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Mary Lincoln Enigma

Mary Lincoln Enigma

Historians on America's Most Controversial First Lady

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Edited by Frank J. Williams and Michael Burkhimer, with an Epilogue by Catherine Clinton


Hardcover (Other formats: E-book)
390 pages, 6 x 8, 34 illustrations


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About the Book

Mary Lincoln is a lightning rod for controversy. Stories reveal widely different interpretations, and it is impossible to write a definitive version of her life that will suit everyone. The thirteen engaging essays in this collection introduce Mary Lincoln’s complex nature and show how she is viewed today.

The authors’ explanations of her personal and private image stem from a variety of backgrounds, and through these lenses—history, theater, graphic arts, and psychiatry—they present their latest research and assessments. Here they reveal the effects of familial culture and society on her life and give a broader assessment of Mary Lincoln as a woman, wife, and mother. Topics include Mary’s childhood in Kentucky, the early years of her marriage to Abraham, Mary’s love of travel and fashion, the presidential couple’s political partnership, and Mary’s relationship with her son Robert.

The fascinating epilogue meditates on Mary Lincoln’s universal appeal and her enigmatic personality, showcasing the dramatic differences in interpretations. With gripping prose and in-depth documentation,  this anthology will capture the imagination of all readers.

Univeristy Press Books for Public and Secondary Schools 2013 edition


Former Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court Frank J. Williams is founding Chair of The Lincoln Forum. He is the author or editor of many books on Abraham Lincoln, including Judging Lincoln and The Living Lincoln.

Michael Burkhimer teaches American history in the Haverford, PA, school district. He is the author of 100 Essential Lincoln Books and Lincoln’s Christianity.


“Mary Todd Lincoln was controversial while alive, and she remains controversial to this day. Historians at one extreme see her as mentally unstable, corrupt, and abusive to her spouse. At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe she was an intelligent and gifted woman who played a key role in her husband’s success. The Mary Lincoln Enigma assembles valuable new contributions to this debate by some of the most eminent experts on Mary and her time. This thought-provoking book belongs on the shelf of everyone interested in the lives of Mary and Abraham Lincoln.” —Burrus Carnahan, author of Act of Justice: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Law of War and Lincoln on Trial: Southern Civilians and the Law of War

“This provocative collection goes a long way toward demolishing the one-dimensional caricatures that have dogged Mary Lincoln over the last century and a half. Leaving no controversial subject unaddressed, each chapter brings original research together with the insights of a wide-ranging assortment of experts in history, law, psychiatry, fashion, and the arts, and confronts the enduring myths with hard realities. Sensitively written and multifaceted in focus, this volume eschews simplistic conclusions in favor of opening new questions and embracing conflicting answers about the precise dimensions of Lincoln’s life. A compelling and important book about an ‘enigmatic’ nineteenth-century woman.”—Amy Murrell Taylor, author of The Divided Family in Civil War America


“The topics and controversies discussed in these pages by a group of talented historians include Mary Lincoln’s childhood, views on race, travels, role as first lady, and the tragic aftermath of her husband’s assassination. There is a great deal to be learned here, whether one is new to the study of Mrs. Lincoln or seeking to comprehend the latest scholarly debates. Highly recommended!” —Thomas R. Turner, editor of The Lincoln Herald 


“This splendid, essential book presents a nuanced, sensitive, and kaleidoscopic reconsideration of the life of Mary Todd Lincoln; of her part in our understanding of her husband’s life and career; and of her own considerable historical and cultural significance. The first-rate team of scholars contributing to this volume write with clarity, grace, and rigor.  Any reader will benefit from this volume’s moving reconsideration of one of our most controversial and tragic First Ladies.” —R. B. Bernstein, author of The Founding Fathers Reconsidered and Thomas Jefferson