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Solving the puzzle of Mary Todd Lincoln

Historians delve into life of first lady

By Peggy Carlson

The Free Lance-Star

“THE Mary Lincoln Enigma—Historians on America’s Most Controversial First Lady,” is a fascinating collection of well-researched and documented essays by a number of authors about various aspects of Mary Lincoln. Collectively, they plumb the depths of her life and personality, with emphasis on her childhood, character, marriage, mental illness, financial excess, relationship with her sons, early political leanings, attitude toward her husband’s law partner and much, much more.

The chapter “There’s Something About Mary—Mary Lincoln and Her Siblings” is an absolute gem. The insight into her early life and character reveal and explain much about the woman she was to become. Her lifelong cycle of grief and loss began with her mother’s death when Mary was 6.

The chapter “William H. Herndon and Mary Todd Lincoln” is a disturbing look at Mary’s relationship with her husband’s law partner, and illustrates the way the historical accounts can be swayed, depending on who is doing the telling, their motives and authors who rely on flawed sources.

Mary and Abraham Lincoln’s marriage has been the subject of intense scrutiny, and several chapters deal with her dual reputations as loving wife and abusive harridan. There is also frank information about Abraham’s role in their marital difficulties.

Mary’s mental illness is carefully observed in “A Psychiatrist Looks at Mary Lincoln,” by James S. Brust, a doctor with a deep interest in history. He tried never to “mix vocation with avocation,” but found the invitation to delve into Mary’s tormented mind and life irresistible. The subject is a complicated one, cloaked in 19th-century sensitivity to mental illness and complicated by her terrible grief, migraines and other medical complaints.

Of particular interest is the chapter on the iconography of Mary Lincoln, “I Look Too Stern: Mary Lincoln and Her Image in the Graphic Arts,” which offers a detailed look at Mary’s refusal to pose with her husband, the manipulation of images after the assassination and much more.

Among Mary’s many tragedies was the deterioration of her once intensely close relationship with her only remaining son, Robert. “I Miss Bob So Much” examines the downward spiral that led to her commission to a mental institution and a five-year rift that ended only shortly before her death.

For readers interested in American history, women’s studies and the Lincolns, this is a book not to be missed.

Peggy Carlson is on the newsroom staff at The Free–Lance Star.


By Frank J. Williams and Michael Burkhimer, editors

(Southern Illinois University Press, $32.95, 392 pp.)


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