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Mary Todd Lincoln's connection to Kentucky, her untold story

Born in Lexington, Mary Todd Lincoln brought the Bluegrass State to the White House, in a time when it was still considered a frontier.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Mary Todd Lincoln was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1818.

"At that point, Lexington was known as the Athens for the South, it's this cultural capital," Heather Gotlib, with Louisville's Frazier History Museum, said. 

But Gotlib said not everyone held that view of the Bluegrass. 

“In America's eyes it was always like ‘well is she this society woman, is she a First Lady or is she this Wild West person whose rough and tumble,'" she said of Mary Lincoln's later life.

Mary Todd Lincoln married the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, in 1842. At just 24 years old, Gotlib said that made her a little older than the average marrying age for the time. 

It was after the marriage, that she actually dropped Todd from her name.

"They enslaved people and she didn't want to be associated with that side of the family," Gotlib said. 

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
A portrait oil painting of Mary Todd Lincoln is exhibited in the Milch Gallaries in New York City on Feb. 12, 1929 in honor of the 16th president's birthday. The first lady had sat for the painting as a suprise gift for her husband at a gathering of personal friends at the white house. (AP Photo)

As her husband's political star rose, Mary Lincoln faced criticism. 

“She is supposed to be somebody propping him up and at the same time she’s facing all this criticism because he’s a political figure, he’s running for office, and she is this person from Kentucky," Gotlib said. 

Still, throughout his political career, his presidency and the Civil War, Mary Lincoln was Abraham's staunchest supporter. Gotlib said she used her experiences as a southern woman from a prominent family to great effect. 

"She was there supporting Lincoln and look at all the things Lincoln accomplished as a president that really kept the US together in one of the most devastating wars in the country’s history," Gotlib said.

“The way she learned to be welcoming and that kind of welcoming attitude that people learn as part of this hospitality that Kentucky is known for," she said. "That was something she brought into the White House.”

Gotlib said Mary Lincoln is often best remembered for extravagant spending and decorating while serving as First Lady, a legacy she thinks paints too dull a picture. 

“We’ve never been told an objective story about Mary Lincoln," she said. "I think a thing about this is when you’re from that far back in history, when you’re that much in the public eye, there’s no room for you to be more than an elevator pitch.”

But Mary Lincoln's life was not without tragedy. 

Her husband's horrific and public death, with her by his side, was traumatizing, and she also lost three of their four children. 

"She went through a lot," Gotlib said. "She lost three of her four children a child of 4-years old a child of 12-years old a child of 18-years old."

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
This undated painting by Schapel shows Abraham Lincoln with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and their two sons, Robert Todd and Thomas Lincoln. The location is not known. (AP Photo)

Her remaining son, Robert, began forging his own political dynasty. 

In 1875, he was running for political office in Chicago. Mary Lincoln, states away, became concerned. 

“She has a nightmare that he is terminally ill and so, as a grieving mother who has been through so much, she sends him a telegram just saying 'let me know you’re ok' and he didn’t respond," Gotlib said.

Mary Lincoln raced to Chicago to see Robert, and the newspapers got wind of the trip.

"They published articles saying 'this woman Mary Lincoln is looking so distraught and we don't know what's wrong, but something is very obviously wrong.'" 

The trip eventually led to Lincoln being institutionalized. 

“She’s being put on trial to see whether or not she needs to be put in a facility," Gotlib recounted. "She stood in this trial with a bunch of people who never met her and very quickly gets put in this hospital known as Bellevue.”

“People I don’t think had her sufficient time to process all the things she'd been through and so she had a lot of ways she was dealing with her grief," Gotlib said. 

Mary Lincoln suffered from physical and mental health issues throughout her life. She died in 1882 at age 63. 

“There is so much more to her story than we normally hear about," Gotlib said. 

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