Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography

Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography

by Jean H. Baker

ISBN: 9780393305869

Publisher W W Norton & Co Inc

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Specific Groups, Biographies & Memoirs/People, A-Z, Biographies & Memoirs/Historical, Biographies & Memoirs/Leaders & Notable People, Nonfiction/Politics, History/General, Biographies & Memoirs/General, History/Americas

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

First Family:
Parkers and Todds

IN the fall Lexington's weather turned wet and dreary, matching the unpleasant economic news. Along Cheapside, the marketplace that served Fayette County, even well-to-do merchants were feeling the effects of the depression that was slowing business after the War of 1812. The decline in hemp prices had forced several owners to close their bagging establishments and offer them for sale, though there were no buyers. A few pessimists spoke of leaving Kentucky to make their fortunes elsewhere. Still, amid the gloom there was some good news. The summer dysentery, especially severe the past season, was over. Palmentier's new tavern had opened on Main Street, and there were plans to "embellish" the courthouse square or at least to complete its bricking. And on Short Street, Eliza Parker Todd and her husband Robert Smith Todd were expecting another baby.

    When Eliza Todd's time came, that rainy Sunday in December 1818, she most likely sent down the street for Harriet Leuba, the watchmaker's wife and the best known of Fayette County's midwives. At the time the faculty of Transylvania's medical school--just three blocks up Limestone Road from the Todds--included a specialist in midwifery and the new field of obstetrics. But deliveries, at least normal ones, remained a woman's affair. Not that midwives like Leuba did much. Mostly they let nature take its course, encouraging mothers with talk and sometimes mulled liquor, closing windows to keep out airborne vapors, administering ergot in dilatory cases, and, when the great moment came, catching the baby and tying the umbilical cord.

    The setting for this unremarkable nativity was a two-story, nine-room, L-shaped house on Short Street, in the center of Lexington. The Todd residence was typical of those new brick houses admired by travelers who came to Lexington expecting to encounter savage Indians, wild animals, and wooden shacks, but who left admiring the wealthiest, most sophisticated community west of the Alleghenies, excepting, of course, New Orleans. For second-generation Lexington families like the Todds and Parkers, stately Georgian residences measured the distance their community had come from its log cabin beginnings. Foreign travelers agreed with the natives about its elegance, and the city (though it was hardly that until after the Civil War) was featured on many an itinerary. In 1817, the year before Mary Todd's birth, an English merchant described Lexington as the "largest inland town west of the Alleghenies." And for André Michaux, a French traveler, it was the "manor house of Fayette County."

    As for its newest resident, there is no record of her looks, weight, and habits. According to the protective superstition of the day, pretty babies grew into ugly women, and if this was true, she was not pretty. After two daughters, both parents certainly hoped for a son, and in this sense their infant girl was a disappointment. They named her Mary Ann after her mother's only sister, although on both sides of the braided Parker-Todd family tree, the name was a popular one. So it was as Mary Ann Todd that the infant entered one of Kentucky's largest, most eminent families.

    Her grandfathers, Robert Parker and Levi Todd, had been among a handful of pioneers who had established her birthplace. As a young soldier of the Revolution, Levi, along with his brothers John and Robert, had chosen the name of a distant battle in Massachusetts for what was, in the summer of 1775, no more than a clearing in the wilderness. After the Revolution the Todd brothers returned to the place they had named, and avoiding any mention of the horse thieves, summer sickness, and Indians that kept the timid away, they promoted Lexington. In a letter to a prospective settler from Maryland, Levi offered the premature--but eventually accurate--prediction that "the People who have been confined to the Forts are now entering the woods and beginning stately houses. In a few years homes will be reared where small log cabbins [sic] have stood, wheat fields and meadows where cane brakes now grow."

    To others (and his Pennsylvania cousin Robert Parker was one) Levi publicized Lexington as a haven for patriots. To be sure, those who were unwilling to give up the luxuries Todd associated with decadent monarchies had best stay where they were. But to brave republicans, Todd guaranteed "as free a government as the frailties of human nature will admit--and be assured that George the Third is as Little Esteemed here as any other place. And if the citizens of the Eastern waters do not corrupt our principles we shall, I believe, be a free and happy people. Kentucky will be an asylum for liberty."

    Even for liberty's sake it took time to settle this western wilderness, and for years Lexington remained no more than a few cabins and a fort where a handful of families huddled behind a stockade fence. There in 1781 Levi and Jane Todd's first child was born and named for Levi's mother. Thereafter the Todds claimed Hannah as their Virginia Dare--the first child of white parents born in Kentucky--though like many Todd stories, the boast was more family advertisement than historical truth. Along with the natural increase in population, outsiders came to Lexington, some attracted by the Todds' optimistic promotion, others by the expectation of good land and pure water, and a few like John, Levi, and Robert Todd's elderly parents, by the renewal of family ties. Hannah and David Todd had emigrated from Ireland to Pennsylvania in 1737. More than forty years later, with all their sons "gone to Kentucky," they uprooted again. Selling their Pennsylvania farm, they joined their sons in the Kentucky wilderness.

    Robert Parker and his bride, Elizabeth Porter, migrated for similar reasons. A cousin of the Todds through his maternal grandmother, Parker had grown up with the family in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and had heard, through Levi's parents, of the young Todds' adventures on the frontier. Like many other second sons, Parker was willing to exchange the certainties of farming (in his case along the Susquehanna River) for Kentucky's possibilities. Borrowing money for the journey, the Parkers arrived in Lexington in the spring of 1790.

    They came to a pioneer community that numbered 843 residents according to the census taken in the fall after their arrival. The year before, George Washington had been inaugurated President of the United States, under a Constitution that guaranteed the formation of new states from territory earlier claimed by the original colonies. In Kentucky there was strong sentiment for independence from Virginia, though the government in Williamsburg continued to encourage settlement through its generous land grants to pioneers in what Virginians knew as Fincastle County. For the time, at least, the Choctaws and Catawbas who had fought tenaciously against the white man's intrusions during the Revolution had moved west into the area around Paducah. As Levi Todd had predicted, the people were indeed leaving the forts to build permanent homes.

    At first, having nowhere to live, Elizabeth and Robert Parker stayed in the protective blockhouse outside Lexington on what later became the Richmond Pike. There Parker, the Todd brothers, and a dozen others drew up the citizens' compact that two years later became the basis for a local government run by self-appointed trustees. As veterans of the Revolution both Major Parker and General Todd held warrants and redemption rights that would make them, if Lexington prospered, rich men. But with settlement by neither religious community nor organized group, individuals constantly left the town to take up (for they often did not legally own it) the pastureland outside Lexington. The reason for their coming explained their departure, and by 1800 only half the town's original lot holders remained. Others might move on to clear the land for hemp and grain crops in the surrounding counties, but Robert Parker and Levi Todd stayed in town.

    It was typical of the Todds' refined sense of honor that they encouraged the nearby settlement of Frankfort as Kentucky's permanent capital. In view of their extensive holdings, to support their hometown would be, they believed, a conflict of interest. In the building of Lexington they had been exceptionally active, and holding great expectations for its future, they accepted the offices required of founding fathers. "I am," wrote Levi to a friend, "County Lt of a Populous County, Clerk of the Court in the same, a farmer, and at the head of a large family and in addition to this, practice as an attorney in an adjacent county. My life is an active one and I receive hourly calls to various duties and yet I have the assurance to deny that I am anxious or ambitious in search of Honour or Wealth."

    Todd may not have been seeking wealth or honor, but in time he got both. As surveyors he and his cousin Robert Parker often had to choose between the devalued eighteenth-century Kentucky currency of land or no payment at all. Soon both men had amassed a planter's estate (spread over three Kentucky counties), though neither was attracted to agriculture. "I believe you have as little taste for farming as myself," Todd once wrote a friend. For some reason--perhaps the restlessness that was characteristic of Parkers and Todds or perhaps the difficult physical labor required to raise an annual crop of grain, corn, or hemp--few family members ever earned their livings from the land. Instead, they used surveying, law, and commerce as levers to establish their prominence, and they served themselves--and Lexington--in a mutually beneficial exchange as churchmen (the Todds gave land to Lexington's first Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches), as trustees of Transylvania University (to which the Todds gave more than 5,000 acres), and as benefactors of schools and other private associations.

    Of the two men, the six-foot, 200-pound Levi was the more prominent, in part because his older brother John was an authentic Kentucky hero, who had died, an easy target astride his white horse, defending Lexington from an attacking force of Miamis and Chickasaws during the Battle of Blue Licks in 1782. It was a fitting reward when Kentucky's first governor, Isaac Shelby, appointed the younger brother of such a patriot to the important position of clerk of the Fayette County Court. From 1780 until his death in 1807 Levi Todd took depositions, recorded the relinquishment of dowers, furnished and kept records of road surveys, drew up deeds, made lists of taxable property, issued marriage and tavern licenses, and kept deeds and mortgages. For twenty-seven years Mary Ann Todd's grandfather was a veritable one-man government.

    If Robert Parker was not as prominent as Levi Todd, the major was still a well-known surveyor, miller, merchant, and, for a time, clerk of the Lexington Trustees, the city's governing body. In the last capacity he collected four shillings every time a property exchanged hands in Lexington, just as Levi, in a similar annuity, collected a fee on all legal documents processed in Fayette County. Both men, but especially Parker, profited from the provision that the city trustees be given lots out of the 700 acres they controlled.

    One measure of the financial success of Mary's grandfathers appeared in their homes, and it is characteristic of these families that Robert Parker built the first brick house in town, while Levi Todd erected the first one in Fayette County. In keeping with family pride, Todd named his house after the small Scottish village where his sixteenth-century Todd ancestors had lived, and he began Ellerslie in the 1790s as a one-room-deep, two-story square residence on thirty acres. When bricklayers and carpenters became available, he hired the best of them to build additional rooms and embellishments until Ellerslie became a well-furnished country villa of more than twenty rooms, decorated by that high Georgian feature of conspicuous consumption, a completely unfunctional belt of bricks around the outside. Inside the house spaciousness prevailed in the large hall and square rooms arranged in suites connected by double doors. Outside, among Ellerslie's numerous outbuildings, was the stone round house where Todd kept Fayette County's public documents, there being no other place. There angry squatters and tenant farmers whose land tenures were threatened by a court decision came in 1803 to burn the documents that imperiled their property rights. Some said the "mob" even threatened to destroy Ellerslie.

    Certainly both Todd and Parker were logical targets for such attacks. In hard times they had bought cheap the land scrip given, in lieu of payment by the government, to veterans of the Revolution. As a result, when Todd died in 1807, he owned 7,000 acres in Fayette and Franklin counties. His personal property (exclusive of real estate) was worth more than $6,000, in a society in which more than four-fifths of the households had no property or personal estate at all. Along with silver, china, and leather-bound books (his library included volumes by Wollstonecraft, Burke, and Blackstone), Todd also owned twenty-one slaves, nine horses, other livestock, and a carriage, although he derived his principal income from his clerkship and law practice. Years later, on an anniversary occasion of Lexington, an early resident recalled that "Levi Todd was a father of the Kentucky bar--though I don't expect he was much of a lawyer. He is one of the pioneers of the County--a man of high character and universally esteemed." No doubt Todd himself preferred the epithet on his tombstone in the Lexington Cemetery: "General Levi Todd--a youthful adventurer to Kentucky and active in its defense in the most perilous time."

    Robert Parker died seven years before Todd. A younger man and therefore not as wealthy as Todd, by any standard he, too, was rich, although, in the habit of this society, sometimes land-poor. The fluctuations in Parker's economic circumstances emerged in testimony given in a suit brought by the heirs of Levi Todd's profligate brother Robert Todd against Parker's heirs in 1817. (It was typical of the interwoven Parker and Todd clan that in this action, Robert Smith Todd, Mary's father, was both plaintiff through his father's family and defendant through his wife's.) According to Widow Parker's affidavit, in the 1790s her husband could not come up with the forty dollars of gold and silver required to pay off the debt he had contracted when he migrated to Lexington. So he paid in goods rather than cash. Still, he was proud and determined. "I have silver enough to more than discharge my debts but find it impossible to exchange it at this time. I don't want anyone especially one who had so much confidence in me to sustain the smallest loss thereby. Now I am determined that if you think you have I will make ample satisfaction next spring."

    Such stringency was temporary and reflected frontier conditions as much as Parker's economic straits. By the time of his death in 1800, from his surveying, from his general store on the corner of Main and Cross streets, and from his mill on the Versailles Road, he had amassed enough cash to put his four sons through professional school and to guarantee his wife's comfort during her half century of widowhood. Shortly before her death in 1850, Elizabeth Parker was taxed on two and a half town lots valued at $4,650, 217 acres on Shannon Run worth $6,500, six slaves, three horses, one carriage, and the inevitable gold watch.

    In all their endeavors Parker and Todd benefited from their extensive family connections. Levi Todd had six sons and two brothers; Robert Parker had four sons and three brothers. The marriage of their combined seven daughters and six sisters into other eminent families, such as the Brecks, Todhunters, Richardsons, and Bodleys, produced an interlocking directorate of modern-day corporate proportions with sons, cousins, nephews, and in-laws gradually moving into important posts throughout Kentucky.

IN 1794 Eliza Parker, Robert and Elizabeth Parker's first daughter, was born into this expanding network. Just after her sixth birthday her father succumbed to a long, debilitating illness that may have been cancer. Shortly thereafter her mother sold the family house a few miles out of town and moved back into the center of Lexington. There, on a lot her husband had originally surveyed for the trustees, she built a substantial brick house where she presided for the rest of her life. In time, both to distinguish her from a multiplicity of other Parkers and to recognize her status as Robert Parker's long-surviving relict, she became known as Widow Parker.

    While it is difficult to appreciate this today, Widow Parker's lot was part of a planned community based on a grid design ("Penn's plan" some called it) with rectangular one-half-acre lots near the town's center and larger five-acre outlots on the periphery. To ensure development, original lot holders like Widow Parker were required to build, within a prescribed time, "a house equal to an 18 foot square with a brick chimney." If they did not, the lots reverted to the trustees, who used the land to attract residents with essential talents, like the printer John Bradford, who received his lot free in exchange for a promise of permanent settlement. From the second story of their house the Parkers could see most of Lexington, including the expectant eighty-foot-wide Main Street, the brick-pillared courthouse, and Cheapside Market, where Eliza's brothers and uncles ran a dry goods business. Even Lexington's slave markets could be seen and heard from Widow Parker's house.

    Of Eliza Parker's early life, little is known. In the will Robert Parker wrote during his long illness he directed that his children "be carefully brought up and well-instructed. Should they appear promising for a professional character I wish them to receive as complete an education as any estate or circumstances will admit." And so his sons did--two became Transylvania-trained doctors of medicine, and one a lawyer--but for his daughters, it was different. While Lexington prided itself on its girls' schooling (the first was held within the stockade), schools for "little misses" usually lasted only a few years. Run by impecunious widows, they taught the rudiments of spelling and reading, avoided the "male" subjects of classics and mathematics, and offered, instead, advanced work in needlework and sewing. Some women--Senator Henry Clay's wife, Lucretia Hart, was one--remained virtually illiterate, even after several years' attendance.

    For a time Eliza and her sister Mary Ann Parker probably attended the Lexington Female Academy, where strict, English-born Mary Beck presided over a curriculum of reading, writing, grammar, epistolary correspondence, and, for an extra fee, "fancy work, knitting, painting and embroidery." Mr. Beck, a poet and landscape artist, doubled as the arithmetic teacher. All this cost parents $150 a year, and a card published in the 1806 Lexington papers suggested that most parents were satisfied. "It has long become a matter of complaint that the plan of education for the female mind has generally not been equal to the rank which females hold in all civilized society. Those who had the pleasure of attending Mrs. Beck's examination must rejoice in beholding a foundation laid for removing in great measure this grand complaint." Certainly the rare examples of Eliza Parker's writing suggest that more attention was given to her penmanship than her spelling. But, then, nowhere was nineteenth-century America the great age of spelling.

    After Mrs. Beck's, Eliza Parker entered that singular phase of female existence expected of daughters of the gentry. She did nothing. Her mother ran the Parker household; six slaves did its labor. From twelve until her marriage at eighteen Eliza turned her attention to what her famous daughter once called the "gay world." Some days she took the Parker carriage (one of only sixty carriages in Lexington) to the country or on shopping expeditions for the French silks and ribbons displayed in the stores along Cheapside. Other days she participated in the developing ritual of calling on or receiving friends. Often she sewed, for even in elegant Lexington there were no ready-made clothes. Occasionally she read, although a strict prejudice separated girls from the titillation of novel reading, and it is doubtful whether Eliza Parker had much taste for the masculine adventure stories available in Lexington's juvenile library.

    Mostly she courted, attending tea parties and cotillions, dancing in the upstairs rooms of Giron's confectionery, watching the performances at Usher's Theater, and gossiping about the doings of Lexington's newly organized Society for Bachelors. Along with her female friends, cousins, and sister she surveyed the Transylvania students. Perhaps it was one of them who composed the sentimental rhyme that appeared in the Kentucky Gazette:

My heart Eliza turns me all to thee,
To thee sweet girl who has my bosom warmed.

Whether written for Eliza Parker or not, she was acknowledged as "a rising beauty," and by the time she was fifteen gossip linked her name to that of two young students at the university: Stephen Austin and Robert Smith Todd.

    In time she would choose and be chosen in that complicated and, for this generation, largely self-willed matrimonial calculus. But for seven years she continued her chaperoned search for the essential vehicle into her future--a husband. Young women of this time and place were taught to worry about being "old maids." Although they had only to look about to see that few Kentucky women remained unmarried (in fact, only 1 in 100 of those who survived to age forty-five, there was always the possibility of an ignominious spinsterhood.

    For the time being Eliza Parker and her friends inhabited a slow-paced world of ease and sociability. Just as young girls were often dressed up at Lexington's public events to represent states of the Union or political parties (anything but themselves), so in a less obvious way they served as the best displays of Kentucky's (and the South's) idealized life of leisure and idleness. As one English traveler observed of these flat years of female adolescence, "Lexington's females, however idle, and however great their difficulties, remain at home, with their parents' 'til removed by the great change that all hope for."

WHILE Eliza Parker marked time until the great event of matrimony altered her existence, Robert Smith Todd, the third of Levi's six sons, was growing up at Ellerslie. Like Eliza, he had lost a parent while a child, but unlike Widow Parker, his father, Levi Todd, found a young replacement within two years. In the custom of the day Robert entered Transylvania at fourteen and was graduated four years later after studying mathematics, geography, rhetoric, logic, natural and moral philosophy, and astronomy, "perfecting himself" in Latin, "making considerable progress" in Greek and history, and conducting himself (as all Todds did not) "in a becoming and praiseworthy manner." Perhaps because he was already courting Eliza, Lexington's social life did not distract him as much as it did some others. Wrote one unhappy law student of the period: "Girls and study are incompatible. They excite one's mind beyond the endurance of tame dry reading. One is forever tempted to marry or attempt their virtue."

    After Transylvania, Robert Smith Todd set out (some said "like a house afire" so that he might marry Eliza Parker) to become a lawyer, and there is more than a little imitation of his father's career in these early years. First he apprenticed in the office of Thomas Bodley, who was clerk of Fayette County and by marriage a relation of the Parkers. From such a position a young man--whose two older brothers had already carried off the first spoils of family favor--might someday expect to become a county clerk himself. Next Robert Todd studied in Frankfort with the famed Kentucky jurist George Bibb, a chief justice of the state appeals court and later a United States senator. Finally on September 28, 1811, after producing written references and a sufficient amount of information to satisfy his examiners, Robert Smith Todd, aged twenty, was admitted to the Kentucky bar.

    He never practiced. Whatever plans Todd had made, the War of 1812 interrupted, and after the war there were too many lawyers even for litigious Fayette County. Actually this overpopulation had always been the case. In 1792, the year that Kentucky became a state, 39 lawyers were admitted to practice in a community of no more than 100 white families. One observer noted that attorneys "collect in Lexington like swarming bees." A few years later a struggling young lawyer complained that "those who follow the bar must hunt buffalo or starve." Robert's brothers, David and Roger Smith, moved to Missouri because there was so little patronage, and by 1822 Robert's name had disappeared from the list of Lexington's lawyers.

    Initially Robert gave up the law for patriotism's sake. Elsewhere in the nation it was possible to ignore or even to oppose the War of 1812, but not in Kentucky. The state was close enough to the frontier to support, with men and money, the war against the British and their ally Tecumseh. With Lexington's own Senator Henry Clay leading the way as head of the prowar party, Kentucky became one of the few states whose congressional delegation unanimously supported the declaration of war. In the revolutionary tradition of statesmen-soldiers who serve in peace and war, six members of Kentucky's Washington delegation were in uniform by the fall of 1812.

    Even within a community of war hawks the Todds and Parkers stood out for their martial spirit. Before war was declared, Robert Smith Todd had been active in the militia company that was later merged into the Lexington light artillery of the 5th Kentucky Regiment, and in the winter of 1811-1812 he asked one of the Parkers to recommend him to Senator Clay for a commission.

    His father would have approved, for military service was a living tradition in a clan that kept as its motto Oportet vivere, which the family translated as its militant credo: "it is necessary to live." The first Todds had fought as Scots Covenanters against England at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in Scotland in 1689. Because they were Presbyterians, they then fled Scotland for Northern Ireland where in the early eighteenth century they resisted the Anglicans in Armagh County. More recently Robert's father, Levi, had served in the American Northwest. The Todds often retold the story of the fall of Kaskaskia and Levi's capture of the Creole commander Rocheblave in 1778. Levi Todd's brother John was a legendary character, ranking with Daniel Boone as a defender of Kentucky. To commemorate his bravery, the Kentucky legislature had bestowed the family surname on a Kentucky county, a fitting testament, in the Todds' estimation, to their family's importance. Indirectly the women of the family participated in this glory, and all the Todds knew about Levi's wife, Jane, who had chosen a Kentucky stockade over Virginia luxury. There, according to family tradition, she ingeniously wove her wedding dress from the weeds and wild flax that were the only textiles available.

    Many Americans of this period had similarly heroic traditions. But with that sense of uniqueness that became a birthright, the Todd family raised historical exaggerations to legend. Once instructed, its members never forgot, and this explained why Robert's older sister Hannah chose Todd as the middle name for three of her sons and why Robert named a son after George Rogers Clark, his father's commander during the Revolution. Even as middle-aged civilians Robert and his brother David sought to correct "a false impression of Uncle John's behavior" at the 1782 debacle of Blue Licks, where a Kentucky militia unit had been ambushed by Indians. Defeat might be an orphan, but as the Todds learned, it continued to have many jurors. "Be assured," wrote a concerned David to his brother Robert sixty-six years after the battle, "it is of importance and should not sleep. Is it not monstrous that we suffer such a violation of fact to become a matter of history?" Necessarily the Todd women served as the audience for the retelling of these adventures. In 1880, when Emilie Todd Helm, Robert's seventh daughter, began her family genealogy, she had no trouble recalling the military exploits of her ancestors, though she had difficulty remembering the first names of her great-aunts.

    In 1812 history, it seemed to Robert Todd and his generation of Kentuckians, could be made again. Like others of this postrevolutionary age, Todd males suffered in the recollection of their fathers' place in history and hoped for their own chance at glory. When Governor Shelby gave the clarion call, "I will meet you in person. I will lead you into battle," the Todds responded. In July 1812, when the 5th Kentucky Regiment marched out of Lexington attired for British minie balls and national immortality in its eye-catching uniform of light blue with red lacings and red cockades stuck in a black "citizen's" hat (the latter modeled after those of the citizens' army of the French Revolution), eight young Todd cousins and four of Levi's sons were among its troops. Robert's brothers John and David were officers, but Robert had failed to receive his commission. With his younger brother Samuel, he signed on as a private.

    Like more soldiers than history ever records, Robert was felled before the battle began. For weeks he lay ill of pneumonia in southern Ohio. When his regiment moved north, he returned home. There he recuperated, and on November 13, 1812, in Widow Parker's drawing room, Robert Smith Todd married Eliza Ann Parker. According to family tradition, the young groom left the next day for the front and participated in the January 1813 fight at Frenchtown, Michigan, and, later in the fall, at the Battle of the Thames near Detroit. Such stories fulfilled family expectations, but they did little to explain the timing of his first child's birth in November 1813.

    No matter what Robert's service record, his brothers' exploits continued the Todd narrative that had begun in the sixteenth century. When Sam Todd was wounded on the battlefield at the river Raisin in Michigan, his older brother John removed the minie ball that had penetrated his shoulder--or so the story went. The operation took too long, and the Shawnees captured both men. John escaped after running an Indian gauntlet, but the still-recovering Sam--by all accounts, the handsomest of the Todds with his black hair, slender six-foot frame, and beautiful black eyes--was captured. Later he faced another trial when the tribe demanded that he wed the chief's daughter. This he barely resisted until his loyal brother (Todd legends always had a place for family fidelity) ransomed him for, in one version, the unprincely sum of twenty dollars and, in another version, the popular Todd commodity of a barrel of whiskey.

    Like patriots everywhere, the Todds had selective recollections of courage. An English commander in the Northwest considered these Kentucky soldiers especially barbarous and accused them of tomahawking, scalping, and then stripping the skins from their Indian victims; the Indians retaliated with similar brutality at the river Raisin. In any case, Kentuckians (and none more than the Todds and Parkers) mixed their love of state and country with an exaggerated prejudice that Alexis de Tocqueville labeled "a refined egotism which bears the name of patriotism."

    The Parkers had their own legends, and some furnished women with wartime roles. In one, Eliza Parker's maternal grandmother had brought food and clothing to her husband, Captain Andrew Porter, during the difficult winter at Valley Forge in 1777. Serving as a canteen and mess mate, she frequently rode out with provisions to the camp, where one day she met an unfamiliar officer who led her to her husband, complimenting her, as they rode through the snow on a bitter cold day, on her devotion to her husband and, through him, the republican cause. The officer was George Washington, who frequently appeared in such tales, and the story, which placed the Todds in touch with the supreme American hero, afforded an example of patriotism for the females of the family to emulate.

    Later Eliza's Grandmother Porter caught the eye of another general. This time it was Henry Knox, who was impressed with her husband's uniform during the campaign of 1777, when other officers were in rags. Porter explained that his wife had taken his uniform, turned it inside out, and by stitching all night produced by morning a clean uniform worthy of a patriot. Such models of female valor became a part of Eliza Parker's life, and their instruction was clear: Through sacrificial service to their husbands, American women contributed to the new Republic. Having grown up with such a tradition, when Robert Todd proposed in 1812, Eliza Parker could do no less than accept a soldier's claims to her affection.

    To be sure, there were other reasons to marry Robert, and though at eighteen Eliza Parker was slightly younger than average for brides of her time and place, her marriage was entirely in keeping with family expectations. Robert Smith Todd was a blood relative well known to her mother, the indomitable Widow Parker. That she and Robert shared a set of great-grandparents and were second cousins was unremarkable in a clan in which one of the groom's sisters had married a first cousin, as had the bride's mother. In some religions and states, including Pennsylvania where Eliza's parents, Elizabeth Porter and Robert Parker, had married, this was a forbidden degree of consanguinity, though it was not in Kentucky.

    Modern society frowns on even such remote incest, but in the early nineteenth century there were compelling reasons for kin to marry. Among the wealthy, family considerations often superseded legal, religious, and even biological prohibitions, though usually they did not override the romantic predilections of the betrothed. For patriarchal families like the Parkers and Todds, consanguinal marriage prevented the dilution of landholdings, assured high stations for sons, and reinforced the link between family and place. And, of course, cousins like Eliza Parker and Robert Todd married because they had only a small pool of approved candidates for the dynastic compact their marriage represented.

    After her daughter Eliza had married Robert Todd in 1812, Widow Parker gave the couple the lower half of her lot. Years later, when Widow Parker's death required the division of her assets, no one knew the precise details of this arrangement, though her grandchildren believed that Eliza and Robert had lived for a time with their grandmother before a new house was finished and that their father had been away with Kentucky's volunteer forces for part of that time. In any case it was 1814 before the couple moved into their own house. The result was a family compound with the imposing Widow Parker attending to her own large household (the 1810 census lists five white males, three white females, and six slaves) as well as that of her married daughter.

    Certainly eighteen-year-old Eliza Parker Todd could use help, for she was uncertain about the domestic tasks that most young brides took for granted. After six months of marriage she acknowledged her difficulties in a letter to her grandfather General Andrew Porter shortly before his death: "I have been very busy for some time past preparing for house-keeping. I had no idea it was attended with so much trouble, it really is almost enough to deter girls from getting married. We intend residing in Lexington, it would never do for me to go far from Mama as I shall stand so much in need of her instruction." Apparently these fretful warnings convinced her younger sister Mary Ann to delay her marriage until she was in her mid-twenties.

    By the time of her daughter Mary's birth in 1818 Eliza had been married six years and had borne three children. Her husband was absent for long periods--a habit that had begun with Todd's military service during the War of 1812 and continued in peacetime with his trips to New Orleans, where he purchased the French brandies, Holland gin, and green coffee he and his partner, Bird Smith, offered for sale to Lexington's carriage trade. Although Robert Smith Todd would have been expected to do little inside the Short Street house, his periodic desertions meant that Eliza had to supervise the traditional male chores--overseeing the carriage, disciplining the slaves, and buying the staples. Sometimes there were economic worries as well. The year Mary Ann was born, business was so bad that Todd made only one trip down the Mississippi to the Louisiana markets. The advertisements for his dry goods store indicated hard times. "Smith and Todd will sell wholesale cheaper than can be imported from the East and by retail a very small profit for cost only." While Todd struggled with a business he eventually gave up as unprofitable, his wife had problems running their expanding household.

    In good and bad times Widow Parker helped by sending her slaves down the hill to help with the incessant domestic tasks of cleaning, cooking, washing, and caring for the babies. No matter what the master of the house's convictions about slavery, and Robert Smith Todd came to oppose the institution in theory, his home always depended on slave labor. Usually there were three slaves on loan from Widow Parker. According to the census, all were female. One was under fourteen and probably watched the babies, the second was in her twenties and did the cleaning and washing, and the third, the cook, Mammy Sally, was older and much more experienced than her mistress in the management of domestic affairs.

    By the 1820s some wealthy Lexington mothers also used slaves for the most confining of female labors--nursing their numerous offspring. Before the development of artificial nursing preparations, human milk was the only sustenance available. In some households it mattered not who delivered it. Indeed, the number of newspaper advertisements for wet nurses as well as the numerous private inquiries for recent slave mothers must have outnumbered those mothers who had no milk or those who died in childbirth. In this as in other matters, wellborn Lexingtonians imitated the French, as they voluntarily surrendered their maternity. In fact, the practice had become a scandal. One shocked Scottish Presbyterian wrote home about the "number of rich Lexington women who relieve themselves from the drudgery of giving suck to their own children by using recent slave mothers."

    Sometimes lonely husbands also encouraged wet nursing. A few were refused by women who believed from folklore (science was as yet silent on the matter) that mother's milk was best. When Joseph Breckinridge insisted that his wife wean the baby and join him for the winter in Frankfort, Eliza Todd's friend Mary Breckinridge demurred. "It is essential," she wrote, "to the preservation of her health through this to keep her at the breast." Eventually this good mother enjoined her husband to get out the trundle bed, for she would come but with her baby.

    Considering the ages of her slaves and the spacing of her children, Eliza Todd may have used a wet nurse. In any case she nursed Mary Ann so rarely as to remain fertile and thus lost her only means of natural contraception. Usually nursing mothers became pregnant as they weaned their children to the cup and started ovulating again. It was this fact of life (not what they were calling at the Transylvania Medical School "morbid catamenial cycles") that accounted for the lockstep, two- to three-year intervals between babies.

    Eliza Todd was pregnant within a few months of Mary Ann's birth and later that year delivered her first son, a notable occurrence in any nineteenth-century family with three daughters, but an especially important event among the Todds. Mary Ann had spent only a short time as the last among many (and this probably not at her mother's breast), and in 1819 she lost any particularity when Levi, named for his paternal grandfather, took the spotlight. Within months Eliza Todd was pregnant again, and in 1820 Robert Parker Todd arrived. This fifth child then died at fourteen months from one of the bacterial infections that made childhood so perilous in the nineteenth century.

    In early Kentucky an infant's death was neither unusual nor unexpected, and few parents raised all their children to maturity. Eliza's friends Henry and Lucretia Clay lost five of their six daughters, and within a single year four of Richard and Margaret Anderson's eight children had died during a cholera outbreak. Although there is no evidence of Eliza and Robert's response to their son's death, such routine departures were nonetheless mourned. But some parents were reluctant to commit unguarded affection to such impermanent objects of love. After it was apparent that his infant daughter would not survive, Dr. Samuel Brown (who later became Mary Todd's stepuncle) explained he "scarcely had the fortitude to indulge my parental affection for my poor dear little Nancy," who shortly thereafter died along with her mother.

    Whatever happened, mothers were expected to find comfort in the church, especially in the doctrine of Christian resurrection. Heaven, according to the preachers at McChord's Presbyterian Church, where the Todds were members, was a better place than earth. At least one bereaved parishioner had learned the lesson and recommended faith in God: "The uncertainties of life are so great and eternity so important that to have our dear ones safe is a consolation so great that the more we dwell on their removal, the better we are able to afford the loss." For four-year-old Mary Ann, such theological consolations were no doubt incomprehensible, and the death of this baby brother became the first of a melancholy progression of family abandonments.

    Within months of her second son's death Eliza Todd was pregnant again. Anxious to honor a convivial and childless sister, her husband named this fourth daughter Ann. Abruptly Mary Ann was forced to surrender her euphonious double name. Henceforth she was simply Mary Todd. She also gave up her place as the youngest daughter to a newcomer she always resented. Years later she wrote with characteristically implacable judgment and incisive turn of phrase, "Poor unfortunate Ann, inasmuch as she possesses such a miserable disposition and so false a tongue."

    Meanwhile, her mother's inexorable fifteen-month cycles of conception, pregnancy, and birth continued. In 1825 a third son was born, Eliza's seventh child in twelve and a half years. Within hours of George Rogers Clark Todd's birth, Eliza was feverish. It was July, and eight residents of Lexington were already dead from cholera and bilious fever. But most likely Eliza was suffering from puerperal sepsis, the postbirth bacterial infection feared by nineteenth-century women as the "childbed fevers."

    Women of Eliza Todd's time knew that childbearing was a risky, painful, and unavoidable business; in fact, it was to kill one out of every eight pregnant women in their generation. These women suffered, in the absence of any therapies, not only the pain of labor but perineal tears, prolapsed uteri, vaginal fistulas, and the lethal childbed fevers. They went unaided by the chloroform and ether that were to help their granddaughters. (When the latter was used on Fanny Longfellow in the 1840s, this Bostonian declared herself "proud to be the pioneer to less suffering for poor weak womankind.") Eliza's friend Mary Breckinridge provided a vivid description of childbirth's trials in an 1823 letter to her husband: "Mrs. Mary Caldwell [of Lexington] was taken ill on Saturday and after suffering all that a woman is capable of enduring had her infant taken from her with instruments. Her shrieks were heard distinctly at the [Transylvania] University for two days without interruption. There was thought no hope for her life after she was delivered, but she is now better."

    Charlotte Mentelle, who later became Mary Todd's teacher, confessed that she was expecting "an event I cannot face alone without fright and even with great assistance I still fear this terrible moment." After the safe delivery of her daughter, Madame Mentelle acknowledged that she had expected to die in childbirth. Some women feared the aftermath as much as the delivery, and today's afterbirth depression appeared in the nineteenth century as "bereavement of mind." Although it was generally accepted that some women would be sick "after an event," it was not expected to last long. One Kentucky grandmother expressed irritation that her "dear son William's wife is still in a deplorable condition since the birth of her child last November."

    Three doctors were called to the Todd house that July 1825: Dr. Elisha Warfield, Robert Todd's friend, who had been professor of surgery and obstetrics for a brief time at Transylvania; Dr. Benjamin Dudley, the newly appointed professor of anatomy and surgery; and Dr. William Richardson, an expert on diseases of women and children, who was admired by his patients as "competent and agreeable." Such attendance by male doctors was unusual, and it was the nearby medical school that guaranteed Eliza this advanced, though ineffective, care. In Lexington, as in few other places in America, childbirth was a shared enterprise between doctors and midwives. But only during a crisis did males venture into the room set aside for the child's birth. While doctors like Richardson and Dudley agreed that "dame nature was the best midwife," they also believed that in cases like Eliza's, "dame nature" could use the help of male physicians.

    Yet the state of their art was too primitive to save their patient. Richardson's work on diseases of the uterus had earned him a national reputation, and while capable of operating on complications during labor, he could not cure the commonplace childbed fever. Holding firmly to the position that "diseases of pregnancy should be treated on the same principles as diseases in other states," he and his colleagues doubtless administered to Eliza heroic doses of calomel--the popular all-purpose chloride of mercury--followed by the classic remedy (also used during labor) of bloodletting and cupping. In a similar case one of Richardson's colleagues explained his therapy: "a dose of calomel, if it hasn't worked, give her 2 of the Black pills every 2 hours. If her fever returns with violence, I wish her to take another puke--[then] you will add a few drops of laudanum to prevent from cramping her." After this, nineteenth-century medicine's all-purpose remedy--blood-letting--was employed. In fact, William Dewees's standard text of midwifery cited one doctor who over a lifetime's practice had drawn 100 barrels of blood from women before, during, and after labor. None of this affected the bacterial infection somehow introduced into Eliza Todd's lacerated birth passage and now festering in her bloodstream, except perhaps to make her feel worse.

    Nor had medicine offered her the means of preventing her pregnancy. No one, including the experts at Transylvania, knew much about the timing of conception, and Professor Richardson, who based his theories on his observations of animal reproduction, mislabeled a woman's most infertile period as that time when in fact she was most likely to conceive. Certainly it did not occur to most couples of this generation--especially not to family-proud Todd and Parkers--to limit their pregnancies by abstinence or coitus interruptus. The only protection for women was to delay marriage, but the belief that younger women had a harder time delivering babies served as scant protection. "Those who marry late / Protect their fate/Those who early wed / Make a widower's bed" went the catchpenny wisdom that Eliza had violated.

    There is no record of Eliza Todd's deathbed, though women of her generation were expected to go to their graves without protest or complaint. Through their biology the second sex had become natural Calvinists, accepting their fate as a God-given selection. The first lesson of male-prescribed true womanhood in Eliza Parker Todd's Kentucky, as elsewhere in the United States, was neither piety nor domesticity. It was acquiescence, for, in the oft-quoted lines:

Woman's lot is on you,
Silent tears to weep,
And patient smiles to wear,
Through suffering hours.

The most admired women displayed Christian resignation and were watched on their deathbeds to see if they went quietly into the night. Those who did earned in their obituaries the supreme accolade that they were "patient, contented, and resigned."

    Eliza Parker Todd died at the age of thirty-one. During twelve and a half years of marriage she had been pregnant five years and had spent, even with the help of a wet nurse, another five nursing. Few Kentucky women would have found such a life burdensome or unusual. Todd and Parker females were notably fecund, although usually longer-lived. Widow Parker outlived her daughter by twenty-five years and died at eighty-two. Both of Eliza Todd's grandmothers had survived into their sixties. Like them, she had centered her adult years on motherhood and home, and this is what she meant when as a young bride she explained to her grandfather that she wanted to be a good household "economist."

    The Lexington papers duly noted the death of Robert Smith Todd's "faithful consort," and in the custom of the day Todd sent printed cards inviting his friends to his wife's burial from "his residence on Short Street this evening at 4 o'clock, July 6, 1825." Those who did not attend would later decline in the same style used to regret a social invitation: "Miss Louisiana Hart returns the compliments to Mr. [Todd] and regrets his polite invitation. She sincerely sympathizes with the family in the sad calamity that befell them and hopes they will be enabled to survive it."

    Later Americans raised to elaborate ceremony what was accomplished simply and quickly in this period of Kentucky history. Customarily funerals began with a few prayers at home delivered by a minister--in this case, the new pastor of the McChord's Presbyterian Church, Reverend John Breckinridge. Then the body was carried to the grave on a bier hoisted by strong-backed males, with family, minister, and mostly male friends walking behind. It was not far from the Todds' to the nearby churchyard cemetery. There, at the grave, the minister gave an address "to the living," who included Eliza's mother, husband, sister, four brothers, and six children--from eleven-year-old Elizabeth to four-day-old George Rogers Clark Todd. Often the ceremonies closed with Isaac Watts's lugubrious hymn:

And must this body die,
This mortal frame decay,
And must this active frame of mine,
Lie mouldering in the clay.

    There is no record of the children's reactions to their mother's death, although today we recognize how difficult a time this must have been for all of them. Still, in the early nineteenth century grief was considered a temporary condition, a natural sickness like the summer ague from which everyone (and some in the briefest of times) recovered. As Presbyterians the older Todds were presumably consoled by the understanding that resurrection in heaven was better than life on earth. Still, Presbyterianism restricted heaven to the righteous, and for years the family had listened to Breckinridge's predecessor, the Reverend McChord, preach threatening instructions on who went where and why. "Yonder," McChord had intoned to his congregation the year Mary Todd was born, "stands the throne glittering like the stars, white as the snow under heaven. Yonder around it plays devouring fire. Arise ye dead and come to judgment." Perhaps the Todds benefited from the traditional instruction of Christian mourning. According to one widower after his wife's death, "Nothing less than affliction can sufficiently teach us the futility of every dependence but that which is upon God."

    But in the slave community--in the huts along Lexington's back alleys and the kitchens and carriage houses where blacks congregated apart from their masters--there were enough afflictions. Here the consolation that Mary Todd heard from Chaney, Nelson, Mammy Sally, and Patty differed from Christianity's starchy resurrection of the elect. Lexington's slaves never believed death so permanent or life on earth so different from hell. For them a comforting interchange took place between the physical and the spiritual world. In Lexington, as elsewhere in the United States, blacks had kept alive their African spiritualism, mixing it with the required Christianity of the white man. In black folk religion the dead returned, sometimes to see their babies, sometimes (this especially the case with wandering souls) wearing their burial clothes, and sometimes under the direction of a conjurer. A mourner had only to walk backward or rub dead moles' feet at daybreak to help a dead mother return, at least for a visit.

    No doubt dependence on God, Christian resignation, and even the spirit world were small comfort for six-and-a-half-year-old Mary Todd, who, given her placement within her family, was neglected after this sudden, painful separation.. Her father probably spent more time sympathizing with his older children, Elizabeth and Frances (who both favored their mother in looks, as Mary and Ann did their father), and arranging for a wet nurse for baby George. Within weeks even the presence of her remaining parent was not available for middle child Mary. Todd was now spending time in Frankfort, and while his grief was not in question, his availability to his children was. Too young to understand either the irreversibility of her mother's death or to accept the divine purposes of God, Mary may have clung to the notion that her mother would return. Children of her age frequently do so. In any case, she was left with a surplus of anxiety and sorrow about Eliza Todd's disappearance. (Continues...)

Excerpted from "Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography" by Jean H. Baker. Copyright © 1989 by Jean H. Baker. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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