Betsey Humphreys: Mary Lincoln’s Wicked Stepmother

One of the earliest photographs of Mary Lincoln.

When Mary Lincoln was seven, she and her five siblings lost their mother.

The Todd Marriage…and Remarriage

Robert Smith Todd (1791-1849) was 21 when he married Eliza Parker. Every indication was that it was a marriage of inclination. They liked each other and wanted to marry. Every further indication is that the marriage was a happy one.

Robert Smith Todd, Mary Lincoln’s father

Robert Todd, a third generation Lexington, KY gentleman, was a lawyer, planter, businessman and state legislator, like many men of his generation. Also like many men of his generation, including his neighbor Henry Clay, he enjoyed his whiskey, cigars and cards.

Eliza Parker (1794-1825) was a local girl, raised to be decorous, well mannered and trained to manage a slave-holding household. She bore seven children in twelve years.  Elizabeth, Frances, Levi, Mary, Ann and George. Another died at birth. George’s birth left her with a puerperal fever. She died a few days later.

Whether Robert Todd was devastated, or overwhelmed at the prospect of being father of a motherless family of six, within a few weeks he departed for his office in Frankfort, the state capital. The children were left under the general supervision of Grandmother Parker who lived next door. Twelve-year-old Elizabeth also assumed “mothering” her younger siblings.

Within a few weeks of being in Frankfort, Todd began courting Betsey Humphreys, a blue-blooded Kentucky belle, who at 26, was bordering on spinsterhood. It was an odd courtship, more like a business transaction than a romance. Perhaps Todd was more concerned with finding a new mother for his brood.

Betsey Humphreys Todd, Mary Lincoln’s stepmother.

Betsey herself may have been overwhelmed at that prospect. Ever mindful of conventional mourning customs regarding remarriages (at least 18-months), she departed Frankfort for an extended visit to her family, and the courtship became primarily one of formal correspondence. Nevertheless, they married.

The Second Mrs. Todd

The new Mrs. Todd found a sullen atmosphere in Lexington. Grandmother Parker, who had stepped in to raise her late daughter’s children, was unhappy, and likely angered at her son-in-law’s rush to remarry. In those early days, the pater familias was inviolable. Robert Todd must be above reproach or criticism. Any hostility was borne by the woman; the interloper. Whether intentionally or subtly, Grandmother Parker may have poisoned the children’s attitude, which would never improve.

Betsey Humphreys did little to help her own cause. Whether she was a wicked stepmother or not is always open to conjecture, however, according to those who knew her, she was a detached woman, sparing in her affections – even to the eight children she bore herself.

She was strict in her discipline, with little patience for childish misbehavior, finding it much easier to criticize than to praise. She was also inclined to sequester herself in her room, nursing her many pregnancies and related ailments.

The Todd’s town house in Lexington, KY. The family moved there when Mary was in her teens.

Betsey’s background had been carefully cultivated by her mother, Mary Brown Humphreys, who was one of the true grand dames of Kentucky and who came to exert great influence on all the Todd girls. Grandmother Humphreys was a firm believer that it took a full six generations to make a lady. Indoctrinated to that theory from birth, Betsey believed it her bound duty to create “ladies” out of her four little step-daughters, whether they liked it or not.

This influence of lady-ness was not lost on them. An aristocratic Todd-ness was pervasive.

Betsey and Elizabeth

Elizabeth Todd, at twelve, was perhaps the most embittered about her father’s remarriage, having assumed a fair amount of mothering of her younger siblings during her father’s long absence.

Elizabeth Todd Edward. Mary’s eldest sister loathed her stepmother.

Whether she resented her new stepmother’s obviously cold authority, or her father’s frequent business trips, surrogate mothering, or the pervasive influence of Grandmother Parker, Elizabeth developed an implacable dislike of Betsey Humphrey Todd and it would never change.

At sixteen, she married Ninian Edwards, Jr., a student at Transylvania University, and the son of Illinois’ first governor. She happily moved to Springfield, its new capital, and planned to create a societal atmosphere in the still-rustic town.

With Elizabeth gone, the other Todd “first family” merged with their growing half-siblings. Since new “halfs” occurred ever two years, the house became more and more crowded. Mary, only eleven when her eldest sister moved away, would later comment about her “desolate childhood.” Since she was the only one of her sisters who showed any academic inclination, she was sent to the best finishing school in Lexington, a mile from their house in town. Mary chose to board at school where she was happy, returning home only on weekends.

Betsey and Mary: Later

Katherine Helm was Mary’s niece. Long after Mary’s death, new light was shed on her aunt’s upbringing.

Elizabeth Todd Edwards made it her personal goal to rescue her full sisters from their unhappy environment. At some time, Frances, Mary and Ann all came to live with the Edwardses in Springfield, where they were introduced to up-and-coming men of distinction. To Elizabeth’s satisfaction, they all married and became the core of the capital’s genteel society. It would be said that the Todd family practically owned Springfield – at least socially.

When Mary Todd married Abraham Lincoln, she developed a softer view of her stepmother. While they would never become close, as an adult, and as a mother herself, Mary came to understand the stresses that Betsy had inherited, exacerbated by such a large and growing brood. Mary was also not unaware of her own mercurial temperament. She was not an easy child to raise.

Years later, when Mary-in-the-White-House was separated from her large extended family not only by distance, but by Civil War, she found an added bond with Betsey Todd, even though they hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade. Mary lost a son; her stepmother lost three sons.


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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6 Responses to Betsey Humphreys: Mary Lincoln’s Wicked Stepmother

  1. energywriter says:

    This explains a lot about MTL. Thank you.

  2. M.B. Henry says:

    Wow what an interesting backstory for Mary Todd. Very informative post, thanks for sharing!

  3. The Life and Times of Tro says:

    According to Irving Stone in her novel “Love is Eternal” Betsy Humphreys had 6 children

    • Most sources show eight (possibly nine) children born to Betsy Humphreys and Robert S. Todd. The “possible 9th” may have been stillborn or died in infancy. Irving Stone’s book is a novel, and may have mistaken the 6 children as Mary’s FULL siblings, rather than the “halfs.”

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