The Addiction of Mary Todd Lincoln, by Anne E. Beidler

The Addiction of Mary Todd Lincoln ($15.95; 200 pages ISBN: 978-1-60381-021-0), by Anne E. Beidler, is a biography shedding light on Mary Todd Lincoln’s life and her experience living as an addict during a time when addiction was both misunderstood and stigmatized in women.

** Click the cover image to order online **

** Buy it in Kindle **

Anne E. Beidler is a former director of Family House, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Philadelphia, PA. She holds a doctorate in educational research from Lehigh University. In addition to The Addiction of Mary Todd Lincoln, she is also author of Eating Owen, a historical novel.

Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the president we have immortalized, has always been difficult for us to understand. She could appear poised and brilliant one moment yet rude and ugly the next. Sometimes competent and strong, able to entertain dignitaries from around the world, at other times she appeared dependent and weak. At times she seemed utterly beside herself with sobbing and screaming. Historians have mostly avoided saying very much about Mary Todd Lincoln except in reference to her husband, Abraham. To many it would seem that Mary Todd Lincoln is still an embarrassment in the tragic story of her martyred husband. But Mary Todd Lincoln lived her own tragic story even before Abraham was murdered. She was an addict, addicted to the opiates she needed for her migraine headaches. Seeing Mary Todd Lincoln as an addict helps us understand her and give her the compassion and admiration she deserves. In her time there had been no courageous First Lady like Betty Ford to help people understand the power of addiction. There was no treatment center. In Mary Todd Lincoln’s time there were many addicts at all levels of society, as there are now, but it was a more socially acceptable condition for men to have than for women. More importantly, addiction was not very well understood, and it was often mistreated. Because Mary Todd Lincoln’s only surviving son, Robert Lincoln, made a great effort to protect his mother and his family from journalists and historians, he intentionally destroyed most of Mary Todd Lincoln’s medical records and many of her letters. What he could not destroy, however, is the record of Mary Todd Lincoln’s pain and the record of how she behaved while living with this pain. In The Addiction of Mary Todd Lincoln , we can see clearly, for the first time, what Mary Todd Lincoln had to live with and the courage it took for her to carry on.

Keep reading for an excerpt:

As the Lincolns moved up in the Springfield social world, there were also more social duties for Mary to attend to, so perhaps she had little time for correspondence. At any rate, we have no letter from her that was written near the time when her son Eddie died at age four. We know that she and Abraham nursed Eddie, day and night, for almost two months. We know that both parents were devastated, that Mary was especially distraught. Although she was soon pregnant again and her life remained at least outwardly the same as it had been, we can be sure that Mary’s sadness about Eddie never completely went away.

We do know, however, from Mary’s own words, that much later, when Robert left Springfield for distant Harvard, Mary missed him just as most of us miss our children when they go off to college. To a friend, in 1859, she wrote:

I am feeling quite lonely, as Bob, left for College, in Boston, a few days since, and it almost appears, as if light & mirth, had departed    with him. I will not see him for ten months, without I may next spring, go on to see him.” (Turner 58)

It would appear at this point, then, that Mary Todd Lincoln felt about her children pretty much as we would expect a devoted mother to feel. Similarly, in 1861, when she moved into the White House, she sounded happy and excited about her new home, perhaps just as most of us would feel if we were moving in there today. She wrote to her good friend back in Springfield, inviting her to come visit the Lincoln family:

This [the White House] is certainly a very charming spot & I have found many delightful acquaintances. Every evening our BLUE ROOM, is filled with the elite of the land. . . I want you to spend the month of May, with us. …the drives round here are fine, and our carriage we find VERY LUXURIOUS. … Be sure & bring your boys, with you, the pleasure grounds here, are exquisite. …I am beginning to feel so perfectly at home, and enjoy everything so much. (Turner 81)

A few months later she wrote again to this friend, urging her to come soon for a visit and to bring along her young sons. It is clear that Mary missed her:

Bring your boys with you, it will be more pleasant all around. I am going to take my boys with me, with a servant man, who will take charge, of your children also. … I feel that I must have you with me. I wish, I could hand you over the magnificent bouquet, just sent to me, the magnolia is superb. (Turner 94)

We remember, of course, that a terrible war was going on, right at her doorstep, while Mary Todd Lincoln was in the White House. There is, however, very little about this war in her letters. We know from other people that she was deeply concerned about the war, that some of her own relatives died fighting the North, that she did what she could for the war effort in Washington, yet in her letters she sounded like most of us—concerned about her immediate family.

During this time she lost yet another son to illness—eleven-year-old Willie. More than two years after Willie’s death, Mary wrote a sympathy letter to her friend who had also just lost a young son. From this letter we can tell very vividly how Mary felt about Willie, and how guilty she felt now that he was gone:

I am very deeply attached to you…, yet since I last saw you, I have sometimes feared, that the DEEP WATERS, through which we have passed would overwhelm me. … Willie, darling Boy! was always the idolized child, of the household. … THE WORLD, has lost so much, of its charm. My position, requires my presence, where my heart is SO FAR from being. I know, YOU ARE better prepared than I was to pass through the fiery furnace of affliction. I had become, so wrapped up in the world, so devoted to our own political advancement that I thought of little else besides. …how small & insignificant all worldly honors are, when we are THUS so severely tried. (Turner 188)

Physically also, Mary Todd Lincoln felt increasing pain in her life. Indeed, it is in this period that we can trace the beginnings of what was to be a dominant theme in Mary Todd Lincoln’s life. Pain, sheer physical pain. From her early twenties on, she was plagued with headaches. The earliest reference to these headaches is in a letter from Abraham to Mary in 1848. At this time they had two small sons and Abraham was away much of the time with his work. He inquired about her headaches, which must have already been a problem for at least nine years.

And you are entirely free from headache? This is good—considering it is the first Spring you have been free from it since we were acquainted. (Evans 38)

But she was not free from headache, nor from other pains. Indeed, a sentence from one of her letters written in 1861 could speak for the rest of her life: “The weather is so beautiful, why is it, that we cannot feel well” (Turner 106). It would seem that throughout the rest of her life Mary Todd Lincoln never again felt well. But her headaches were her most debilitating source of pain.

Reached here last evening. Very tired and severe headache. 1863 (Turner 159)

I was quite unable during several hours yesterday to leave my bed, owing to an intensely severe headache & although it has left me, yet I am feeling so weak this morning that I fear, that I shall be prevented from visiting the Hospitals today. 1864   (Turner 176)

An intense headache, caused by driving out, in the heat of the day, deprived me of the pleasure of seeing. . . 1864  (Turner 177)

Perhaps it is not surprising that the presence of pain in her life left Mary Todd Lincoln sometimes feeling sorry for herself. This theme of self-pity was not before apparent in her life, but by the White House years, even though she was rich and famous, Mary Todd Lincoln increasingly felt that her lot was unbearably hard.

After Willie’s death, Mary was desperate with grief. She did not seem able to pull herself together. Abraham hired a skilled nurse, taking her away from the wounded soldiers who needed her, and asked her to care for Mrs. Lincoln for a few weeks. This woman, Mrs. Pomroy, was 40 and had already buried a brother, a son, a daughter, and a husband. She sat alone with Mary for hours every day for three weeks. She said of Mrs. Lincoln:

She says she is tired of being a slave to the world, and would live on bread and water if she could feel as happy as I do. (Boyden 79)

No doubt few people could see how Mary Todd Lincoln was in any way a “slave to the world,” but that is the way she felt at least some of the time during the period of her life when she was working hard at being a good wife and a good mother.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s terrible headaches may have been exacerbated by the two carriage accidents she had while she was living in Washington. More pain.

How did she feel? During these years Mary Todd Lincoln felt close to her husband and children, but physically she felt increasing pain accompanied by a good measure of self pity.

Comments are closed.