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07.15.06 The President’s Wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, a Biography, by Ishbel Ross, published in 1973 by Putnam.

Notes Concerning the Author

Ishbel Ross (1890-1975) journalist and biographer, was born in Sutherlandshire, Scotland, the daughter of David Ross and Grace McCrone and spent her childhood in the Highlands of Scotland.  After graduating from the Tain Royal Academy in 1916, Ross left Scotland and moved to Canada.  Before long she was a reporter for the Toronto Daily News.  In 1919 she left Toronto for New York City and a job at the New York Tribune (later the Herald Tribune).  Thirteen years later, in 1932, with the Great Depression now underway, Ross published her first novel, Promenade Deck. Encouraged by its success, she left the Tribune the following year to pursue a career as a novelist.  Ishbel Ross is an excellent example of an historian and writer of excellence who was never an academic.

Books by Ishbel Ross which merit listing in the Society of Independent Southern Historians include: First Lady of the South: The Life of Mrs. Jefferson Davis and Rebel Rose, Life of Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Confederate Spy.


Mary Todd, to become Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882), was born in Lexington, Kentucky as the fourth of seven children, the daughter of Robert Smith Todd, a banker, and Elizabeth (Parker) Todd.  Her family owned African American slaves and Mary was raised in comfort and refinement, complete with African American house servants.  When Mary was six, her mother died.  Two years later, her father married Elizabeth “Betsy” Humphreys; they had nine children together.

Mary was well educated, including attendance at a finishing school during her teenage years.  Afterward, she spent long visits with her married sister, Elizabeth Edwards, who lived in Springfield, Illinois.  The Edwards were wealthy and politically prominent.  It was during visits to her sister that she met Abe Lincoln.  Lincoln, also of Kentucky, was a self-made man from a modest farm family.  The Lincoln-Todd courtship had its ups and downs, but eventually finished in a quickly-arranged wedding at the Edwards’ home.  Mary and Abe had four sons together, only one of whom outlived her marriage to Abe.  Their home of about fifteen years still stands in Springfield.

Abe’s insistence on a military campaign to force the seceded southern states back under the Federal Government troubled Mary, one must surely believe, for most of the men among her Todd relatives left Kentucky to fight for the Confederacy, many as officers, and several died in battles.  But, being a dutiful wife, she refrained from interfering.  The loss of son Willy at the midpoint of the War Between the States was a huge emotional blow and drove her toward seeking the occult, complete with magical séances.  She frequently suffered headaches and various illnesses.  And she was sitting beside Abe in the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theater when John Wilkes Booth approached from behind the couple and  shot Abe in the back of the head.

After leaving the White House as a private citizen, her life was not noteworthy.  She died in 1882, 17 years after the loss of her husband.  Only one son, Robert, survived her.  Because of her frail emotional constitution, and perhaps Abe’s as well, the couple did not allow Robert to join the Federal Army until the conquest of the Confederacy was almost completed, and then in a staff assignment that kept him clear of danger.

The contrast between the wives of the two political leaders in the War Between the States, Mary Todd Lincoln and Varina Howell Davis, is striking to say the least.  It is hard to imagine a greater difference in First Ladies.  And you have the unusual opportunity to understand the vast difference in these two women, for Ishbel Ross has written the biography of each and both are high on the list of Society Recommended Reading.

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