Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the president we have immortalized, has ­always been difficult for us to understand. She could appear poised and ­brilliant one moment, yet rude and ugly the next. Sometimes competent and strong, able to entertain dignitaries from around the world, at other times she ­appeared dependent and weak. At times she seemed utterly beside ­herself with sobbing and screaming.

Historians have mostly avoided saying very much about Mary Todd ­Lincoln except in reference to her husband, Abraham. To many it would seem that Mary Todd Lincoln is still an embarrassment in the tragic story of her martyred husband. But Mary Todd Lincoln lived her own tragic story even before Abraham was murdered. She was an addict, addicted to the opiates she needed for her migraine headaches.

Seeing Mary Todd Lincoln as an addict helps us understand her and give her the compassion and admiration she deserves. In her time there had been no courageous First Lady like Betty Ford to help people ­understand the power of addiction. There was no treatment center. In Mary Todd Lincoln’s time there were many addicts at all levels of society, as there are now, but it was a more socially acceptable condition for men to have than for women. More importantly, addiction was not very well understood, and it was often mistreated.

Because Mary Todd Lincoln’s only surviving son, Robert Lincoln, made a great effort to protect his mother and his family from journalists and ­historians, he intentionally destroyed most of Mary Todd Lincoln’s medical records and many of her letters. What he could not destroy, however, is the record of Mary Todd Lincoln’s pain and the record of how she behaved while living with this pain.

In The Addiction of Mary Todd Lincoln, we can see clearly, for the first time, what Mary Todd Lincoln had to live with and the courage it took for her to carry on.


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ANNE E. BEIDLER was a counselor at Family House, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Allentown, PA. She holds a doctorate in educational research from Lehigh University. In addition to The Addiction of Mary Todd Lincoln, she is also author of Eating Owen, a historical novel.