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Mary Todd Lincoln's extravagances on display at Lincoln Presidential Museum

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[August 28, 2012]  SPRINGFIELD -- 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, is on display 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 of her excessive spending habits, among other things.

A podcast detailing her jewelry items in the exhibit may be accessed at
A podcast about the deathbed painting that is also part of the exhibit may be accessed at

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The presidential museum exhibit is the latest in a series of events this year surrounding the life of America's most controversial first lady. Events earlier this year were a mental health round-table discussion April 16 at the Illinois State Capitol and a curriculum development session June 18-20 that helped put new materials in the state's middle and high school classrooms. Other events will present retrials of Mary Todd Lincoln on insanity charges Sept. 24 in Chicago and Oct. 1 in Springfield, using modern legal standards and judges; and "Culture of Clothing" programs Nov. 12 in Chicago and Nov. 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 collaborated on the curriculum development.

[Text from Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum file received from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency]

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