'Hellcat or Helpmate': A Look at Mary Todd Lincoln

Three of her four kids didn't live to adulthood, and her husband was shot as he held her hand. If anyone ever deserved to go crazy, it was Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the 16th U.S. president. "She had the most tragic public life in American history," says James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill.

But was she truly insane? That question is raised—but not answered—by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum's special exhibit, "Mary Todd Lincoln: First Lady of Controversy," running through Nov. 30. "We invite you to draw your own conclusions," says a sign at the beginning of the show. "It's hard enough to diagnose mental illness when the patient is alive," says Lincoln expert Tom Schwartz, the Illinois state historian. "You might be able to attach it to mental illness …You can also explain it according to events and circumstances. It doesn't have to be mental illness."

The exhibit comes as the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth approaches, in February 2009. Steven Spielberg is working on a movie, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," with Liam Neeson as Abraham and Sally Field as Mary Todd. And having been dead for more than a century hasn't spared the Lincolns from more tabloid-style reassessments, either. "Americans love to have their public leaders' private lives spilled out into the headlines," says Civil War historian Catherine Clinton, who's writing a new book about Mary Todd Lincoln. "And the Lincolns are no exception, as we have had major books in the past few years asking 'Was Lincoln gay?,' 'Was Mary crazy?,' 'Were one or both of them bisexual? Bipolar?' And the second-guessing game goes on."

In any event, Mary Todd Lincoln, not just her husband, remains an important and relevant historical figure. "In many ways Mary Lincoln is a symbol to me of things that happen to human beings that are beyond our control," says Goucher College history professor Jean Baker, author of "Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography." She was no wallflower. "She doesn't stay upstairs, where Abigail Fillmore and Jane Pierce were for most of their time as First Ladies. She's downstairs, trying to fix up those grand rooms of the White House so she could contribute to the social life of politics during the Civil War," says Baker. Extremely well educated, and fluent in French, Mary Todd Lincoln gentrified her husband—and told him he would be president. He read all his speeches to her. When the returns came in from Pennsylvania during his presidential bid, he said, "'Mary, Mary, we are elected,'" says Baker. "This was a political marriage. It's sort of like Bill and Hillary—a sense that this is something we can do together." Clinton agrees: "She was his political adviser all the way through … She saw the greatness that Abraham Lincoln would become."

The Springfield exhibit begins dramatically, with the bed where Mary Todd Lincoln slept in 1875, when she was involuntarily committed to Bellevue Place, a private sanitarium in Batavia, Ill. Her eldest son said, and a jury agreed, that she was insane, after hotel parlor maids testified that she wandered the halls at night and sewed money into her nightgown. She spent four months at Bellevue Place before a second court restored her legal right to control her affairs. "She is misunderstood, but I also believe that she had serious, serious mental illness," says Jason Emerson, author of "The Madness of Mary Lincoln" (Southern Illinois University Press, Oct. 2007), who argues that she suffered from bipolar disorder throughout her life. Other prominent historians disagree. "She's neurotic and narcissistic, but I don't go with this insanity bit," says Baker.

The next room in the exhibit showcases many items, including the blood-stained ivory-and-white-silk fan she carried at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, when the prominent actor John Wilkes Booth shot her husband during the British comedy "Our American Cousin." The bloody fan, like about half the items in the special exhibit, came from the collection of Louise Taper, the world's leading Lincoln collector. (Taper recently sold some pieces to the museum; others are on loan for the special exhibit.)

Like Jackie Kennedy, Mary Todd Lincoln grew up wealthy and well educated—and loved to spend money on expensive clothes and decor. The exhibit shows many fine items, including silver ice tongs and silver spoons. She even bought chamber pots to match her White House china. (The pattern was purple, her favorite color.) "She really was the Jackie Kennedy of her day," says William D. Snyder, senior curator of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

But unlike Jackie Kennedy, Mary Todd Lincoln did not go on to marry a wealthy suitor after her husband died. Immediately after Abraham died (without a will), she battled with Congress to try to get the remainder of her husband's salary. Ultimately, Congress decided to give her what was left of his 1865 pay: $22,000. The exhibit shows the actual money order—and the paper with the exact tally, $22,025.34. "They rounded it down," says Snyder. At the time, presidential widows did not receive pensions. "She always felt that she was never properly compensated by the American government," says Schwartz. "By modern standards she was screwed." She fought for a pension, and, in 1870, finally received one: $3,000 a year. As a result she set the precedent for other widows, like Lucretia Garfield, to get pensions too.

She was an unpopular First Lady. "In Washington everyone hated her, and that didn't help," says Emerson. "The Southerners thought she was a traitor, and the Easterners didn't like her because they thought she was some sort of Western rube."

But it was her spending that caused the biggest problems. She desperately wanted to renovate the White House, which was dilapidated when she moved in. The carpet was ripped, the walls had tobacco stains on them, and there were even rats. "She decides it's important to make it look like the house of a great nation," says Clinton, a history professor at Queens University in Belfast. "She was trying to bring elegance to the White House." Unfortunately, she immediately overspent her congressional appropriation for renovation. Her husband did not want to ask Congress for more money for draperies and French wallpaper when soldiers were suffering. When she was in the White House, she took gifts from people who wanted to influence her husband. To hide her spending problem, she padded groundskeeping expenses and even used a ghost payroll scheme to get a $100-a-month salary for the White House gardener's wife, who performed no services. She even used her housekeeper's name as a pseudonym when she wrote to merchants. Later, after her husband died, she was criticized for wanting to auction off her old clothes. (After Abraham's death she "dedicated her life to wearing black," says Clinton.)

Curators ultimately decided to call the exhibit "First Lady of Controversy." But they also considered naming it "Mary Todd Lincoln: Hellcat or Helpmate?" or "Mary Todd Lincoln: Hellcat or Heroine?" (John Hay, the assistant private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and later co-author of the 10-volume "Abraham Lincoln: A History," called her a "hellcat." He helped oversee White House expenditures.)

Mary Todd Lincoln's good deeds often go unnoticed. The first spouse to be called First Lady tried to set up a fund for runaway slaves (called contrabands). Her dressmaker, a close friend, was a former slave. "She never gets press for that," says Snyder. And she brought fruit and wrote and read letters to soldiers she visited in the hospital. Rather than courting favorable media coverage for these outings, she said reporters could not accompany her on what she considered to be private missions. "Mary got a bad rap," says Snyder. It didn't help that she was from Kentucky, which made many people think she sympathized with the Confederacy. And it didn't help that she followed the extremely popular Harriet Lane as White House hostess. (James Buchanan was single, so his niece served as his First Lady.) "Poor Mary Lincoln could do no right," says Snyder.

Like her husband, Mary Todd Lincoln lost her mother as a child. But whereas Abraham's father remarried a nurturing woman, Mary Todd Lincoln's father did not. "Mary had the wealth but the wicked stepmother. He had the nice stepmother but no wealth," says Snyder.

Mary Todd Lincoln doesn't look like a modern beauty. But in her time she was a catch because of her vivaciousness, her wit, her intelligence and her well-connected family. "She was the bright belle from a wealthy family. She saw the greatness in him," says Taper, the world's leading Lincoln collector. "I think they're a great match." She looks big, but she was five-foot-four (to her husband's six-foot-four) with a 20-inch waist when corseted. Though she lived in Lexington, Ky., she visited Springfield often, since her sister lived there. It was there that she met Abraham, who married her when he was 33 years old, on Nov. 4, 1842, and gave her a wedding band that said "Love is eternal." (The ring remains on her finger in her grave.)

Their first son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was born on Aug. 1, 1843. (He later went to Harvard, married a senator's daughter, served as U.S. secretary of war, considered a run for the presidency himself—and had his mother committed to Bellevue.) He was the only child to live past age 18. The Lincolns' other three sons died of bacterial infections. Their second son, Edward Baker Lincoln, was born on March 10, 1846, and died on Feb. 1, 1850. Their third son, William Wallace Lincoln, was born on Dec. 21, 1850, and died on Feb. 20, 1862, while his parents were in the White House. And their fourth son, Thomas (nicknamed "Tad" because his body looked like a tadpole's), was born on April 4, 1853, and died on July 15, 1871.

Medicine may have contributed to Mary Todd Lincoln's odd behavior after her husband's and Tad's deaths. In 1873 her doctor treated her sleeplessness with chloral hydrate—which can produce hallucinations and insomnia. (She may also have been suffering from postmenopausal symptoms.) She spent several years living abroad and ultimately died on July 16, 1882, at the age of 63.

Why the special exhibit for Mary Todd Lincoln? "A lot of people may not know much about her," explains Rick Beard, executive director of the library and museum. Indeed, Karrah Martin, a former schoolteacher from Summerville, S.C., who visited last week with her husband and two-year-old daughter, says, "I had no idea there was any controversy. I didn't know about her big spending habits."

Museum curators wanted to "dig down deep" and "lay out as much evidence" as they could, says Beard. Whether Mary Todd Lincoln was crazy or not, she and her husband were deeply in love. "It was by all accounts a close and loving marriage," says Beard. "[And] no one has ever suggested Lincoln was an easy man to be around."

Every day 1,000 to 2,000 people visit the $90 million, two-and-a-half-year-old Abraham Lincoln Museum—the nation's most visited presidential museum, with more than 500,000 visitors a year. The place is kept dark to protect the old paper and textiles. No UV lights—only fiber-optic ones—are used, since they fade materials. And wear a long-sleeved shirt; to protect historical materials, the museum is always 70 degrees, with 45-percent humidity. Allow at least three hours to see the museum, which includes the special exhibit, as well as permanent ones.

Those include "Lincoln's Eyes," a 17-minute film with special effects that gives an unbiased overview of the president's life, and "Ghosts of the Library," an 11-minute theatrical show with live actors that showcases the importance of historical treasures. (An actor even plays Mary Todd Lincoln's music box.) Kids can enjoy a permanent play area called Mrs. Lincoln's Attic, with measuring sticks, a doll house and period toys, such as Jacob's ladders, whirligigs and dress-up clothes. Expect to see special exhibits, like "Mary Todd Lincoln," change every six months. Since the museum opened in April 2005, special exhibits have focused on the Lincoln assassination, Christmas at the White House and First Ladies.

Through November, Americans can visit Springfield and learn about the woman who is arguably the most interesting First Lady in U.S. history. Certainly she was an early asset. "He married up, and that helped him," says Emerson. "She definitely had ambition for him." She also did not just stand by her man. "It was at a time when people demanded that the First Lady not be an activist but rather just be a quiet, stoic support," says Schwartz. "That's not a role that she felt comfortable playing, and she didn't."

'Hellcat or Helpmate': A Look at Mary Todd Lincoln | Culture