First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln was a woman of contrasts. Her embarrassed husband had to bail her out when she overspent the White House budget; she bought entire supplies of cloth so no one could have a dress made like hers; and she spent her later years keeping persistent creditors at bay. Yet, when it came to hiring the African-American seamstress who would later become one of her closest confidantes, Mrs. Lincoln was very frugal, as she was with other important things in her life.
An exhibit of original items relating to one side of Mary Todd Lincoln, her extravagances, may be seen starting August 10 through November in the Treasures Gallery at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield. The exhibit includes the first public display of the original jury verdict form declaring her insane. Paid museum admission is required to see the exhibit.
All of the original items in the exhibit come from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum's collections, and many have never been publicly displayed. They include diamond, red coral and black onyx jewelry; a parasol and a fan; a plaid lap rug; pieces of three custom-made dresses; ivory desk items and a letter seal; a music portfolio; and a mahogany vanity with mirror.
The darker side of Mrs. Lincoln's extravagances will also be represented in the exhibit. Items include vouchers for overdue bills, some quite large for the time; a letter from Mary Lincoln to a merchant apologizing for a late payment; the black mourning veil and scarf worn after her husband's assassination; a painting of President Lincoln's deathbed scene showing Mary weeping; and the 1875 signed jury verdict declaring Mrs. Lincoln insane. Mary’s son Robert successfully had his mother declared insane after presenting evidence, among other things, of her excessive spending habits.
A podcast detailing Mary’s jewelry items in the exhibit may be accessed at
The Presidential Museum exhibit is the latest in a series of events this year surrounding the life of America's most controversial First Lady. Other events include a Mental Health Roundtable Discussion held April 16 at the Illinois State Capitol; a curriculum development session June 18 – 20 that will help put new materials in the state's middle and high school classrooms; re-trials of Mary Todd Lincoln on insanity charges September 24 in Chicago and October 1 in Springfield using modern legal standards and judges; and “Culture of Clothing” events November 12 in Chicago and November 19 in Springfield that will examine the role of fashion in women's history.
The Mary Todd Lincoln events are produced by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission. The Illinois State Board of Education is collaborating on the curriculum development.