In her hometown, Lexington, Ky., Mary Todd Lincoln is regarded as an intelligent, genteel woman who led a difficult life alongside the 16th President of the Union. While many think she was a bit of a shrew who houndered her husband, perhaps the home town view will be vindicated with the discovery of a cache of Lincoln family papers at Robert Todd Lincoln's home in Vermont.

Paul Beaver, historian at the Lincoln College Museum in Lincoln, Ill., says that one of the first discoveries from these papers is that Mary Todd's father did have faith in th e political future of his son-in-law and did not regard him as a country bumpkin.

Mary was born Dec. 13, 1818, to Robert S. Todd, landholder, importer, bank president, and politician. Her mother, Eliza Ann Parker, died when she was 6, and two years later her father married a woman the girl was never close to and began a second family. He moved his brood away from Mary Todd's maternal grandmother to 578 Main Street, which is now the Mary Todd Lincoln House.

If her girlhood was not especially happy, it was social. On a visit to a sister in Springfield, Ill., she met the eligible lawyer Abraham Lincoln, nine years her senior, became engaged to him, broke it off, but eventually married him, Lincoln was often away from home riding the court circuit and becoming engrossed in politics, as her father had been, and while living in Springfield their son Edward died.

Whatever she was like in Illinois, as First Lady in Washington she had one foible, documented by hundreds of retail receipts -- she would go to downtown stores and buy countless pairs of white gloves. By the time her husband was killed, she had one friend in the capital, a mulatto seamstress. She had also incurred the dislike of Lincoln's law partner William Herndon, who later become Lincoln's biographer. Scholars suspect that he overdramatized the 16th President's friendly feelings for Ann Ruthledge, the fiancee of his business partner, and began a sentimental legend simply to hurt Mary Todd Lincoln.

Whatever his romantic deficiencies, Lincoln did marry Mary Todd, and the house at 578 Main Street in Lexington is the mansion that's open to the public. In 1977, the citizens of the commonwealth combined to take over the Lincoln mansion when it was behind used as a warehouse and restored it to Georgian splendor. Seven Federated Women's Clubs, schoolchildren and private citizens who donated furnishings, and the Kentucky Mansion Preservations Foundation spent a decade and their own money on the project.

When Robert Todd lived there with his brood of 14 children, the brick house had 20 rooms and sat on 32 acres. There was a formal garden and a stream in the back, a coach house, stables, and a staff of slaves.

While the furniture is not original to the house, the mood of the day was re-created with the help of a sale inventory dating from the time of Robert Todd's death and early records serving as guides. Inside the house, one is transported to the Victorian era. One of the twin parlors contains a Brussels carpet in floral pattern, a Meissen lamp, books, and portraits of Mary Tood and her father. In the sitting rooms with its silver tea set and ivorycolored upholstery stands a cherry secretary made in Kentucky in the early 1800s. The one note that was authentically the Todds was the red damask draperies in the rooms, which were reproduced from a swatch saved by one of Mary Todd's half sisters.

The dining room down the hallway features coin silver and china dating from about 1790 which was obtained from the estate of Henrietta Clay, great-granddaughter of the famous orator.

In back, the porch opens onto a 19th-century kitchen and breakfast room, with Canton china of the same pattern as that found under the house during restoration. This motif is repeated in the oilcloth carpet -- a precursor of linoleum -- on the floor.

The staircase, much simpler than that in most mansions because it dates from the house's innkeeping days, leads to a second floor and Mary Todd's bedroom and her original desk. The French brass-and-iron bed, along the lines of one mentioned in the sale inventory, is on the size Lincoln would have slept in. The white and yellow needlepoint rug in the goldenrod pattern was made by 80 people who bought squares and thread, did the work, and returned them to the joined together.

Also on this floor is the guest room where the Lincolns slept when they visited, the master bedroom with early Kentucky furniture, and a nursery and playroom.

The third story contains interesting artifacts such as Mary Tood Lincoln's memorabilia -- her Meissen collection, chocolate pot, and inkwell of crystal and silver -- and Robert E. Lee's order to surrender to Union forces and a hand-written letter on ruled paper by Abraham Lincoln which he headed "Executive Mansion." Addressed to Major Ramsey, it reads:

"The lady-bearer of this letter has two sons who want to work -- Set them at it, if possible -- Wanting to work is so rare an event that it should be encouraged.

"Yours truly,

"A. Lincoln"

Somehow that makes the past seem terribly contemporary.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.