Lexington connection

Mary Todd Lincoln house
stands amid bustling Lexington

Museum expects increased visitors with bicentennial

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

LEXINGTON, Ky. (February 2008) – While the next two years will focus on the life of Abraham Lincoln, the life of his wife must not be forgotten. Pivotal in Lincoln’s life was his soul mate, Mary Todd Lincoln. Her childhood home still stands on a busy street corner in downtown Lexington, where tourists can get a glimpse of what this complex woman was like.

Mary Todd Lincoln House

Photo provided

Many Todd family mementos can
be viewed during tours of the house.

The Mary Todd Lincoln House is dedicated to the memory of Mary Todd, her family and their connection to Lincoln. Mary Ann Todd was born into a life of ease and wealth on Dec. 13, 1818, in Lexington. Her parents were Eliza Parker and Robert Smith Todd, both members of socially and economically prominent Kentucky families.
The couple had six children all together. Eliza died on July 5, 1825, when Mary was only 6 years old. It wasn’t long before her father sought a new mother for his brood of children.
He married Elizabeth (Betsy) Humphries on Nov. 1, 1826. Robert and Betsy had eight children together, one child dying in infancy from each of his two marriages.
In 1832, the family moved from Short Street into an elegant 14-room double brick Georgian-style house on West Main Street, known today as the Mary Todd Lincoln House. The home had been built between 1803-1806 by William Palmateer for use as an inn known as “The Sign of the Golden Tree.” While the Todd family lived there, it was staffed with slaves. This fact fueled one of many accusations that Mary was a Confederate sympathizer during the Civil War.
Despite the loss of her mother at an early age, Mary’s childhood seemed happy and full of opportunities. The fourth of 16 children, her father was wealthy enough to foster Mary’s interests in education and social graces. She received 12 years of formal education, something not afforded most young women of the time. It has been stated that she was probably better educated than most members of Lincoln’s Cabinet. She entered Lexington’s Shelby Female Academy for a time and later attended Madame Mentelle’s boarding school for girls in 1832.
Mary joined the other students in living at school during the week, even though it was a short distance to the school. She lived at home on the weekends. The school curriculum stressed the French language and the art of dancing. Mary was one of the best students at Madame Mentelle’s, and as a result received a wooden music box that is on display at the Mary Todd Lincoln House.
This box, as well as other family mementoes, can be viewed through tours of the home. Her father was a banker, an attorney, operated a mercantile establishment on Cheapside and a cotton mill at Sandersville, and served in Kentucky’s General Assembly for 24 years. He had a long, prosperous and distinguished career and was well known in the community.
One of the twin parlors in the Todd home at Lexington contained 350 books, a testament to his quest for knowledge. He often imparted this knowledge to his children, allowing Mary to sit in the dinning room or parlor after dinner (at a time when children usually did not do so) and listen to the political conversations of the day. Such notable men as Henry Clay, John J. Crittenden and Robert Jefferson Breckinridge would gather in the Todd’s parlor for an evening of political exchange.
Mary spent three months in the summer of 1837 visiting her sister, Elizabeth Edwards, in Springfield, Ill. When she returned to Lexington in the fall, she took a position as apprentice teacher assisting 7 Ward at the Shelby Female Academy.
Mary lived in her Lexington childhood home until 1839, at which time she returned to Illinois to live with her sister Elizabeth and her family. By this time, Mary had matured into a lovely, intelligent young woman. She had grace and manners that soon propelled her into the social scene where she was introduced to a rising lawyer named Abraham Lincoln.
In their upbringing, the couple was worlds apart. Nevertheless, by 1840 Mary and Abraham were engaged and married in 1842. And the rest of her life, as they say, is history.
The Todd family lived in their Lexington home until 1849. Mary returned in the fall of 1847 for a brief visit and brought her husband with her, said Gwen Thompson, executive director of the Mary Todd Lincoln House.
The home was sold at auction upon the death of Mary’s father in 1849. It was occupied as a residence for a time, but by the latter 19th and early 20th century, it had multiple uses. It housed various stores, the upper rooms were rented out as apartments and it became a warehouse in the 1960s.
The Mary Todd Lincoln House is owned by the Commonwealth of Kentucky and maintained and operated by the Kentucky Mansion Preservation Foundation Inc. Beula C. Nunn, wife of former Kentucky Gov. Louie R. Nunn, founded this non-profit organization.
The home is “an important part of our Kentucky history,” said Thompson. “It is the first site to honor a First Lady.”
One educational program offered this year at the home will be “Mary Goes to School.” This traveling program will be taken into schools by Mary Todd Lincoln House staff member and Mary Todd Lincoln interpreter, Glenna Holloway.
The home has received funding for the conservation of certain Lincoln artifacts, said Thompson. This includes a set of candelabras and paintings completed while the Lincolns lived in the White House. Books owned by Mary Todd Lincoln during the White House years and a playbill from the night of Lincoln’s assignation is on display at the home.
The home was refurbished and opened to the public on June 9, 1977. The home will open early this year for tours, beginning on President’s Day, Feb. 18, and running through Nov. 30.

• Tours of the Mary Todd Lincoln house are offered 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with the last tour beginning at 3 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults, $4 for children ages 6-12, and free for children under 6. Group rates are available. For more information, call (859) 233-9999 or visit: www.mtlhouse.org.

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