The Misunderstood Mary Todd Lincoln

How History Inspired My Mystery—Jonathan F. Putnam takes a look at the often misunderstood Mary Todd Lincoln's early 20s in Springfield, IL where she'd meet Abraham Lincoln. Plus, comment for a chance to win a copy of his new mystery!

In stark contrast to her husband, Mary Todd Lincoln has a bad reputation.

During Lincoln’s presidency, Mary was regularly attacked in the press and reviled as “weak-minded” by Washington politicians. Her clothes, her appearance, and her family were all targeted for ridicule. In the years immediately following Lincoln’s assassination, she was pilloried by her husband’s friends, who were battling over the great man’s legacy. She sought anonymity by fleeing to Europe. Later, her only surviving son had her committed to an asylum as a lunatic after a tawdry public trial; though eccentric and grief-stricken by this time in her tumultuous life, she was certainly not insane.

Even in modern times, Mary’s name carries an unmistakable stigma. In 2014, Siena College and C-SPAN asked a group of historians, politicians, and published authors to rank the nation’s First Ladies in a number of different attributes. Mary was ranked 31st out of 39 First Ladies overall, including in the bottom three for such individual categories as “accomplishments,” “leadership,” and “integrity.” This actually represents a substantial improvement for Mary, who was ranked dead last overall among all first ladies in the similar surveys conducted by Siena in 1982 and 1993, and third from last in the surveys conducted in 2003 and 2008. Tellingly, even in the 2014 survey, Mary ranked last in “public image”—and no other first lady was even close.

My new Lincoln & Speed Mystery, A House Divided (published by Crooked Lane Books on July 9) features Mary Todd as a young woman and illustrates that her historical reputation is entirely undeserved. A House Divided retells the story of the greatest unsolved mystery from Lincoln’s actual law practice, a case in which a man accused his two brothers of murder, even though the corpse of the would-be murdered man was nowhere to be found. Of the real-life legal case that inspired my mystery story, Lincoln later wrote, “It may well be doubted whether a stranger affair ever really occurred.”

Jonathan Putnam, author of A House Divided.

A House Divided also marks the first appearance in my Lincoln & Speed series of a whip-smart and beautiful young woman named Mary Todd. In real life, as in my novel, Mary moved to Springfield, IL in the fall of 1839 at the age of twenty to live with her elder sister, Elizabeth. Mary’s mother had died in childbirth in their native Lexington, KY when Mary was six, and Mary’s relations with her stepmother had grown increasingly strained.

The Mary Todd who arrived in Springfield that fall is a total stranger to her modern-day image. For one thing, she was extremely well-educated, having gone to rigorous “female academies” in Lexington for a total of eight years (and even having thereafter worked as an assistant teacher at one of those schools). As a point of reference, one historian has estimated that, at the time, only a few thousand women in all of America had as much as four years of formal education. Even a generation later, in well-schooled Massachusetts of 1860, only a quarter of teenage girls attended school. Mary, by contrast, studied geography, astronomy, history, was fluent in French, and conversant with the entire canon of Shakespeare, among other academic accomplishments.

She was also—and this was crucial, as Springfield had recently become the state capital—highly political. Following in the footsteps of her father, Robert Todd, president of the Kentucky State Bank, Mary had joined the Whig Party at the age of nine. (The Whigs and the Democrats were the two principal political parties in the country at the time; like his future wife, the young Lincoln was a committed Whig.) When Andrew Jackson came through Lexington during his victorious presidential campaign of 1828, Mary refused on principle to attend a public demonstration in his honor. And four years later, when Lexington’s own Henry Clay challenged Jackson for the presidency, the thirteen-year-old Mary interrupted Clay’s dinner one evening to assure him of her support.

Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that Mary took Springfield by storm when she arrived. She had a great many suitors, including Lincoln, Speed, and Stephen Douglas, later to become Lincoln’s great rival (as in the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858) but at the time a young Democratic lawyer and politician. Douglas even proposed marriage to her; Mary later told a confidante that she had turned him down by saying, “I can’t consent to be your wife. I shall become Mrs. President, or I am a victim of false prophets, but it will not be as Mrs. Douglas.”  Two decades later, Mary’s prophets proved themselves uncannily accurate, as Lincoln defeated Douglas in the presidential election of 1860.

My new novel brings to life the early days in Springfield of this remarkable young woman. We see Lincoln and Speed clash over Mary’s hand even as she helps them uncover essential clues towards solving the murder mystery. As it says on the book jacket for A House Divided, an innocent man’s life may be in the balance, and nothing is as it seems. This last statement is especially true for the heroine. When it comes to the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, still a controversial figure more than 150 years after she left the White House, nothing is as it seems.

About A House Divided:

The new arrival of a woman named Mary Todd wedges a rift between Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, but they must resolve their differences if they stand any chance of cracking one of the most harrowing murder cases they have ever faced.

In the winter of 1839, a sensational disappearance rocks Springfield, Illinois, as headlines announce a local man has accused his two brothers of murder. Not one to pass up an opportunity, Abraham Lincoln takes up the case of the accused with the assistance of his best friend Joshua Speed to search for evidence of innocence.

But just as soon as they begin, Lincoln and Speed find their friendship at grave risk of rupture as they vie for the hand a beautiful new arrival in town: an ambitious, outspoken young woman named Mary Todd. As the trial arrives, can Lincoln and Speed put aside their differences to work together for justice once more? An innocent man’s life may be in the balance—and nothing is as it seems.

Re-imagining one of the greatest unsolved murder mysteries from Abraham Lincoln’s real-life trial cases, A House Divided is the most captivating Lincoln and Speed mystery yet from expert Lincoln scholar Jonathan F. Putnam.

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of A House Divided by Jonathan F. Putnam!

To enter, make sure you’re a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

A House Divided Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at beginning at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time (ET) July 10, 2019. Sweepstakes ends at 8:59 a.m. ET July 24, 2019. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 120 Broadway, New York, NY 10271.

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  1. Daniel M

    sounds interesting

    • Ginny Fitzwater

      Very interested in reading about Mrs. Lincoln.

  2. Sunnymay

    All things Lincoln fascinate me. I didn’t know Mary Todd Lincoln was so highly educated. She must have kept her own in arguments with the lawyer, Lincoln.

  3. Renee Morgan

    I was just talking about her with a friend at work!

  4. renee9605

    This sounds great, I love when real life is interwoven with fiction!

    • Roxana

      Looking forward to reading it!

  5. Noreen G. Brown

    Other than reading about her expensive tastes while in the White House I don’t know anything else.

  6. Harold Moeller

    I’m a big fan of Lincoln books. You can always learn something new.

  7. sue

    Sounds good, would like to read this!

  8. Joye

    Really interesting article. I would like to read more about her now.

    • Karishma S

      This article has intrigued me to know more about Mary Todd. This book is definitely on my wish list

  9. Anne

    Fascinating and intriguing.

  10. Pearl

    Enjoyed the post. The book sounds captivating.

  11. Gordon Bingham

    Looks excellent…

  12. Margot Core

    This must certainly be one of the most intriguing premises for a novel that I have happened upon in a long time. (I always suspected that she was being given a bad rap). Many thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

  13. Cathy Doyle

    Having always wondered what the truth about Mary Todd Lincoln was. the whole idea of this book excites me. Look forward to reading it at some time. Of course, winning would be nice!

  14. becky Shemeley

    Hmmm, this is a new author to me! Must add to my list.


    Sounds like a good read.

  16. verona kruse

    Mary Todd Lincoln was a tragic figure in US history. Believe Abe truly loved her.

  17. Jayne Homsher

    Very interesting Lincoln story and his wife served our country quite well. I have studied Lincoln and he was quite an amazing man and quite brilliant for his time.

    • Jayne Homsher

      Very interesting Lincoln story and his wife served our country quite well. I have studied Lincoln and he was quite an amazing man and quite brilliant for his time.

  18. Marisa Young

    Interesting article. Interesting book. I would love to read it.

  19. Karen Parisot

    Fascinating. Sadly, it seems like strong, intelligent women have been vilified throughout history. I’m sure this would be a highly entertaining read.

  20. Barbara Fish

    I very much want to win this book!

  21. Angie Fendley McAlpin

    Would love to read

  22. Barbara Bibel

    Sounds interesting. As is often the case, the woman is underrated.

  23. Jason Carlson

    Sounds very intriguing, would love to read!

  24. nancy wolfe

    This book sounds wonderful! I have always wanted to know more about Mary Todd before marrying Lincoln.

  25. susan beamon

    Poor Mary Todd Lincoln. Any intelligent accomplished woman like her must be brought down to the level of a washerwoman, lest women start to think they may be humans. I’d like to win a copy of the book for my library.

  26. Alisa

    This sounds really interesting!

  27. Pat Murphy

    Looks like it would be an interesting look at the Lincolns. Need to add to TBR list

  28. Paul gada



    As a life long Illinois resident, I always had a special interest in the Lincoln Family. As a sufferer for much of my adult life with severe recurrent depression, it gave me a special affinity for much of the history of the difficulties both faced.

  30. LuAnn Morgan

    I would love learning more about Mary Todd Lincoln. There hasn’t been a lot printed about her as she stood in her husband’s shadow. This article has led to more of an appreciation of her and I now plan to look into the subject more.

  31. Sue Hooley

    Books about famous women are of extremely interesting to me.

  32. Shirley Evans

    This book looks so interesting. I love books about women in history. Thanks for the chance.

  33. K Honsharuk

    I, too, find Mary Todd to be a fascinating character. And who doesn’t love Honest Abe?! Would very much enjoy reading a fictionalized account of this mystery. Thanks for considering me!

  34. pat murphy

    Looks interesting .

  35. Tiffany

    This looks really good

  36. Patricia Swayne

    Would really love to win this read!!! All the interesting new things you can learn and see from her eyes. Thank you for the opportunity to enter this great giveaway.

  37. Michael Carter

    Sounds good!
    Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.
    Thanks —

  38. martin bodnar

    Thanks for the chance to win a copy…..

  39. John Smith

    Oh, if only she were first lady today….

  40. Daniel Weber


  41. Kathy Robello

    Would love to read!

  42. Jean Barber

    Book sunds fascinating. Mary Todd Lincoln has been much misunderstood.

  43. Susan

    I’ve always wanted to know more about Mrs.Lincoln, this certainly helps. I can’t wait to read the book to review on my blog.

  44. Jeannine

    I would be very interested in reading this, sounds intriguing.

  45. Emma Cazabonne

    wow, sounds like a very unique perspective, I’m very intrigued. Thanks for the giveaway

  46. Cheryl Malandrinos

    This sounds like a fascinating story. Books on Lincoln and the Civil War have a special place in my bookshelves. Mysteries have also been one of my favorite genres since childhood. I look forward to reading this book.

  47. Candy Kennedy

    I love historical al fiction and this sounds like a great read.

  48. Sara Herrin

    Recently read “Courting Mr. Lincoln” by Louis Bayard. I am interested in comparing the two books.

  49. paul klumbach

    this is going to be a best seller quick

  50. Jana

    This mystery sounds fascinating.

  51. Rose Jones

    I’m from Illinois, and always have been interested in the Lincoln family.

  52. Angie Simmonds

    I never realized Mary Todd had the reputation she did. Interesting!

  53. Jamie Rutland Gillespie

    I love to read books that have history in them. Would love to win, read and review this book. Thank you for the chance!

  54. Janet Gould

    Fascinating article. Can’t wait to read the book.

  55. Peter W.

    I want to understand Mary Todd Lincoln! Yes!

  56. Dione Amore

    I’m already hooked! I need to know the details now😁

  57. RD

    Sounds so good! Thanks for this chance.

  58. Michael

    Looking forward to reading this having recently finish Lincoln in the Bardo

  59. Karen Terry

    Sounds very interesting

  60. Shawn A

    This sounds really good. Would love to read it!

  61. Darlene Slocum

    An interesting woman. I would like to read more of her.

  62. Susan Morris

    I love book mysteries based on historical figures. Mary Todd sounds like an intriguing character!

  63. downeaster

    This sounds very interesting

  64. Nicki Somers-Bashor

    Can’t wait to read this!

  65. Beth Lechman

    Sounds like a good one to read. Thanks for the chance.

  66. Lois A Becker

    Looking forward to winning and reading.

  67. Debra Pruss

    I enjoy stories about Abraham Lincoln. It will be nice to learn more about the era.

  68. Sandi Larsen

    I’d like to learn more about Mary Todd Lincoln. She had a rough time.

  69. Sally Schmidt

    Sad that Mary Todd Lincoln was reduced to “she was crazy.” Seems like there was so much more to her. And this sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for the chance to win.

  70. Asa Guice

    this looks great!

  71. theresa norris

    Oh, Mrs. Lincoln, what have you gotten yourself into.

  72. Annemarie Barbato

    This sounds like there is so much more to Mary Todd. I would love to read this. Thank you for the chance.

  73. Kimberly


  74. Diana Petty-Stone

    I have always been fascinated by Mary Todd Lincoln and have read several books about her. Can’t wait to read this one!

  75. Diana Petty-Stone

    I have always been fascinated by Mary Todd Lincoln and have read several books about her. Can’t wait to read this one!

  76. Sue seabolt


  77. Taylor Williams

    I can’t tell if I’m registered or not, since there is no login area – sounds like a great book

  78. Rebecca Joy Mensinga

    I would love to read this book. It sounds interesting

  79. Chrissy B

    Sounds like a fun read!

  80. L

    Nice to see Mary Todd Lincoln portrayed in a positive light. Sounds like this will be a good read!

  81. Dianna Young

    Always interested in anything “Lincoln” related.

  82. Barbara


  83. Ronald Roseborough

    Sounds like an interesting story from the life of Abraham Lincoln and his often misunderstood wife.

  84. Elaine

    I’ve always been amazed that the poor woman could function with the stress of the times and political position. Very interested in this book. Hope I win but it will be on my list to be my next read!

  85. Barbara Lima

    Something I wasn’t aware of.

  86. alpacalover627

    My uncle and I would love this for sure.



  88. lasvegasnv

    looks interesting

  89. Sand Lopez

    Sounds like a great book!

  90. Garry Ragan

    I’ll have to check into this one. Sounds very promising.

  91. Tiffany

    This looks great

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