Mary Lincoln’s Big Sister: Elizabeth Edwards

Elizabeth Todd Edwards was the oldest of Mary Lincoln’s siblings.

The Todd Family

Robert and Eliza Todd of Lexington, KY had six children who lived to adulthood. Mary was the fourth. Eliza died when Mary was only seven; eighteen months later, Robert remarried, and the family dynamic was changed forever with the arrival of a new stepmother – followed by eight more little Todd offspring.


Elizabeth Todd Edwards, Mary Lincoln’s eldest sister, as a young Springfield matron.

Elizabeth Todd (1813-1888), the eldest, was the quintessential prototype of the “first-born syndrome.” She took on the responsibility of quasi-mothering her younger siblings, and escaping the strained household at sixteen by marriage to Ninian Edwards, Jr., the son of the first governor of Illinois. She moved to Springfield, its new capital, with a goal of creating a social scene befitting a state capital – practically from scratch. In the early 1830s, it was still a pioneer village.

Elizabeth Rescues Mary The First Time

Elizabeth Edwards, capably hosting social events for her widowed father-in-law, believed that the up-and-coming young men who lived and/or had business in Springfield required intelligent, well-bred young women to help advance their careers and raise distinguished families. And who better than her own sisters to advance that vision? Besides, living in Kentucky with the “wicked stepmother” was becoming difficult for all the “first” sisters.

Mary Todd, five years younger than Elizabeth was duly invited to come to Springfield permanently when she was in her late teens. Staying with the Edwards’ she was immediately introduced to the cream of Springfield.

young mary lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln, as a young Springfield matron, taken shortly after she married Abraham Lincoln.

Mary was delighted to escape from her “desolate  childhood,” (her own phrase).  Living with her sister and brother-in-law for five years, she enjoyed perhaps the most carefree time of her life. She had a little coterie of social friends, attended parties and theatre and lectures and whatever entertainment was available in the growing town. Then she met and married a struggling young attorney named Abraham Lincoln. That marriage, however, was not without serious misgivings by both Elizabeth and Ninian Edwards. While they believed Lincoln was a nice enough fellow and a capable lawyer, he was multi-steps below the society-minded Todds (who required two “d’s” while God only needed one – according to Lincoln).

The Lincolns married anyway, and it would take them more than a decade to achieve middle-class status.

Rescuing Mary in the White House

It was Robert Lincoln, the eldest of the Lincoln sons, who sent for his Aunt Elizabeth in 1862.

more mary

The death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln plummeted Mary into a severe depression.

By that time, Lincoln had been elected President of the United States, and the country was being torn apart by a Civil War which would claim more than a half-million lives before it ended.

The First Family, less than a year in the White House, experienced its own wrenching loss.  Eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln died of typhoid fever. Mary Lincoln was devastated by grief. For weeks she was physically unable to leave her bed. President Lincoln, the equally distraught father, was overburdened by his duties and could spare little time for the emotional care that his wife desperately needed.

Robert asked his aunt to come to Washington. She came, and it was she who firmly prodded Mary to get on with her life…”get up, Mary, get dressed, Mary, you can’ t stay in bed sobbing all day, Mary…” Elizabeth stayed for two weeks, and Mary began to move on.

Rescuing Mary for Real

elizabeth edwards

Elizabeth Edwards invited Mary Lincoln to “recover” in their home, following her “sanity” ordeal.

ninian edwards

Ninian Edwards, Elizabeth’s husband, and the Lincolns brother-in-law.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was more than mere grief to his wife. It was a trauma. She was sitting beside him when the bullet pierced his skull. Mary would never be the same. Six years later, when Tad, the youngest Lincoln son died at only eighteen, Mary was plunged once again into morbid grief, compounded and exacerbated by Robert’s wife, who had taken a distinct dislike to her mother-in-law. Mary became a perpetual “wanderer,” seeking the physical and emotional comfort that would forever be denied to her.

Her many eccentricities finally culminated in a trial for her “sanity.” Many modern historians believe that her increasingly bizarre behavior was the result of drug interaction. She had been taking various medications prescribed by various doctors in various places for various medical symptoms – for several years.

The trial resulted in Mary being sent to a sanitarium – and a permanent estrangement from her son Robert. It would be Mary herself who engineered her release and retrial, which was dependent on having a “suitable” place to go since Mary had been living in hotels for years.


The Edwards’ home in Springfield, IL, where Mary Todd married Abraham Lincoln – and where Mary Lincoln died.

Mary chose Elizabeth Edwards, who came to her sister’s rescue, offering Mary a stable environment. She stayed with her sister for several months. It was a successful “furlough.” Having removed the cause of her erratic behavior, she never again experienced those symptoms that had so distressed her son Robert.

The Final Rescue

last mary

A “doctored” photograph of the Widow Lincoln, with the “spirit”of her husband watching over her.

Once the Widow Lincoln had recovered some semblance of reasonable composure, she decided to go back to Europe, where she had lived for a few years prior to Tad’s death. She remained there for three more years, mostly in semi-seclusion.

Her return to the USA was predicated on two serious health issues, neither connected with her emotional well- or ill-being. First, she was losing her eyesight, possibly due to cataracts, and/or a suspected undiagnosed diabetes. Secondly, she had a bad fall and hurt her back. It is conceivable that a bone or maybe more was broken. It would trouble her for the rest of her life.

Unable to continue living alone, once again Mrs. Lincoln wrote to her eldest sister-mother for help. “Might she come and stay, more or less permanently?”

Elizabeth, first-born to the core, said yes.


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

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

Turner, Justin G. & Turner, Linda Levitt (eds.) – Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters – Knopf, New York, 1972


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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6 Responses to Mary Lincoln’s Big Sister: Elizabeth Edwards

  1. energywriter says:

    Thank you for this view of Mary Lincoln with information I’ve never heard/read before. I hope you find a way to share this with a wider audience. sd

  2. Paula says:

    I enjoyed reading this so much that I went to my public library and checked out Baker’s biography of MTL and another book on the Lincolns’ marriage. I’m halfway through the former and am immensely entertained! Thank you so much for your blog; you have a fan in Texas!

  3. Thank you for your kind remarks. If my little stories inspire people to “read on!” then I have done my job!

  4. Nice piece on Mary’s sister. Historians have not been kind to Mary Todd Lincoln; she had her flaws but after losing three children and seeing your husband murdered before your eyes, I would think we could cut her a little slack on the “crazy” score. Robert’s motives in incarcerating his mother may have had less to do with her well being and more with keeping her silent. At any rate, good job in pointing out the important role her sister played.

  5. Reblogged this on The Late Unpleasantness: A Civil War Blog and commented:
    Here is an interesting article about Elizabeth Todd Edwards from Feather Foster, Presidential Historian. Elizabeth is often overlooked by Lincoln historians, yet she played an important role in Mr. & Mrs. Lincoln’s lives.

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