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Why Portray Mary Todd Lincoln?

Joanne Shelby

 

 

A fascination with Mary Todd Lincoln began for me at the very early age of 9 or 10 when I first read her biography.   When my reenacting career began in 1991, little did I imagine that someday I would portray the First Lady.  It all began in 1993 at a Christmas presentation at the Lemoyne House in Washington, Pennsylvania.   One of the military members of Co. A, 9th PA Reserves saw me in my ball gown and remarked, “My God, there is Mrs. Lincoln!”  He later brought out a photograph of the much maligned and misunderstood First Lady.   Thus, this prompted my research.   Later, not only I discovered a physical resemblance, but also, other similarities as well as a tendency toward migraine headaches particularly when under stress and the love of shopping! 


The more that I research her life, and the era in which she lived, I realized that she was misunderstood, misinterpreted and, in many ways, a woman ahead-of-her-time.   No one who endures the loss of a mother at a young age, the remarrying of a much beloved father to a less than ideal stepmother, the loss of 3 of her 4 children, and the brutal assassination of her much beloved husband can truly live a normal life. 


Other tidbits include Mary Todd Lincoln was well educated until she was 18 (very unusual for a young lady in the 19th century), schooled in politics by sitting at her politically active father’s table, bright, vivacious and flirtatious.  You might say that she was also ambitious.  At the early age of about 13 while visiting Kentucky Senator Henry Clay (her neighbor and close friend) who was running for President, she asked him if he would invite her to the Executive Mansion (The White House) so that she could dance a cotillion there.   She promptly stated that she would someday lead a cotillion at the White House.   Her dream came true in 1860 with the election of her husband--   President Abraham Lincoln.   Unfortunately, that dream would later become a nightmare as she became “Mrs. President” during the Nation’s bloodiest struggle: The Civil War.


During President Abraham Lincoln’s tenure, Mary Todd Lincoln was known by many surnames including:

v     Mrs. President

v      Madame President

v      The Hellcat

v      Her Satanic Majesty

v     The Republican Queen

v     The Lady President

 

 Madame President, as I lovingly refer to her, was indeed a woman of many firsts and fascinating facts including:

 

v     The first Presidential wife to be called “First Lady”.   A British reporter from the London Times who observed her at an Official White House Reception in 1861 dubbed her this honorably title.   He noted her to be very kind and gracious to all her guests and  make all feel welcome whether they were notable or not.   These qualities deemed her to be a “lady” according to the standards of the day. 

v     Mary Todd Lincoln was the first and perhaps the only President’s wife to be courted by three of the four Presidential Candidates in any given election year.  In addition, she was first courted by Stephen Douglas (her husbands chief political rival), her 3rd cousin (by her stepmother) John Cabell Breckinridge, and, of course, her husband--Abraham Lincoln.

v     She was distantly related to another wartime (war of 1812) presidential wife, Dolly Todd Madison. 

v     She came under fire during a visit with Mr. Lincoln to Fort Stevens in 1864.   Mrs. Lincoln often visited the troops in camps and the hospitals around Washington City.  She loved her Boys in Blue!

v     She visited the military hospitals on a weekly basis, and often wrote letters for the sick and wounded soldiers.  On one occasion Mrs. Lincoln held the hand of a young man undergoing an amputation when other employed nurses had become faint.   This characteristic is most unusual for a “lady” of such a high-strung personality.    She even catered special dinners and provided special treats from her own supplies and at her own cost.

v     Mrs. Lincoln became the first presidential widow as a result of an assassination.   She was seated by her husband’s side in Fords Theater when the fatal shot was fired.

v     She became the first Republican First Lady to be in the oval office.

v     Lastly, she also declared that no other woman should be on the arm of the President while leading the Grand March promenade during official White House functions.   Moreover, this tradition has continued onward today; prior to this, the President would choose any lady to lead the promenade; where as The First Lady would choose any gentleman to be her escort.


As you can see Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln was a fascinating lady, and I have really only touched the surface.  There is so much to learn about her interesting life.


Look at my photo below and see if you don’t agree there is a resemblance.    The photo was taken at The Pittsburgh Soldiers Fair 2002, West Park, Pittsburgh, PA.   The Soldiers Fair was the site of the Original Sanitary Fair, 1864.

 Please note that the pictures not provided at this time.