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Lincoln

This undated painting by Schapel shows Abraham Lincoln with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and their two sons, Robert Todd and Thomas Lincoln. The location is not known. (AP Photo)

There has never been another first lady like Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of our beloved 16th president.

Her very violent fits of temper, often played out in public, are well known. She was a shrew and a hellcat, and when riled, totally beyond control. She frequently abused her husband, the president.

She would make a spectacle of herself at public events in the White House, was more than jealous of her husband talking or even being seen with other women, threw scalding coffee in her husband’s face, kicked him, plucked out chunks of his beard, and once chased him with a large butcher knife all the while screaming at the top of her lungs “Damn you, you make this house intolerant towards me. Get out.”

Abraham Lincoln took all of this in very patient stride.

When their son Willie died in 1862, the already embattled president was leading the torn nation by civil war.

Mrs. Lincoln would throw fits of hysteria after Willie’s death and could not attend his funeral in the East Room. President Lincoln, in grief himself, gently took her by the arm and led her to the window in his office and softly said to her, “Mary, do you see that large building way over yonder?” The building he was referring to was the Washington, D.C. insane asylum scant blocks from the White House. Lincoln continued, “If you do not get ahold of yourself, we will have to send you there.”

Another issue the president was burdened with was her excessive spending habits. She would purchase a barrage of dresses for herself, way over $2,000 worth, and very fine china, and furniture. She also purchased over 300 kid gloves, which her husband did not wear at all but would stuff a pair in his dark long frock coat instead.

After his death, aides found more than 20 pairs in his coat pockets.

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When Lincoln found out about her insane buying, he lost his own temper and said loudly to his aides, “Dammit, Mrs. Lincoln buys flub bubs for this damned old house and troops in the field do not even have $13-worth of blankets to sleep on.”

When Mrs. Lincoln left the White House after the assassination in 1865, she took everything that wasn’t nailed down.

Such was Mary Lincoln’s reputation in Washington, that no public officials with their wives never wanted to be seen or be around her. Beyond doubt many concluded she was mentally unbalanced.

After witnessing John Wilkes Booth shoot her husband at point-blank range in the head, and seeing him die, she did go insane so much she could not attend the funeral and was granted a long length of time to remain in the White House as her husband’s remains were being transported back to their hometown of Springfield, Illinois for burial.

After her son Tad died in 1875, not being able to handle her mother’s tantrums and constant screaming and violent rages, hating everyone she thought was behind her late husband’s death, she was finally committed to a mental institution by state court order by her only now surviving son Robert Todd Lincoln.

She remained as such for six months before being released. Mary went into seclusion she remained in her sister’s upstairs bedroom the very same house she and Abraham Lincoln were wed in 40 years before, packing and then repacking her clothes over and over in the dimly lit room with the curtain shades pulled down.

A tragic figure struck by terrible headaches and tortures due to her failing health, as well as being nearly blind, she died in 1882. At her autopsy, a large frontal non-cancerous tumor was discovered in her brain. This strongly well may have contributed to her extremely wild and extremely embarrassing antics during her life.

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Roger Knapp is a presidential history enthusiast who lives in Napa.

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