in one of our old family albums. Guess we all come from somewhere . . . . which means nothing

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