Sadly, he was a battered husband. There just isn’t any other way to describe it. Mary was highly abusive toward her husband, both emotionally and physically.
It wasn’t always that way. A family friend said that in the years before marriage, Mary was “rather pleasant, polite, civil… intelligent, [and] witty.” Something changed after the marriage vows, however. That same friend said, “After she got married she became soured — got gross — became material — avaricious — insolent — mean — insulting — imperious, and a she-wolf.” He went so far as to say that she made her husband’s life “a burning, scorching hell,” as “terrible as death and as gloomy as the grave.”
It speaks volumes about her husband’s character that he never stopped loving her. Even as the abuse grew worse, he remained faithful to his vows to love and honor her and to keep himself only onto her for as long as they both should live. That doesn’t mean that he always received the abuse without complaint. When the children were young, he would frequently pick them up and take them on long walks, not returning home until Mary calmed down.
It was Mary’s temper that was the problem. Her half-sister, Emilie, said that Mary “had an ungovernable temper.” More than one family acquaintance wondered aloud whether the problem was Mary’s temper or a touch of insanity.
Efforts at hiding the marital problems failed. Neighbors reported hearing Mary yelling at her husband and screaming as if in hysterics. As if this weren’t bad enough, her temper also turned physical. At one event shortly after their wedding, the guests were seated around the table to eat, but Mary was running late. When she arrived, her husband gently chided her for making everyone wait. At this, Mary took a cup of hot coffee and threw it at him before running hysterically from the room. The humiliated husband remained, seated in silence, while another guest helped clean up the mess.
Mary’s temper could flare up without warning. There was the day when she asked her husband to add some wood to the dwindling fire in the parlor. When he did not respond in a timely fashion, she grabbed a piece of wood and declared, “I have told you now three times to mend the fire and you have pretended that you did not hear me. I’ll make you hear me this time.” She then attacked him with the piece of wood. The next day he appeared at work with a bandaged nose.
It was in his work that Mary’s husband found some solace from the abuse at home. He was known to stay at the office for three days at a time, subsisting off of crackers and cheese that he kept on hand for those occasions when it wasn’t safe to go home. On many of those occasions, his children stayed at the office, as well, as their father attempted to shield them from the unpleasantness at home.
Don’t think that it is an exaggeration to speak of the danger of returning home. The neighbors could attest to that fact. One day about ten years into their marriage, neighbors watched in stunned silence as Mary chased her husband out of the house and through the yard, wielding a knife in her hand. Ashamed by bringing their unhappiness into public view, he managed to grab hold of Mary and guide her back indoors, saying, “Now, stay in the house and don’t disgrace us before the eyes of the world.”
On other occasions, neighbors saw the sad spectacle of the husband fleeing the house as his wife vented her anger by throwing potatoes, books, and other household articles at him.
Sometimes he would leave town to avoid his wife’s abuse. Neighbor Anna Eastman Johnson recalled seeing the husband leave the house one night, carrying an empty travel bag. He sheepishly approached Anna’s father and said, “Mary is having one of her spells, and I think I had better leave her for a few days. I didn’t want to bother her, and I thought as you and I are about the same size, you might be kind enough to let me take one of your clean shirts. I have found that when she gets one of these nervous spells, it is better for me to go away for a day or two.”
His friends were sympathetic and offered to help as best as they could. The local postmaster, Abner Ellis, remembered chatting with the poor man one day when the husband sighed, “Well I hate to go home.” Ellis knew the reasons for the reluctance to return home and offered to let his friend stay at his house for a few days.
Remarkably, through all of this, the husband continued to work hard and developed a successful career. His final promotion, unfortunately, took him to a place where he couldn’t escape his troubled home by going to the office. In his new job, his office and his home were in the same place.
Those final years brought the biggest challenges of his life, and Mary continued to trouble him. One of the husband’s best friends lamented the situation, saying that his friend “is domestically a desolate man and has been for years” because of his marriage to “a very curious, eccentric, wicked woman.” Another friend said that Mary was “a hellion — a she devil” who “vexed and harrowed the soul out of that good man.”
History does not typically remember this man as a battered husband, but society has never done a very good job of calling out spousal abuse for what it is. Instead of remembering this husband as a man who was enslaved to traumatic domestic abuse, we recall a towering giant of a man who emancipated millions from slavery and preserved a nation: Abraham Lincoln.