The Unexplained: What was wrong with Mary?

Mary Todd Lincoln. Photo: Kentucky Historical Society

Her only living son Robert had her committed involuntarily to an asylum.  She was later released and never forgave him or spoke to him again.

I always thought Mary Todd Lincoln got a bad rap.  She was known for spells of depression and moodiness—but she also had a terrible amount of tragedy for a woman to bear.  Moreover, when she was married to Abraham Lincoln, she was in a pressure cooker.

Mary’s family was dubious about her marriage to Abe.  He broke off the engagement once.  When he had broken up with an earlier romantic interest, he told the girl he was unsuitable as a husband.  He and Mary did marry, and it seemed on the spur of the moment.

The conjecture was that Mary was pregnant.  They had their first child three days shy of the end of the nine-month standard gestation period—hardly an indication of anything.  This theory seems improbable and is not provable.  One would have to be six weeks along to even suspect their own pregnancy.  It is one rumor I never heard.

Sara Marie Hogg

Mary always irritated Abe with her spending.  She came from a background where spending was allowed and he had often lived in dire poverty.  They had different ideas about the complications of the Civil War.  Abe was gone for months at a time and she was alone.  When he returned he did not give her as much attention as she needed.  Her dressmaker seemed to be her only confidant.  Many things put a strain on their union.

Mary lost three of her precious sons and her husband was fatally shot right before her very eyes in Ford’s Theater.  She was holding his hand at that very moment.

 At some point in her misery, she got a doctor to get her chloral hydrate to help her sleep.  It could be addictive and also had bad side effects.  She became paranoid and began sewing thousands of dollars inside her underskirt.  She also became convinced that someone was trying to poison her.

She came from an upstanding and wealthy family, so she was raised with social graces.  She has a sweet face.  I would have perhaps liked to be her friend.

Her only living son, Robert had her committed involuntarily to an asylum.  She was later released and she never forgave him or spoke to him again.

After the assassination, Mary was penniless.  Abe had not made a will yet.  She was not given a widow’s pension and had to go live with a sister.  Mary barraged congress with one letter after another, requesting a pension.  It took five years, but they finally granted her one.  She spent the next few years abroad.

Even though the chloral hydrate was a major problem, modern-day doctors have attempted to further diagnose her.  In modern times, with more medical knowledge, specialists have diagnosed her as bipolar.  That would explain her behavior, they say.

Mary also had horrendous headaches during her adult life—they have been labeled by some as migraines.  That may have been one reason she requested the chloral hydrate, the headaches. When she was in a nasty carriage accident during the White House years and received a bang on the head.

Another theory that is not provable is a tale told by some that Abe took mercury tablets for an STD that he got in 1836.  When he wed Mary in 1842, she also became afflicted.  One of the side effects of the disease can be insanity. This is far-fetched and not provable, but it is another attempt by some to find answers for Mary’s behavior.

Before her White House Years, Mary was known to be a kind and intelligent woman—a very charming addition to parties and social events.  It was only after she was ensconced in the White House that she became known as a hypochondriac and wildcat.  A lot of this impression was due solely to gossip and the press hounded her and made fun of her wardrobe selections and other quirks.

I think she was misunderstood.  As a person of artistic sensitivity, I have personal knowledge of being misunderstood.  There is a personal mantra I say to myself to keep me anchored:  What, or who, people do not understand, they make fun of.

Now here is an interesting turn.  In more recent years, Dr. John Sotos, an M. D. and oft-times medical TV consultant has theorized that Mary simply had pernicious anemia that caused a B-12 deficiency.  A B-12 deficiency can be easily corrected with diet but can have many of the symptoms Mary had, if not corrected.  If not corrected, it can sometimes be fatal.  Mary is another unexplained mystery that we may never figure out.

Please click HERE to find Quite Curious on Amazon. It is Sara Marie Hogg’s collection of true stories about the strange and unexplained.

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