Betty Ellison ’56 repaints portrait of First Lady with The True Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln is often eclipsed by her more famous counterpart, and the little knowledge most people have about the First Lady is an amalgam of urban legend and gossip. Shedding light on the truths and fictions of an important historical figure is Betty Ellison ’56, author of The True Mary Todd Lincoln, on shelves this coming May.
“When the name Mary Lincoln is mentioned, most people have automatic responses—she was a spendthrift, and she was crazy,” Ellison (right) explains. “My research disproves those theories.”
Ellison first became interested in this intriguing and enigmatic historical figure thanks to 12 years as a board member for the Kentucky Mansions Preservation Foundation, where she helped restore Lincoln’s childhood home in Lexington, Ky. (pictured above).
“I became acutely aware of the lack of correct information promulgated about her,” Ellison says. “As I continued my Mary Lincoln research over the years, it became obvious this was true. Consequently, I was determined to present an objective and balanced biography about a woman who was a true partner to her husband, exceedingly well educated, socially aware, generous, thrifty and daring enough to enter the male-dominated realm of politics.”
Ellison emphasizes that the terms “spendthrift” and “crazy” were inaccurately associated with Lincoln as a result of events beyond her control, including embezzlement of public money by Commissioner of Public Buildings William S. Wood. In addition, her physician treated her with chloral hydrate and testified against her at an insanity hearing.
“Despite being under constant scrutiny in the private sanitarium, Mary Lincoln managed to network friends to secure not only her release but retain control of her money and her life,” says Ellison.
This kind of determination was one of the more unexpected things Ellison unearthed in the several years of research she conducted for the publication.
“After her family disapproved of her marrying Lincoln, she gave birth to their first son in the Globe Hotel rather than depend on her family for assistance. When they purchased their first home in Springfield, Mary Lincoln bought 98 yards of fabric the first year for bedding, draperies, towels and clothes and did all of the sewing by hand.”
Ellison also found evidence that Lincoln was politically as well as financially savvy.
“Research clearly proves that her shrewd political advice was accepted by her husband as he rose from the obscurity of an unknown Illinois lawyer to the presidency,” she says.
Ultimately, Ellison is hopeful that readers of her book will, for better or for worse, come away with a portrait of a multifaceted person rather than the distorted façade that currently exists.
“Readers will, I hope, come away with an objective view of Mary Lincoln’s talents and achievements as well as her personality flaws,” she says, “and recognize and appreciate that, despite all the criticism during her years as First Lady, she was exceedingly successful in maintaining her position, in a most difficult time in the nation’s history, by never acknowledging her critics.”
Learn more about Betty Ellison’s The True Mary Todd Lincoln.
By Mariel Smith