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  • bethhewett

Mary Todd Lincoln: A Bereaved Parent's Nightmare

I’ve had many opportunities to support bereaved parents, who suffer greatly from the unnatural losses of their children. Sometimes their children’s deaths make me think of Mary Todd Lincoln, who suffered the deaths of three of her four children.


Having read several books about Abraham Lincoln’s life and death, I’ve decided this woman was much maligned and poorly understood. In one book, a “fictional thriller” based on the twenty-four hours just before and after Lincoln’s assassination (John C. Berry’s A Night of Horrors: A Historical Thriller about the 24 Hours of Lincoln’s Assassination), Mary Lincoln was considered a pariah in Washington; a spendthrift; a nepotist; and a shrill, overemotional, petty, unlikeable, relative-to-Confederates who barely was tolerated by society. Although intelligent and witty, this woman wasn’t liked. People were glad to see her leave Washington, and her enemies in Congress fought hard against her when she sought a widow’s pension like wives of deceased soldiers received. Just wow. That alone makes me feel awful for poor Mary.


Others have written beautifully about Mary Lincoln’s astonishing burden of grief that she carried throughout her life (see Patricia Nugent’s “Mary Todd Lincoln: A Lunatic, or Just Grieving?”), so I will just focus on the overwhelming loss in her immediate family.


Mary Lincoln’s mother died when the girl was six-years old, soon replaced by a “distant” stepmother. Well, we hear that the stepmother was distant, and that’s completely possible. Certainly, it must have been terribly hard for little Mary to let go of her mother and cling lovingly to another woman. As for her stepmother, I think it’s hard for women to successfully substitute for a deceased mother even when they’re warm and loving toward the child; if they’re not so warm and loving, the stepchild can be especially devastated. There are ripple effects of grief for a child’s loss of a parent and then the need to accept a new parent who may or may not be particularly welcoming. Although Mary had a reasonably “good” life by current standards—complete with excellent schooling, a stable and enviable social position, and a choice of husband—it must have been hard to lose the comfort of her mother so young.


As a mother herself, Mary Lincoln experienced the loss of three of four sons. Her second child Edward (Eddie) died in 1850 at the age of four from tuberculosis. There were no support systems like the MISS Foundation, Bereaved Parents of the USA, or Compassionate Friends for Mary Lincoln. Just 12 years later, her third son William (Willie) died in 1862 of typhoid at the age of 12. His age means Willie, who was born in 1850, came into the world the same year that Eddie died. While a child can never be replaced, imagine the comfort that little Willie gave to both the Lincoln parents. In their grief, they had a young child again to hold, to cuddle, to swear they would protect from the unfairness of life. Biographies of Abraham Lincoln tend to suggest that Willie’s death tore both parents’ hearts, causing them depression, sleeplessness, and intense pain.


Interestingly, little mention is made of the preschool-aged Eddie in discussions of Mary Lincoln’s life. Were the people of her day uninterested in the family’s first loss of a child, who had been barely more than a baby? After all, many children died young from a variety of illnesses and hazards. Perhaps the nation noticed Willie’s death because the boy died while the Lincolns were in the Whitehouse. He had been part of the family during the election and the inauguration. As far as the nation—and Washington society— was concerned, Willie had always been part of the family. Eddie was a whisper of a ghost, an afterthought to the discussion. Surely there was a media interest factor in the First Family even in the mid-1800s.


Mary Lincoln’s children were not old enough to be in the war, while tens of thousands of mothers learned that their sons had died in the four years of the Civil War. So, I wonder whether the war played a factor in the mother’s grief. Her first loss of Eddie was somewhat overlooked, and the compounded nature of having two children die in twelve years’ time was ignored or treated as less than the cataclysm it surely was. Worse, could her losses have been considered by some to be insufficient to the war-time cause? I’m speculating, of course, but I can’t help but wonder.


Mary Lincoln also suffered the death of her third son Thomas (Tad), born a short three years after Willie. Before experiencing the effects of losing Tad, though, the little family was bereaved of the great man who was president. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, when Tad was 12 and their oldest son Robert was 22.


Everyone knows the story of Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth, the third famous (and, some say, less talented) actor son of Junius Booth. It’s popularly recounted that Abraham and Mary Lincoln were holding hands and enjoying the theatre together when the bullet was fired into his brain. He never regained consciousness although he lived for about nine more hours. Writers recite Abraham Lincoln’s strengths of body, character, and morals when recounting his death. Many strong men were said to cry, weep, and wail in grief as the man lay dying and after he died. Mary, however, was sent from his room more than once for lack of womanly decorum. Her crime? She wailed.


In Berry’s novel, the First Lady with blood and brain spattered gown wailed, fainted, and loudly cried out her grief as her husband lay dying. Today, people who work in bereavement care know and respect this behavior as mourning. Society, however, still prefers not to hear it. The men of the President’s Cabinet were said to be embarrassed by her lack of dignity, annoyed to the point of anger by her shrill voice, and disgusted by her saying repeatedly: “Why did he have to shoot him? Why not me instead?” At the crucial moment of her husband’s death, Mary had been removed from the room and not allowed back in.


Why not her instead of him? To me, that’s a perfectly normal question for a woman who had already buried two children and suffered deep depression (dare we say grief?) as a result. Why should she want to live when her dearest husband was going to die and leave her as she had been left by the children? Should she have wanted to live for her living children? That judgment asks a lot of a woman bereaved of her flesh and blood and now of the man with whom she had become one. Indeed, Tad was then 12. Who was to say that he would live past this year with the number 12 being an anniversary of sorts for this sad family?


After Lincoln’s death, Mary traveled for six years with her Tad, the youngest. And then, Tad died at age 18, when ripening to a manhood that he would never fulfill. The illness that killed him, apparently affecting his lungs, is uncertain. What is certain is that this woman lost three of four sons and the beloved husband who lit her life.


Robert, her oldest son, was 28 and took her into his home, but her grown child could not take the place of those whom Mary had lost. History cannot tell us of the many ways he might have tried to satisfy her grief and be the perfect son; the grief of siblings and children isn’t always recorded. He wasn’t the cure for the deeply bereaved Mary Lincoln’s grief, emptiness, and anxieties.


History tends to remember Mary Lincoln for her son Robert’s desperate act of having her committed to an insane asylum although she later won the right to leave and lived several years on her own or with her sister. History is hard on Mary Lincoln, tending not to recognize this woman’s challenges in bereavement or her strength in carrying on where society simply didn’t understand or accept her behavior in the context of loss.


Grief comes to us all. Thank God we now have more ways to self-advocate for help, love, and understanding. We can weep for the many unsung Mary Lincolns of history and of our own communities. And we can offer them the precious gift of a listening, nonjudgmental ear.


© 2023 Beth L. Hewett

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