The best nonfiction about First Lady Mary Lincoln

Susan Higginbotham Author Of The First Lady and the Rebel
By Susan Higginbotham

Who am I?

I write historical fiction about real-life characters, some relatively obscure, some very well known. One of my main goals is to avoid the stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions that have gathered around historical figures. At the same time, I strive to remain true to known historical facts and to the mores of the times in which my characters lived. I use both primary sources—letters, newspapers, diaries, wills, and so forth—and modern historical research to bring my characters to life.


I wrote...

The First Lady and the Rebel

By Susan Higginbotham,

Book cover of The First Lady and the Rebel

What is my book about?

The First Lady and the Rebel is the story of Mary Lincoln and Emily Todd Helm, half-sisters whose affection for each other is tried when they find themselves on the opposite sides of civil war.

The books I picked & why

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Mrs. Lincoln: A Life

By Catherine Clinton,

Book cover of Mrs. Lincoln: A Life

Why this book?

While Mary Lincoln (although we often call her "Mary Todd Lincoln," she preferred "Mary Lincoln," "Mrs. Abraham Lincoln," or the unassuming "Mrs. A. Lincoln") has been the subject of several biographies, this is my favorite, and one which I always used as my first resource when checking a fact or looking for a reference about Mary Lincoln. It's readable, well-sourced, and sympathetic toward its subject without veering into hagiography or being overly indulgent of Mary's foibles.


Mary Lincoln's Insanity Case: A Documentary History

By Jason Emerson,

Book cover of Mary Lincoln's Insanity Case: A Documentary History

Why this book?

In 1875, the nation was shocked when Robert Lincoln, by then the only surviving son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, began proceedings to have his mother declared insane by an Illinois jury. As a result, Mary spent several months in a private asylum before she managed to regain her freedom. In this book, Jason Emerson collects family correspondence, newspaper accounts, asylum progress reports, and other documents, allowing us to review the evidence for this tragic, often luridly misrepresented period of Mary Lincoln's life. As someone who likes to consult primary sources whenever possible, I found it invaluable.


The Mary Lincoln Enigma: Historians on America's Most Controversial First Lady

By Frank J. Williams (editor), Michael Burkhimer (editor),

Book cover of The Mary Lincoln Enigma: Historians on America's Most Controversial First Lady

Why this book?

This collection of essays focuses on a variety of topics, including Mary's relationships, her siblings, her life at the only home she and her husband owned together, her travels, her fashion sense, her psyche, her depiction in photographs and illustrations, and her portrayal in fiction. Although these essays are relatively short, they're crammed full of interesting details. You can read the book straight through or (as I prefer) dip in and out of it at your leisure.


House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, a Family Divided by War

By Stephen Berry,

Book cover of House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, a Family Divided by War

Why this book?

When Abraham Lincoln came to Washington to assume the presidency, he was surrounded not by members of his own family, but by his wife's. Some of the Todds would remain loyal to the Union; others would fight for (and die for) the Confederacy; a few would find themselves hopelessly pulled between the two sides. I found this to be an absorbing story of the sprawling, quarrelsome Kentucky clan who helped shape Mary and whose division mirrored that of the nation.


Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters

By Justin G. Turner, Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln

Book cover of Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters

Why this book?

Without talking to someone in person, the next best thing we can do is to read his or her letters. This volume collects over 600 written by Mary Lincoln, spanning the time from her days as a marriageable young belle in the raw frontier capital of Springfield, Illinois, to her lonely final years, when she was plagued by grief and ill-health. We see Mary at her most imperious, her most vulnerable, her most charming—and always, at her most human. To me, one letter epitomizes Mary: that to a milliner in which Mary, all but prostrate from the recent death of her son Willie, nonetheless finds it within herself to give the most exacting details about her sought-after mourning bonnet, "which must be exceedingly plain & genteel."


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and American first ladies?

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