The Mary and Robert Lincoln Tragedy


Mary and Robert Lincoln

Mary Lincoln would have a tenuous and tragic relationship with her son Robert Lincoln for the rest of her life.

When Abraham Lincoln died he left no will, thus his estate would be shared equally by Mary, his wife, and his two remaining sons, Robert and Tad, a minor.  Robert, only twenty-one, was now the man of the family and became guardian to his emotionally distraught mother and his thirteen-year-old brother.  Robert’s personal plans were now dashed.

Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln (née Todd; December 13, 1818 – July 16, 1882) was the wife of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, and as such the First Lady of the United States from 1861 to 1865.

Having graduated from Harvard some months earlier, he had planned to return for law studies once he was discharged from the Army.  Now, formal law school was out of the question.

The despondent Mary Lincoln understandably refused to return to their Springfield, Illinois home.  After all, one son and her husband had died in the four years since they departed.  The memories were unbearable.

Six weeks after the assassination, what remained of the Lincoln family went to Chicago.  Robert had been accepted by a prominent firm to “read law”, still an acceptable route for an attorney.

Within weeks, however, he discovered his mother’s secret: she was deeply in debt to merchants in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia for a long list of purchases she had accrued as First Lady.

Between her frantic need to pay these debts and her already fragile emotional state, Robert realized he could not possibly live in cramped quarters with his agitated mother and young brother.  He moved out.

The Widow Mary’s Problem

Mary was unforgivably treated by political powers that were.  They never liked her.  They gave her $25,000, Lincoln’s one-year salary, hoping she would go away “on the cheap.”  She wanted the full four-year salary.   It would not happen.  Lincoln’s estate would take nearly two years to resolve.  Meanwhile, Mary had no home of her own, nor could she afford one.

Between her debts, her tenuous hold on sanity and her erratic compulsion for shopping, Mary became a wanderer.  In an effort to raise money, she instigated a scheme to sell some of her clothing.  The effort not only backfired, but it caused huge embarrassment to herself, to her son Robert, to the country, and most importantly, to Lincoln’s memory.

Practically unable to show her face, a mortified Mary left the country.  Her first goal was to provide a good education for Tad, whose schooling had been woefully neglected.  Her second goal was to live frugally and privately.  The word “spendthrift” is an oxymoron that fits Mary nearly to perfection.  In Europe she would shop-till-she-dropped, frequently purchasing items she would never use; then she would seemingly punish herself for these indulgences by living in cheap, substandard quarters, lit by a single candle.

Lincoln and Family

Robert Lincoln’s Problem With His Mother

In the interim, Robert was a rising young attorney who had married Mary Harlan and had had a baby.  “Uncle” Tad desperately wanted to see his brother so the wandering Lincolns went home.

Robert also had wanted to see Tad, believing that at eighteen, “Mr. Thomas Lincoln” had the right to be consulted on family matters.  Robert also sincerely wanted to be a big brother, and help Tad plan his future, and he welcomed them gladly.

Unfortunately, the Lincoln house was not big enough for TWO Mary Lincolns, and Robert’s wife formed a bitter dislike for her rather touchy and imperious mother-in-law.

She took the baby and went back to her own mother.  Then Tad sickened and died.  Mary was once again hysterical.  Robert was again burdened with funeral plans, another trip with a coffin to Springfield, a wife and baby who refused to come home, and a devastated mother whose weeping-and-wailing grief could not be controlled.

On the verge of a nervous breakdown himself, he consulted his doctor, who advised him to “get away” from that toxic atmosphere immediately.  Perhaps lacking the courage to face his mother, Robert left her a note.  Mrs. Abraham Lincoln was now alone in a big house, with no one to comfort her except the servants, who had also grown tired of the weeping and wailing.

Mary now began nearly a decade of wandering from place to place, from spa to spa, looking for whatever peace she could find.  With little to occupy her time productively, she had become excessively hypochondriacal, focusing on a series of vague ailments.  Some were real, however many stemmed from her emotional frailty.  She would consult dozens of doctors and receive dozens of prescriptions.  She would take dozens of medications.

Robert, realizing that his mother would never truly be able to care for herself, arranged for a nurse-companion. but  Mary would be a near-impossible patient.  The nursemaids would resign in short order.

Finally, after a series of unfathomably bizarre incidents (perhaps from drug interaction), Robert was totally beside himself.  At a loss of what to do with a mother who was bordering on insanity, a wife who refused to be of assistance, and a desperate need to protect the family name, Robert consulted with several of Lincoln’s old friends.  These were men he trusted, and who he knew would do everything in their power to keep the Lincolns’ reputation from humiliation.

The Widow Mary Lincoln would be declared “legally insane” in a court of law, and, in the most humane treatment available in an age where psychiatry was in its infancy, sent to a sanitarium to “recover.”   Within a few months, largely due to her own efforts, Mary was declared “recovered,” and curiously enough, would never show those inexplicable symptoms again.

Mary and Robert Lincoln: The Aftermath

The relationship between mother and son was permanently scarred.  While they resumed tenuous contact, the sense of family ties had deteriorated.  Most people know about Mary, warts and all.  Robert, however, was all Todd.  Lacking the famous Lincoln wit and sparkle, he was a private man, assiduously shunning the public eye, and acutely aware of being the keeper of the Lincoln flame.

His own deep pain at the course of events would remain secreted away for nearly a century.  When his files on Mary Lincoln’s “insanity hearings” were finally discovered, with all the legalistic documents, with all the letters and copies that he meticulously maintained, with all the correspondence and proceedings, through it all is the huge sadness and agony of Robert Todd Lincoln.

He was as tragic a figure as his mother.

  1. Avatar of Andrew J. Sacks
    Andrew J. Sacks says

    Feather, thank you for this fascinating glimpse into our nation’s history.

  2. Avatar of Feather Schwartz Foster
    Feather Schwartz Foster says

    I am glad you enjoyed it! History is a wonderful treasure trove!

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