The Almost-Brides of Abraham

“[E]ach & every one has had, a little romance in  their early days,” Mary Lincoln wrote to family friend David Davis on March 4, 1867, “but as my husband was truth itself, and as he always assured me, he had cared for no one but myself.” But Lincoln did have his own romances before his marriage–and he admitted to proposing to one lady. Here are three women who just might have become Mrs. Lincoln:

Ann Rutledge

In an 1862 issue of the county newspaper The Menard Axis, John Hill wrote that while living in New Salem, Illinois, Lincoln:

chanced to meet with a lady, who to him seemed lovely, angelic, and the height of perfection. Forgetful of all things else, he could think or dream of naught but her. This to him was perfect happiness and with uneasy anxiety he awaited the arrival of the day when the twain would be made one flesh—But that day was doomed never to arrive. Disease came upon this lovely beauty, and she sickened and died. The youth had wrapped his heart with her’s, and this was more than he could bear…He was changed and sad. His friends detected strange conduct and a flighty imagination. They placed him under guard for fear of his committing suicide. New circumstances changed his thoughts, and at last he partially forgot that which had for a time consumed his mind.

After Lincoln’s death, his former law partner William Herndon, collecting materials for a biography,  interviewed New Salem residents and others and identified the lady in question as Ann Rutledge, who was engaged to merchant John McNamar but during his extended absence fell in love with Lincoln and ended up getting engaged to him as well. As Herndon told it, distressed by her double engagement, Ann began to suffer from declining health, followed by a fever and her death in August 1835.  Lincoln’s heart, Herndon proclaimed in his November 16, 1866, lecture on the subject, “sad and broken, was buried” with Ann.

Grave of Ann Rutledge (courtesy of Library of Congress)
Grave of Ann Rutledge (courtesy of Library of Congress)

Needless to say, this tragic story caught the imagination of many, including poet Edgar Lee Masters, who immortalized the love affair in verse. This in turn produced a backlash among historians, who for a while consigned the story to the stuff of legend, dismissing it as the product of Herndon’s suggestive interviewing and his disdain for Mary Lincoln, who was incensed by the claim that Lincoln had left his heart in poor Ann’s grave. But in recent years, historians have been more inclined to accept the story (minus its most florid embellishments), which as Douglas Wilson has pointed out is as well attested as certain other incidents from Lincoln’s New Salem days. It is certainly not implausible that Lincoln should have fallen for Ann, described by John McNamar as “winsome and comely . . . with golden hair, cherry red lips, & a bonny blue eye,” or that the lonely Ann should have found solace in the  personable Lincoln.

Mary Owens

One of those who corresponded with Herndon was Elizabeth Abell, who recalled Lincoln as remarking during a rainstorm that he could not bear the idea of its raining on Ann’s grave; she added that while Ann’s death did not make him “crazy,” he was “very desponding a long time.” But Lincoln did prove consolable, and it was with Elizabeth Abell’s sister that he found his next romance.

Like the other Mary in Lincoln’s life, Mary Owens was a Kentuckian visiting her sister when she became acquainted with Lincoln.  The match between Mary and Lincoln was promoted by Elizabeth Abell, despite a certain lack of enthusiasm on the part of the principals.  Mary complained to her sister that “Mr. Lincoln was deficient in those little links which make up the great chain of woman’s happiness.”  Once, she noted, he did not think to help a woman carry her heavy child, and during a riding excursion, he did not linger to make certain that Mary got safely over a branch; when Mary confronted him with his lack of consideration, he told Mary “he knew [she] was plenty smart to take care of [her]self.” Lincoln, in turn, while he thought Mary “intelligent and agreeable, and saw no good objection to plodding life through hand in hand with her,” was dismayed to find  that she had changed since their last meeting. In a 1838 letter to a married friend, Eliza Browning, he wrote, “[A]lthough I had seen her before, she did not look as my imagination had pictured her–I knew she was over-size, but she now appeared a fair match for Falstaff.” He had promised Mary’s sister that he would court the lady, however, and court her he did. Having been elected to the legislature, he wrote to her from Vandalia and later from Springfield. Three letters survive, none a model of romantic passion.  From Springfield, he wrote on May 7, 1837, to inform Mary that she was likely to be unhappy if she joined him there. “There is a great deal of flourishing about in carriages here, which it would be your doom to see without sharing in it. You would have to be poor without the means of hiding your poverty. Do you think you could bear that patiently?”

Mary Owens (courtesy of Library of Congress)
Mary Owens (courtesy of Library of Congress)

At last, as Lincoln reported to Eliza Browning in 1838,

As the lawyers say, it was done in the manner following, towit. After I had delayed the matter as long as I thought I could in honor do, which by the way had brought me round into the last fall, I concluded I might as well bring it to a consumation without further delay; and so I mustered my resolution, and made the proposal to her direct; but, shocking to relate, she answered, No. At first I supposed she did it through an affectation of modesty, which I thought but ill-become her, under the peculiar circumstances of her case; but on my renewal of the charge, I found she repeled it with greater firmness than before. I tried it again and again, but with the same success, or rather with the same want of success. I finally was forced to give it up, at which I verry unexpectedly found myself mortified almost beyond endurance. I was mortified, it seemed to me, in a hundred different ways. My vanity was deeply wounded by the reflection, that I had so long been too stupid to discover her intentions, and at the same time never doubting that I understood them perfectly; and also, that she whom I had taught myself to believe no body else would have, had actually rejected me with all my fancied greatness; and to cap the whole, I then, for the first time, began to suspect that I was really a little in love with her. But let it all go. I’ll try and out live it. Others have been made fools of by the girls; but this can never be with truth said of me. I most emphatically, in this instance, made a fool of myself. I have now come to the conclusion never again to think of marrying; and for this reason; I can never be satisfied with any one who would be block-head enough to have me.

Mary Owens did not pine for Lincoln, but married Jesse Vineyard in 1839. Two of her sons fought in the Confederate army, but Mary is said to have told a friend that she would have gone to Lincoln for relief had her sons got into trouble. She died on July 4, 1877.

Sarah Rickard

When Lincoln moved to Springfield, he lodged with Joshua Speed, but took his meals in the home of William and Elizabeth Butler.  The latter had a–you guessed it!–younger sister staying with her, Sarah Rickard.

Sarah was a mere child when Lincoln began boarding with her family–later,  she recalled, Lincoln  used to say that Sarah was “a little girl wearing these pantalets” when they met.  As she grew up, she said, Lincoln would take her to entertainments, such as “The Babes in the Woods,” and became even more attentive when Sarah turned sixteen.

According to Sarah, in the winter of 1840/41–the time when he had broken off with Mary Todd–Lincoln proposed to Sarah, quoting from the Bible and informing her that “Sarah will become Abraham’s wife.” Sarah refused, telling Herndon in 1888 that she had not thought much about matrimony at the age of sixteen and as a young girl just entering society was unimpressed by Lincoln’s “peculiar manner and his general deportment.”  Moreover,  she saw Lincoln almost as an older brother.

Sarah Rickard (courtesy of Library of Congress)
Sarah Rickard (courtesy of Library of Congress)

Did Lincoln actually propose to Sarah?  Some have argued that Lincoln’s remark about Abraham marrying Sarah was not a proposal, but a joke that landed with a thud. Still, John Lightfoot, writing to Herndon in 1887, reported the rumor that Abraham and Sarah had courted but that she had “flung him high & dry.” Much later in life, Sarah told a newspaper that Lincoln had not explicitly proposed, but had come “mighty nigh” to doing so.  On one occasion, she said, Lincoln became “very serious” and told her, “Now, Sarah, you know your Bible well enough  to know that Sarah was Abraham’s wife.”  Sarah said that she knew what was coming and left the room, but added, “If I’d known that he would have been President I would have paid more attention to him.”  Instead, Sarah married Richard Barret; she died on October 25, 1911.


Abraham Lincoln to Mrs. Orville H. Browning , April 1, 1838, in Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols., New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1: 117-119,

Gerald McMurtry, Appendix to Lincoln’s Other Mary: The Courtship of Mary Owens by Olive Carruthers. (Note: Carruthers’ book is fiction, but McMurtry’s appendix is factual.)

“She Might Have Married Lincoln.”  Kansas City Star,  Sunday, February 10, 1907.

John Y. Simon, “Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, vol. 11,  issue 1, 1990.

Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, eds., Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters.

John Evangelist Walsh, The Shadows Rise: Abraham Lincoln and the Ann Rutledge Legend.

Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln before Washington: New Perspectives on the Illinois Years.

Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, eds., Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln.

1 thought on “The Almost-Brides of Abraham”

  1. Wow, this is all such funny, fascinating stuff. These women…so close to fame and renown…And Abe…not much of a catch? Thanks! And Merry Christmas! May 2017 be a good year for writing! I have a new book coming out in April…not historical. We’ll see what happens!

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