Mental health and women in history: Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Lincoln is remembered as being the wife of a famous man, and for having mental and emotional issues. It has been suggested that she suffered from bipolar disorder; maybe she did. Photo: Sid Webb

WASHINGTON, March 15, 2012—March is Women’s History Month, and Mary Todd Lincoln is a remarkable character in history. She is primarily remembered as being the wife of a famous man who was as undemonstrative and she was demonstrative, and for having mental and emotional issues that intensified over time. It has been suggested by at least one biographer that Mary Lincoln suffered from bipolar disorder; maybe she did.

She was a person of emotional extremes her entire life. Young Mary Todd was witty, charming, and frequently treated people to her sunny disposition. Other qualities she was known for were petulance and excitability, and there are reports Mary was spoiled and selfish. She was a “middle” child who enjoyed being the center of attention.  

It is impossible to know how much influence ancestry and education had on Mary Lincoln’s temperament. The five foot two blue-eyed young lady with reddish brown hair was of Irish, Scottish, and English descent. She was more educated than most women of the early nineteenth century, studying a wide range of subjects from the age of eight through her early twenties.

Robert Smith Todd, Mary’s father, being a prosperous merchant, a lawyer, and member of the Kentucky legislature, exposed his children to an interesting social circle. His fourth child, Mary, developed a keen interest in politics and was known to express her opinions. It was uncommon for ladies to do so at the time.

After marrying Abe Lincoln in 1842, Mary was primarily a chief cook and bottle washer, but she never lost her interest in politics. She was involved in her husband’s political campaigns and was known to advise him concerning his career. How much Mary Lincoln influenced her husband after his inauguration is not known.

First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln


What is clear is that she was a staunch supporter of the Union troops and the abolition of slavery. Mary Lincoln accompanied her husband when he toured the union army camps, provided entertainment for troop morale, and she worked as a volunteer nurse. 

If she lived today, Mrs. Lincoln would likely run-up a few credit cards. She spent more money than was appropriated by congress to redecorate the While House, and was an extravagant clothes shopper. The reason Mrs. Lincoln gave for the rehab expenditures was a desire to create a respectable and stable image of the United States.

She may have been a compulsive shopper, or experiencing mania while decorating and buying new china. Refurbishing the White House could also be viewed as a historically acceptable expression of female political ambition, although Mary Lincoln received mostly flak for sprucing up the place.  

As first lady, Mrs. Lincoln’s behavior suggested she experienced anxiety, paranoia, and depression. She suffered from migraine headaches, may have had diabetes, and sustained a head injury in a carriage accident. In 1862, the Lincoln’s eleven year old son Willie died. Three years later, Mary Lincoln’s husband was assassinated while the couple sat holding hands at the theater (some of her paranoia was founded).

Post White House, she moved to Chicago, and then lived a few years in Germany with son Tad who died in 1871 after returning to the U.S. with his mother. In 1875, Mary Todd Lincoln was declared insane (through the efforts of her son, Robert), spent four months in an insane asylum, lived with her sister Elizabeth in Springfield, was declared sane in ‘76, moved to France, and then back to Elizabeth’s for her remaining two years.

Did Mary Lincoln experience bipolar mood swings, or was she just terribly poor at managing emotions and feelings? Was she ill with clinical depression, or was she an intelligent, ambitious woman bored out of her mind? Was her mental state altered by spikes and dives of blood sugar? Did she carry resentment about having a husband who was frequently gone, even when he was at home?

The list of questions could go on, and historians cannot agree on the answers. Whatever else she was, Mary Lincoln was a smart, opinionated, sociable, and politically aware woman. She had a rocky but affectionate relationship with an introverted husband, whom she staunchly supported throughout his career. She lived abroad, and outlived her spouse and three of her four children.

Some historians believe Mary Lincoln had tabes dorsalis (syphilitic myelopathy) in her later years. Others say she suffered from a bad case of narcissism. Today, she might qualify for a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. If she was living with bipolar disorder, considering the chaos those symptoms can cause, she did very well for herself.


If you or someone you care about is living with bipolar disorder, find out more about the symptoms and types of treatment available at

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Jacqueline Marshall

Jacqueline Marshall is a writer for Help For Depression, and freelances primarily in the areas of psychology and personal development. She has a MA in Counseling Psychology and is a licensed therapist living near Chicago.

Jacqueline has experience helping those diagnosed with severe, persistent mental illness, and in providing general therapy services for individuals, couples, and families. Prior to counseling, she worked in graphic design and music education.

When not writing or counseling, Jacqueline enjoys reading literature and math-less books about quantum physics. She is a published poet, and has studied animal communication and energy healing.  


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