As one of the central figures in U.S. history, the story of Abraham Lincoln’s life is well-known to most Americans, the stuff of school history lessons. But few would claim to know much about the great man’s family. Yet they were central to his life and to the man that he became. Read on to discover the fascinating stories of those who shared their lives with Lincoln.
Born in 1778 in Rockingham County, Virginia, Thomas Lincoln was father to Abraham. In 1782 the Lincolns — headed by another Abraham, the future president’s grandfather — relocated to Kentucky with the infant Thomas.
They did so because the State of Virginia had rewarded Abraham for his part in the Revolutionary War with a parcel of farmland. But this move to Kentucky was to end in calamity for the Lincoln family.
In 1786 Abraham senior was killed in his fields by American Indians, an incident witnessed by Thomas at the tender age of eight. In 1806 Thomas married Nancy Hanks, and a couple of years later the new family bought Sinking Spring Farm, a 300-acre spread in Kentucky.
It was here that their second child, Abraham, was born in 1809.
Passing of Nancy
Lincoln’s mother Nancy died in 1818 when he was just nine years old. Thomas remarried the following year, his new bride being an old acquaintance called Sarah Bush Johnston.
After the trauma of losing his mom, things thankfully improved for Lincoln as he developed a warm relationship with his stepmother. But the same could not be said of his feelings towards Thomas.
A cold relationship
It seems that Thomas’ relationship with his son Abraham wasn’t marked by warmth or mutual understanding. Thomas was probably illiterate, and his son’s voracious appetite for reading simply baffled him.
Worse still, he felt that Abraham should’ve spent more time working on the farm rather than filling his hours with study.
Not one favorable word
In his 1995 biography of Lincoln, David Herbert Donald wrote, “In all of his published writings, and, indeed, even in reports of hundreds of stories and conversations, [Lincoln] had not one favorable word to say about his father.” Evidence of any affection between Lincoln and his father appears to be entirely lacking — Lincoln didn’t even go to his funeral..
Abraham Lincoln’s mother
Lincoln’s mom, Nancy Hanks, was born in Virginia in 1784. The National Park Service website notes that “details of her early life are sketchy.” We do know that she’d lost both parents by the age of nine and was afterward raised by an aunt and uncle — the Berrys — in what’s now Washington County, Kentucky..
It was at the Berry homestead that Nancy and Thomas Lincoln wed in 1806. By that time, it’s said that Nancy had already learned the skills essential for a life on the American frontier, in particular spinning and sewing.
Nancy and her husband moved to Sinking Spring Farm in 1808, and their second child Abraham came along the next year. Their first, Sarah, had arrived a year earlier. There was another brother, Thomas Jr., but he died young.
Spencer County, Indiana
After a decade in Kentucky, late in 1816 the Lincolns moved to Spencer County, Indiana, where their work was cut out establishing a new farm in frontier land. Sarah played a full part in the work, as well as the raising of her two children.
But Abraham’s mother wasn’t to enjoy the fruits of her labor for long.
In 1818 Nancy fell victim to a disease called milk sickness, something little known in our time. It’s passed to humans from cattle and can be fatal, as indeed it was in Nancy’s case.
Abraham had lost his mom at the age of just nine. According to The Washington Post, Lincoln later said to his law partner William Herndon, “God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her.”
A new wife
After Nancy’s death, it seems that Thomas was anxious to find a new wife. In the end, he proposed to a woman who, like him, had lost her first spouse.
Thomas had actually known Sarah Bush previously, and the two were married in 1819 when Abraham was ten.
Ten years younger than her second husband, Sarah Bush was born in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, in 1788. In 1806 she married her first husband Daniel Johnston, and the couple had three children together: John, Matilda, and Elizabeth.
Johnston died in 1816, leaving Sarah with his debts. But when she told Thomas that she couldn’t marry him because of these arrears, he paid them off before their wedding.
With the arrival of Sarah and her kids into the Lincoln household, Abraham and his sister Sarah now had three stepsiblings. Stepparents often get bad press, but in the case of stepmom Sarah and Abraham, it seems that things went well from early on.
Sarah recognized Lincoln’s love of reading and handed him a present that was a sure way to the boy’s heart.
The simple gift was just three books, but there perhaps could’ve been no better way to win the affections of Abraham. The strength of the bond that formed between Abraham and Sarah was to continue throughout the boy’s life.
Lincoln kept a 40-acre homestead for his mom after he’d left home. And with his untimely death coming in 1865, his stepmother actually outlived him by four years.
The older sister
Born in 1807, two years before her younger brother Abraham, Sarah was the oldest child of Thomas and Nancy Lincoln. Though Sarah was only nine when the Lincolns moved to Indiana in 1816, she still played a full part in the hard work of establishing a new homestead there.
But only a couple of years later, she was to lose her mother.
Until her father remarried, Sarah was now the woman of the house, with responsibility for the household chores. But she wasn’t alone in that respect for long, since the year after Nancy’s death, stepmom Sarah Bush and her three children joined the Lincoln family.
And at 13, Sarah’s daughter Elizabeth was just a month older than Sarah Lincoln.
There were now two Sarahs in the Lincoln home. We can only imagine how much confusion this must’ve caused! Even so, it seems that the newly formed family was a happy one.
But as all too often with the Lincoln family, tragedy wasn’t far off.
Death of a sister
In 1826, Abraham’s sister Sarah married Aaron Grigsby, and the newlyweds moved to a home not far from the rest of the Lincolns. Less than a year later, Sarah was pregnant.
But the delivery went catastrophically wrong, and both mother and child perished. Sarah was just 22 years old. It must’ve been a bitter blow to Lincoln, who by all accounts was close to his sibling.
Elizabeth Johnston came into Abraham Lincoln’s life in 1819 when the boy was nine years old. That was the year Lincoln’s father Thomas married Elizabeth’s mom, Sarah Johnston, and the young future-president now had three stepsiblings.
Born in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, in 1807, Elizabeth was the oldest of the kids who joined the Lincoln household.
Other than the fact that she was part of what seemed a happy family group, though, we don’t know a great deal about Elizabeth. She married Dennis Hanks, who’d lived with the Lincoln-Johnstons for a time and was Abraham’s first cousin once removed.
The couple went on to have eight kids. Elizabeth died in 1864, the year before her stepbrother’s assassination.
The youngest stepsister
Matilda Johnston, born in 1811, was the youngest of Abraham Lincoln’s three stepsiblings. We know little of her childhood other than that she shared it with the president-to-be.
As an adult, she married twice, first to Squire Hall in 1826, with whom she had six kids. In 1856 she married for a second time, to Reuben Moore, and gave birth to one more child.
Lincoln visited Matilda in 1861, shortly before he was inaugurated as president. At the time, she was living with her second husband Moore in a simple clapboard home in Farmington, Illinois.
Sadly, Matilda’s marriage to Moore wasn’t a success, and when he died in 1859 the two were estranged. Matilda lived on until 1878.
John Johnston was Abraham Lincoln’s stepbrother, and the two were about the same age. The boys bunked together in the loft of the family home, with the pair seemingly enjoying each other’s company.
But as the years passed by, their relationship became increasingly strained.
Go to work!
At the heart of Lincoln’s growing disenchantment with his stepbrother was money. Lincoln wasn’t a wealthy man, but he was more prosperous than Johnston, who began to ask Lincoln for financial help.
And Lincoln took a dim view of his step-brother’s requests. In 1851 he wrote to Johnston, “You are destitute because you have idled away all your time… Go to work is the only cure for your case.”
A wife for Lincoln
Mary Todd’s upbringing was in stark contrast to the tough life of a frontier family that was Lincoln’s lot during his childhood. Mary was from a wealthy background, born into one of Lexington, Kentucky’s elite families in 1818.
It seems she was a spirited young woman with some attitudes that were perhaps rather unusual for a woman of her class and era.
Mary’s ideas about what she sought in a husband contrasted with her privileged upbringing. The National Park Service website quotes her words: “I would rather marry a poor man — a man of mind — with a hope and bright prospects ahead for position, fame, and power than to marry all the houses [of] gold.”.
A man of mind
So Lincoln was an ideal choice of partner for Mary. He was certainly a “man of mind,” and he most definitely wasn’t wealthy, at least when he and Mary wed in 1842.
The two had first met in 1839 in Springfield, Illinois, where Mary was living with her sister. Apparently, Lincoln’s wooing of Mary wasn’t without incident. At one point the couple even broke off their engagement after a spat.
Paralyzed by grief
Disease and death among children were far from rare in the 19th century, and the Lincolns weren’t spared from tragedy. Their first child Robert was born nine months after their marriage and a second, Edward, came along in 1846.
Eddie contracted what was probably tuberculosis and died in 1850, a few weeks before his fourth birthday. For a time, Mary was paralyzed by grief.
The trials of Victorian-era motherhood weren’t yet over for Mary, though. In 1862, during her husband’s presidency, their third child William died after contracting typhoid fever.
Yet despite all this tragedy and grief, Mary was still great support to her husband in his political career, especially while he served as president.
A vital support
When Mary and her husband moved into the White House, she played an important role organizing the presidential social whirl. But more importantly, she tended to Lincoln’s emotional needs at a time of severe stress during the Civil War.
Her half-niece Katherine Helm wrote that “[Lincoln] was often filled with gloom and despondency, which it took all of Mary’s adroitness to dispel.”
Born in 1843 in Springfield’s Globe Tavern, a boarding house, the year after his parents’ marriage, Robert Todd was the Lincolns’ first child. The new parents named him after Mary’s father, Robert Smith Todd.
As he grew, he was a marked contrast to his father physically. Where Lincoln was lean and lanky, Robert was “short and low,” as his dad put it.
“Shy and reticent”
The National Park Service website asserts that “Robert seems to have had a different personality than the rest of the family — he was more shy and reticent.” It adds that he “lacked the personal magnetism of his father and the vivacious quality of his mother.” Even so, in later life, Robert would go on to achieve distinction and success..
“Later life” was the key here, since Robert was the only one of the Lincolns’ four children — all sons — to live into mature adulthood. The Lincolns lived in Springfield, Illinois, during Robert’s childhood.
He went to school there before winning a place at Harvard College, graduating in 1864. Next, he started at Harvard Law School but eventually abandoned his studies.
Robert didn’t desert Harvard because he lacked application, though. No, he left to join up with the Union Army as the Civil War raged in America, with his own father at the head of the Federal cause.
But how close were the two men? Well, Robert’s own words on this subject were quoted in Margaret Leech’s book Reveille in Washington.
Constant devotion to business
“During my childhood and early youth [my father] was almost constantly away from home, attending courts or making political speeches,” Robert told Leech. “Henceforth any great intimacy between us became impossible.
I scarcely even had ten minutes quiet talk with him during his Presidency, on account of his constant devotion to business.” So it seems that the two, while not hostile, were hardly close.
Edward Baker Lincoln
The Lincolns’ second son Edward Baker, often known as Eddie, was born in 1846. The next year the family moved to Washington, D.C., as Lincoln had been elected to represent Illinois in Congress.
Mary and the kids then divided their time between Washington and their Springfield home. It seems that the youngster didn’t enjoy good health throughout his short life, and was certainly unwell while his father served in Congress.
Eddie’s condition worsened when he was three. Stricken by a high temperature and a racking cough, the child hung on for several weeks but died from what was probably tuberculosis in February 1850.
The death was a fearful blow for his mother. Lincoln did his best to comfort his grief-stricken wife, but for a time she was inconsolable.
A very beautiful boy
Born in the Springfield family home, the Lincolns’ third son — William “Willie” Wallace — came along in December 1850. That was just a few weeks before the death of his older brother Eddie.
The National Parks Service website quotes Mary’s words about Willie: “[He] was a very beautiful boy, with a most spiritual expression of face.”
Willie had just turned 10 when his father won the presidency and the Lincoln family moved into the White House. But the young boy’s time at America’s most famous address was to be tragically brief.
Willie became seriously ill early in 1862 with what was probably typhoid, perhaps contracted from a tainted White House water supply. This second death of a child was a hammer blow for both Lincoln and his wife.
The Lincolns’ youngest child Thomas “Tad” Lincoln was born in 1853 and named after Abraham’s father. As a baby, Tad apparently had an unusually large head, which led his father to liken him to a tadpole — hence the life-long nickname.
He was eight years old when the Lincolns moved into the White House.
By all accounts, Tad was a lively lad who had a taste for playing tricks on White House staff and visitors. His father seems to have been remarkably tolerant of his son’s unruly behavior.
After Lincoln was assassinated, Tad traveled to Europe in 1868 with his mother, and the two lived in Germany for a time. Back in the States, though, Tad fell ill and died in 1871 aged 18, causing yet more unbearable grief for his mother.
Yet, even outside of grieving for her husband, Mary struggled. During her time, no one could quite understand why she behaved that way.
Sadly, she also suffered from depressive episodes and violent mood swings, and these bouts of ill health may have led some to call her insane. Mary’s eldest son, Robert, even had her institutionalized later in life.
Since then, experts have considered exactly what caused Mary’s unhappiness. In particular, they have wondered if her physical symptoms – including pale skin and intense headaches – had something to do with it all.
But Soros thinks he has the answer. And his theory links all of the first lady’s issues to a single diagnosis.
While in her native Lexington, Kentucky, Mary had an idyllic childhood – at least, at first. Her mother, Eliza, cared for her children, while her father, Robert, provided well for the family by running a local shop.
But the birth of sixth child George was too much for Eliza’s body. And while doctors came to the Todd household, they couldn’t do anything to help. Mary’s mother died in 1825 at just 31 years old.
Dealing with Loss
Even though she was just six years old at the time, Mary felt completely devastated by the loss of her beloved mother. Making matters worse, her father became engaged to a woman named Elizabeth “Betsey” Humphreys within six months of Eliza’s death.
And, sadly, Betsey apparently had no interest in helping to raise Mary and the other kids.
Instead, people noticed how cruelly Betsey treated her stepchildren and that she relied on shame and embarrassment to discipline. And while Mary’s older sister Elizabeth eventually stepped in to nurture her younger siblings, the Todd children still had to live with their stepmother’s obvious animosity.
She seemingly wasn’t all that fond of the nine kids she would have with Robert, either.
Yet while Robert kept emotionally distant from his children, he wanted all of his offspring – even his daughters – to receive good educations. So, he enrolled Mary at the Shelby Female Academy, where she studied subjects including French, natural science, arithmetic, and geography.
Of course, back then, female students learned less in school than their male peers, as it was believed that over-educated women would scare away potential husbands.
No stopping her
Still, despite the limitations placed on her at the time, Mary was undeterred. And when she completed her schooling at Shelby, she didn’t want to stop learning.
Her next stop was Mentelle’s for Young Ladies, which was a boarding school run by a 62-year-old woman from France. And although the institution was close to the Todd family residence, Mary was eventually allowed to board on site.
A true conversationalist
Mary flourished at Mentelle’s – especially in theater and plays. Here, too, she finally got some attention after growing up as one of 15 children in the Todd household.
By the time she finished her time at school, the young woman was a noted beauty, a wonderful conversationalist, and a go-getter. And like her older sisters before her, Mary decided that she had to leave Lexington.
Moving to Springfield
Mary’s siblings Elizabeth and Francis had moved from Kentucky to Springfield, Illinois, and she decided to follow suit. But around the same time Mary arrived in the state capital, a new member of the Illinois assembly named Abraham Lincoln was also settling in the city.
And he had a much different reputation in Springfield than Mary did.
You see, Mary was known for her wonderful ability to chat and converse, and that didn’t stop in Springfield. She welcomed plenty of visitors to her sister Elizabeth’s house, where she lodged over the summer of 1837.
By contrast, Abraham was often considered to be a little odd and a bit of a loner.
The farmer’s son
Abraham also came from a very different background to Mary. The future president had spent his childhood as a farmer’s son, and he would go on to work as a farmhand, a carpenter, and a ferry employee before he started to practice law.
People often called him “humble Abraham Lincoln” – a nickname that may have helped him win his seat in the state assembly.
But Mary didn’t meet Abraham during her first summer in Springfield, and at first it appeared as though she may never have the chance to do so. At the end of the season, you see, Elizabeth had to send Mary home, as she and her husband weren’t able to afford to look after both younger sisters.
Mary regretfully returned to Lexington, where she found a job as an apprentice teacher.
A twist of fate
Fortunately for Mary, fate would quickly bring her back to Springfield. Francis got married and left Elizabeth’s house, which meant there was room for the fledgling teacher to move in again.
So, Mary rushed back to Illinois and kicked off her active social life once more. But while Elizabeth threw plenty of parties to help Mary meet the city’s eligible bachelors, the young woman had one stipulation: she wanted to marry for love.
Interestingly, when Mary first met Abraham, she didn’t seem to think he’d be the one she’d marry. While the two became friends, the Lexington native saw the politician as nothing to write home about.
Then, in 1840, their relationship transformed from platonic to romantic. That was despite the fact that Elizabeth didn’t approve of her sister’s choice of partner – given how differently Mary and Abraham had grown up.
Different social circles
Abraham feared he couldn’t give Mary the life she wanted, either, and their differences came to a head on the first day of 1841. That evening, the state politician was supposed to escort his girlfriend to a party, but he arrived late.
So, Mary went ahead to the soiree on her own, where her beau ultimately found her flirting with someone else. And with that, Abraham cut ties – although the breakup didn’t last long.
Love is eternal
A year after their blow-up, Abraham and Mary mended their relationship. First, the two resumed a friendship, which once again became a romantic bond.
This time, they made it to the finish line and gave their family and friends just one day’s notice before their wedding on November 4, 1842. Touchingly, the couple exchanged bands etched with the reminder “Love Is Eternal.”
The Lincoln clan
Then, soon enough, the newly minted family added another member. In 1843 the pair welcomed their first son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who was named after Mary’s father; their second, Edward, arrived three years later.
And as the Lincoln clan grew, Abraham’s political career progressed. This often left Mary at home alone with her children, and she started experiencing anxiety as a result.
Mary’s behavior also made her a polarizing figure, even as Abraham’s political star rose. She spoke her mind, for instance, and didn’t hold back – which was precisely the opposite of how women at the time were expected to comport themselves.
At home, by contrast, Mary excelled at creating a loving environment for her children and husband. Even so, she needed to carve out quiet corners to deal with her migraines and the depressive episodes she’d experienced since losing her mother.
The hands of fate
And things got worse for Mary when she suffered a string of debilitating losses. First, her father died in the summer of 1849 after a battle with cholera.
Then, in February of the following year, she and her husband witnessed Edward succumb to tuberculosis. Apparently, Mary believed in destiny, and she felt that her son’s death was fate working directly against her.
But Mary’s fortune changed with the births of two more sons: William in late 1850 and Thomas three years later. And during the same decade, Abraham’s political career reached the highest possible level when the Republican Party tapped him as their nominee for president.
As history shows, of course, he went on to win the election and assume office in 1860.
Declining mental health
While the Lincolns were in the White House, Mary’s mental and physical health seemed to decline further. For one thing, she injured her head in a carriage accident, ultimately making her headaches even worse.
And along with bouts of depression, the mother of four experienced erratic mood swings and a violent temper. She would even have outbursts in public, which was not the behavior expected of a president’s wife at the time.
Plus, as we mentioned earlier, Mary had a bad reputation for spending wildly while in the White House, transforming the presidential residence into a regal estate with all-new decor. At some point, her reckless dealings with money enraged her husband, who warned her that she’d burn through his presidential salary before he even left his post..
Mary’s family ties brought her negative press, too. You see, while her husband led the Union into the Civil War, three of her half-brothers actually fought on the Confederacy’s side.
Yet Mary had long held the same views as Abraham. Even as a teenager, she had been anti-slavery.
A major loss
Still, it was Mary’s state of mind that was her most pressing issue, and this would only worsen in 1862. That year, her third-born and favorite son, William, contracted typhoid fever and swiftly passed away.
Losing William then pushed Mary into a dark depression, and she stayed in bed for weeks. The first lady also experienced sleeplessness and nightmares, leaving her barely able to take care of her youngest son, Tad. Ultimately, the president hired a nurse to supervise Mary.
Abraham’s final night
However, the day would come when Abraham couldn’t look after Mary, either. After his re-election in 1964 and the end of the Civil War, he and his wife thought they had survived the worst.
They would be very wrong. On Mary and Abraham’s April 1865 trip to Ford’s Theater, John Wilkes Booth snuck up behind the president and shot him. Mary had been holding her husband’s hand at the time and screamed in horror when he slumped beside her.
Falling into hysteria
Abraham didn’t die immediately, and so he was rushed across the street to a private house. Meanwhile, Mary descended into an understandable fit of hysteria – one that the men caring for her husband couldn’t deal with.
Instead of trying to calm the first lady down, the helpers removed her from the room and away from her husband. And when Mary saw Abraham again, she fainted; sadly, the president passed away before she came to.
40 days in bed
Losing Abraham naturally pushed Mary into yet another depressive episode. She didn’t go to his funeral; instead, she spent 40 days in bed.
After that, the widow had to decide where to go next, as she was no longer the nation’s first lady. Mary couldn’t bear to return to Springfield, and instead she and her two living sons, Robert and Tad, moved to Chicago.
Things got worse
In Chicago, Mary finally began to grieve her husband’s death, but she did so in private – to the point where she became a recluse. Then came one final tragedy: her youngest son, Tad, died.
This heartbreak only made Mary behave more erratically, and her depression worsened to boot.
Having her committed
So, four years later, Mary’s eldest and only living son, Robert, had her committed to an Illinois asylum. The former first lady felt so helpless about the decision that she went on to visit multiple pharmacies, hoping to get enough medication to end her life.
Thankfully, an employee at one of these establishments sensed her plan and gave Mary a placebo, thwarting her suicide attempt.
A sad end
Mary later left the mental health facility and traveled around Europe for four years. Fate would bring her back to Springfield in the end, though, as the widow ultimately moved in with Elizabeth in the town where she’d met her ill-fated husband.
It was there in 1882 that Mary slipped into a coma and suffered a stroke on the 11th anniversary of Tad’s death. Sadly, she died the next day.
And in the years since Mary’s passing, psychologists and historians have debated what had caused her to behave in such a strange way. After all, she had once been a well-spoken, charming young lady; as time went on, however, she had become moody, depressed, and erratic.
But while experts had plenty of theories to explain Mary’s decline, none of them seemed to fit the situation perfectly.
Immediately after Mary’s death, for instance, her doctor noted how divisive of a personality she had been in life. He warned others, too, against judging someone who had cerebral disease, or mental illness.
Other experts have credited her mood swings and erratic spending to bipolar disorder.
A new diagnosis
But in 2016 Dr. John Sotos presented an entirely different hypothesis about Mary’s behavior.
He had looked at the former first lady’s remaining medical records, which had come from her four-month stint in a mental health facility. And according to Sotos, the information was more than enough to diagnose Mary with pernicious anemia.
Pernicious anemia is not as scary today as it once was. The condition stems from a deficiency in vitamin B12, which the body needs to produce red blood cells and nerves and make sure a person’s DNA is working as it’s supposed to.
Before doctors isolated vitamin B12, though, they had no idea why people were getting sick and suffering from the illness.
Many of Mary’s noted symptoms actually match those of pernicious anemia. For one, the condition is a degenerative disease – meaning it gets worse over time.
And both Mary’s behavior and health did indeed decline as the years passed. She suffered from a laundry list of pernicious anemia-related side effects, including headaches, pallor, and the sensation of needles poking her body.
Serious side effects
Pernicious anemia also comes with psychological side effects, meaning Mary may have dealt with hallucinations and delusions that she considered very real. Without B12, the brain shrinks in size – something that can cause paranoia.
In old age, the former first lady lost her ability to talk and see as well.
Under the radar
Unfortunately for Mary, doctors of the period were not aware of pernicious anemia, so they had no way of explaining her declining mental and physical health. Mary and others who suffered from the condition basically had a death sentence, and that wouldn’t change until the mid-1920s..
A prize-winning discovery
In 1926, you see, doctors George Whipple, William Murphy, and George Minot found that consuming a half-pound of raw liver a day could overcome pernicious anemia. Their discovery was such a huge breakthrough that, in 1934, the trio won a Nobel Prize – regardless of how unsavory their treatment method was..
In 1948 experts then isolated B12 as the cause of pernicious anemia, leading them to develop a shot that could replenish stores of the vitamin. Yet Mary didn’t have that luxury, which is why Sotos wants the world to consider that she suffered from the degenerative disease.
In 2016 the doctor told CNN that he hoped his theory would help others to reconsider the former first lady, whom he labeled as the “notoriously difficult-to-understand partner to one of the most consequential figures in world history.”