Previously Unseen Mary Todd Lincoln Letter Sheds New Light On The Controversial First Lady

Published May 2, 2024

Around 1864, Mary Todd Lincoln wrote to the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in hopes of helping a woman get a job.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Public DomainMary Todd Lincoln’s letter shows her involvement in politics.

Mary Todd Lincoln has always been a controversial figure. During the Civil War, she was distrusted as a possible Southern sympathizer because her family had ties to the Confederate army. In the nearly two centuries since, she’s often been categorized as jealous, irrational, and even insane. But a previously unseen letter written by Mary shows a different side of the first lady.

Around 1864, Mary rolled up her sleeves and sat down to write a letter to George Harrington, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. At the height of the Civil War, she had a request to make.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s Letter To George Harrington

Mary Lincoln Letter

Raab CollectionThe brief letter sheds new light on Mary Lincoln’s involvement in Washington D.C. bureaucracy.

Mary Todd Lincoln‘s letter — which was found in the Harrington family archives and is now being sold by the Raab Collection for $15,000 — is a single page missive with a simple request. Likely written in 1864, the letter shows Mary inquiring whether Harrington will help her with an employment issue.

“The girl whom I promised a place in the Treasury has not acted worthily,” Mary wrote, apparently referencing a previous candidate who had displeased her, “therefore I request that I may insert another name in the place.”

The first lady continued: “I am sure it will be an unimportant matter to you, and your compliance will gratify me.”

According to Nathan Raab, the president of the Raab Collection and author of The Hunt for History, the letter is indicative of Mary Todd Lincoln’s involvement in the war effort.

“It shows that while Lincoln was running the war effort and executive branch, his wife, the First Lady, was actively working to find work for women in that same arena,” he told All That’s Interesting in an email. “It speaks to this powerful idea of ‘women helping women,’ as well.”

The letter thus challenges the perception that many people have of Mary Todd Lincoln. A controversial historical figure, she is often remembered for her temper and dramatic moods. But that’s not the full story.

Who Is Mary Todd Lincoln?

Born in 1818 in Lexington, Kentucky, Mary Todd’s part in the Lincoln story began in the 1840s, when she and Abraham Lincoln courted and got married.

The Lincoln Family

Public DomainA depiction of the Lincoln family: Mary, Robert Todd, Thomas “Tad,” and Abraham. Mary Lincoln purportedly refused to be photographed with her husband because he was more than a foot taller than her.

Their marriage was, by some accounts, tumultuous. Mary was quick to anger and Abraham prone to depressive moods. However, they seemed to make a strong team. They weathered the loss of their sons Eddie Lincoln and Willie Lincoln together, and Abraham and Mary were a political unit.

When Lincoln had an opportunity to become governor in Oregon, Mary discouraged him from taking a role that would move him away from the country’s political center. And when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, he joyously ran home, yelling: “Mary, Mary, we are elected!”

Mary Todd Lincoln was present at the Lincoln assassination, when she and her husband attended a showing of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1864. As the curtain went up, Lincoln reached over to take his wife’s hand. Mary asked him what people around them would think about “my hanging onto you so” — and then the president spoke his alleged last words:

“[They] won’t think anything of it.”

Assassination Of Abraham Lincoln

Public DomainMary Todd Lincoln was at her husband’s side when he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865.

With that, Lincoln “belonged to the ages,” as his War Secretary Edwin Stanton famously remarked upon the president’s death. But the interest in Abraham and Mary Lincoln endures.

“We are endlessly fascinated by the Lincolns,” Raab remarked to All That’s Interesting. “President Lincoln is, of course, an iconic figure and seems to appeal to everyone, no matter their politics. Mrs. Lincoln, meanwhile, has long been shrouded in mystery, probably due in part to her overwhelming grief following the deaths of three children and then her husband.”

He added: “But that seems to be evolving recently — with the Apple TV series, Manhunt, for example, and the new play about her life, Oh, Mary! which is headed to Broadway in June.”

After reading about Mary Todd Lincoln’s previously unseen letter, discover the story of Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, purportedly the last Lincoln descendent. Or learn about Abraham Lincoln’s wrestling career.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "Previously Unseen Mary Todd Lincoln Letter Sheds New Light On The Controversial First Lady.", May 2, 2024, Accessed May 23, 2024.