Growing up as a child in Lexington, Ky., Mary Todd used to say:
“I am going to be the president’s wife.”
When she finally met and married Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer who rose through the Illinois state Legislature and the House of Representatives, she continued to make her goals clear.
“Mary insists . . . that I am going to be Senator and President of the United States, too,” Lincoln told journalist Henry Villard in 1858.
“Just think,” Lincoln said, with a roar of laughter, “of such a sucker as me as President!”
While Honest Abe never won a place in the US Senate, he did indeed clinch the presidency in 1860 — and his strange and painful relationship with Mary would change the course of the country, writes historian Michael Burlingame in “An American Marriage” (Pegasus), out now.
“Lincoln may never have become president if his wife had not turbocharged the restless engine of his ambition,” Burlingame writes.
And, he reveals, Mary’s madness would also open the door to her husband’s assassin in 1865.
Born in 1818, Mary Todd grew up in material comfort yet called her childhood “desolate.” Six years old when her mother died, she felt rejected by her merchant-politician father and the stepmother he quickly married.
“She came to think of herself as unloved and unlovable,” Burlingame writes. “Out of those feelings, it would appear, grew a hunger for . . . power, money, fame — and a subconscious desire to punish her father.”
In addition, Mary appears to have suffered what today would be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, a condition that cropped up repeatedly in her extended family.
Abe Lincoln, nine years Mary’s senior, was also scarred by the early loss of his beloved mother. For him, the experience resulted in a persistent melancholy — and a deep need to be needed.
Their 1842 marriage scratched a psychological itch for both of them. “Nothing pleased her more than having her husband pet and humor her, and call her his ‘child-wife,’ ” one sympathetic biographer found.
But as Mary’s alternative father figure, Abe bore the brunt of her unresolved rage. Neighbors, friends and colleagues witnessed her verbal and physical abuse.
“She seemed to take a special delight in contradicting her husband, and humiliating him on every occasion,” recalled Maria Biddle, their neighbor in Springfield, Ill.
“Poor Abe, I can see him now running and crouching,” Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon remembered.
Mary regularly assaulted her husband with household objects —broomsticks, potatoes, pieces of stove wood, cups of hot coffee — sometimes striking him hard enough to draw blood.
And her ambitions were equally as fierce.
In 1860, she imperiously rejected the idea that the Republicans might give her husband the vice presidential nomination: “If you cannot have the first place,” she said, “you shall not have the second.”
She got her way, and Lincoln topped the party’s ticket that November. He learned he was the nation’s president-elect at the Springfield telegraph office, but quickly dashed for home.
“There is a little short woman there that is more interested in this matter than I am,” he told supporters.
But Lincoln’s victory did little to calm Mary.
In fact, as first lady under the impossible strain of the Civil War, the cracks in her psyche became more obvious.
John Nicolay and John Hay, Lincoln’s main White House secretaries, called her “the Hell Cat” and “Her Satanic Majesty” in their private correspondence.
Friends remarked on the way Lincoln tolerated his wife’s attacks.
“If you knew how little harm it does me and how much good it does her,” he once said, “you wouldn’t wonder that I am meek.”
Meanwhile, Mary indulged in manic spending sprees as she redecorated the White House and stocked her wardrobe, then locked Washington, DC, in months of public mourning after the death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln in 1862. Her eagerness to accept extravagant gifts from office-seekers — furs, diamonds, a luxuriously appointed coach — caused repeated scandals.
Her hysteria peaked when Lincoln made an extended battlefield visit as the Union Army prepared its final assault on Richmond, the Confederate capital.
Mary insisted on accompanying her husband on the journey in late March of 1865 — more, it seemed, to keep a jealous eye on him than to encourage the weary Union troops.
Julia Grant, the wife of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, was both witness to and target of Mary’s outrageous behavior during her agonizing eight-day stay.
At one point, Mary scolded her as an empress would a commoner for sitting down while the first lady stood.
“How dare you be seated until I invite you!” she barked, a journalist recounted.
The spirited Mrs. Grant “replied that if Mrs. Lincoln was the wife of the President, she was the wife of the General in Command of the armies of the United States,” Navy Capt. John S. Barnes wrote later, “and that she would sit down anywhere if she thought it more agreeable than to stand in any one’s presence.”
Mary was left seething. From then on, she treated Mrs. Grant with an icy disdain.
“I felt this deeply and could not understand it,” the general’s wife wrote later in her memoirs.
During the visit, Julia Grant tried repeatedly to intervene as Mary turned her rage upon other officers’ wives and on the close-knit men of Grant’s staff. But nothing she said could placate the president’s perpetually irate wife.
In one incident, Mary exploded at Maj. Adam Badeau, a Grant aide who escorted her on a battlefield tour, when he mentioned that the wife of Gen. Charles Griffin had received a presidential permit to remain at the front when the fighting began.
“Do you mean to say that she saw the President alone?” Mary shrieked at him. “Do you know that I never allow the President to see any woman alone?” She ranted until Gen. George Meade convinced her that it was the secretary of war, not the president himself, who had issued Sallie Griffin’s pass.
During the same tour, Mary Mercer Ord — the wife of Gen. E.O.C. Ord and an accomplished horsewoman — elected to ride with the men rather than in the cramped ambulance carriage with the first lady.
When Mary caught sight of Mrs. Ord’s horse prancing alongside the president’s steed, “her rage was beyond all bounds,” Badeau recalled.
“What does the woman mean by riding by the side of the President? and ahead of me?” she screeched. “Does she suppose that he wants her by the side of him?”
Mary Ord, with Julia Grant’s help, attempted to apologize for her unintended affront, but the first lady “positively insulted” her, Badeau wrote: “called her vile names in the presence of a crowd of officers, and asked what she meant by following the President. The poor woman burst into tears . . . but Mrs. Lincoln refused to be appeased.”
“I will not repeat Mrs. Lincoln’s remarks,” wrote Capt. Barnes, another witness to the tantrum. “They can only be attributed to an unbalanced mind.”
The furor continued. At supper that night, “Mrs. Lincoln berated General Ord to the President, and urged that he should be removed,” Badeau wrote. “He was unfit for his place, she said, to say nothing of his wife.”
For days thereafter, the major witnessed Mary “repeatedly attack[ing] her husband in the presence of officers because of Mrs. Griffin and Mrs. Ord.”
“I never suffered greater humiliation and pain . . . than when I saw the Head of State . . . subjected to this inexpressible public mortification,” Badeau maintained.
Julia Grant never publicly aired her grievances over the first lady’s belligerent visit. But her actions a few days later spoke volumes — and had momentous effects.
When Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Va., on April 9, Washington, DC, erupted in days of celebration. Gen. Grant, hailed as a hero, joined Lincoln there to share the acclaim.
While in the nation’s capital, Grant received an unexpected invitation from Mary Lincoln, who asked him and his wife to join her and her husband at a festive performance of the popular comedy “Our American Cousin.”
“Lincoln urged Grant to accompany him to the theater, hinting that the nation expected to see the victorious president and general united at such a moment,” Grant biographer Ron Chernow wrote.
But Julia wanted no part of it. She “objected strenuously to accompanying Mrs. Lincoln,” she later confided to a friend. Grant made an excuse to the commander in chief, saying that he and his wife were setting off for a long-overdue visit with their four young children in Burlington, NJ, that evening.
So on Friday, April 14, the Lincolns went to Ford’s Theatre without the Grants — and without the general’s battle-hardened security detail at the door of the presidential box.
In April 1865, the Secret Service did not yet exist. No presidential protector was in place to intercept the assassin.
“If Grant had attended Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14, it is entirely possible that John Wilkes Booth would have failed to carry out his murderous plan,” Burlingame writes.
Along with the likely presence of Grant’s deputies, the general’s “own self-protective instincts, honed by his battlefield experience, would have made it unlikely that Booth would have succeeded.”
“But he did.”