The Sister Who Dated Lincoln First: Frances Todd Wallace

In the 1830s, Miss Frances Todd, living with her married sister Elizabeth Edwards in Springfield, Illinois, went out once or twice with one of the town’s up-and-coming lawyers, but found him to be insufficiently social, so the relationship, if it ever amounted to that, fizzled out. Fortunately, Frances’s younger sister, Mary, was more impressed with the lawyer, Abraham Lincoln.

The second daughter of Robert Todd and Eliza Parker, Frances was born on Short Street in Lexington, Kentucky, on March 7, 1817. Little is known of her as a child, although a cousin, Elizabeth L. Norris, remembered that she preferred Mary’s company to Frances’s because Frances “was taciturn, and seemed cold & reserved.”

(Silver spoon belonging to Frances held by the Illinois State Museum. I have not found a verifiable image of Frances.)

In 1825, Eliza died after giving birth to her sixth child to survive infancy, George. Robert Todd remarried in 1826. Mary had a famously fraught relationship with her stepmother, Elizabeth Humphreys, but Frances’s feelings on the matter are unknown.

The oldest of the Todd girls, Elizabeth, married Ninian Edwards, a student at Lexington’s Transylvania College, in 1832. Not long afterward, his father died, and the not-quite-newlyweds moved to Springfield, to which Elizabeth, one by one, invited her unmarried sisters. As the second sister, Frances was first in line to visit the fine Edwards mansion perched on Springfield’s so-called Aristocracy Hill. It was there that Frances,  hearing her brother-in-law talk of a Mr. Lincoln, asked Ninian to invite him over. Ninian obliged, but Frances, as she would recall decades later, was not smitten.  Mr. Lincoln “was not much for society.” Frances found a more congenial companion in the form of a physician/druggist, Dr. William S. Wallace, a transplant from Pennsylvania whom she married on May 21, 1839. Born August 10, 1802, he was considerably her senior. Elizabeth hosted the wedding–“quite an affair” in Frances’s words. Frances recalled wearing a white satin gown, which she later lent to Mary for a time. The Reverend Charles Dresser conducted the Episcopalian service.

(The Ninian Edwards house. Illinois Digital Library.)

After her grand wedding, Frances moved with her new husband to Springfield’s Globe Tavern. Soon afterward, Mary took her place in the house on Aristocracy Hill, and when Mary married Lincoln in November 1842, the Lincolns would move into the Wallaces’ former lodgings at the tavern. Unlike Frances, the Lincolns insisted on a small, private wedding with little notice, and Elizabeth and Frances had to scramble to get a respectable feast ready. Frances contributed a ham and made the wedding cake.

The Lincolns and the Wallaces were close. Abraham and Mary’s third son, William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln, was named for Frances’s husband, and Frances in turn named her eldest surviving daughter Mary. Lincoln enjoyed stopping by William’s drugstore and swapping stories, and Frances told William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner turned biographer, that Lincoln was fond of the Wallaces’ daughter Mary. Frances often stopped by the Lincolns’ house, where Lincoln would read “funny things” as well as selections from Shakespeare. Distressed at the Lincolns’ barren front yard at their home at Eighth and Jackson Street, Frances planted flowers there.

After Mary’s wedding, a fourth Todd sister, Ann, arrived in Springfield as a guest of Elizabeth Edwards. She married a merchant, Clark Smith.

By 1858, Frances and William had five children: Mary, William, Fanny, Edward, and Charles.

After Lincoln was elected President, a “levee” was held at the Lincoln home on February 5, 1861. Mary played the hostess, with the help of four of  her sisters: Elizabeth, Frances, Ann, and a half sister from Kentucky, Kitty Todd. A correspondent wrote, “I thought, when looking  upon the lovely group of the Todd family, how proud old Kentucky would have felt if she could have been present to witness the position in which her son and daughters were placed.”

Dr. Wallace accompanied the incoming President on his railroad journey to Washington, but Frances appears to have stayed home. Mary later used her influence to get Dr. Wallace an appointment as a paymaster, a kindness that caused the first known friction between the sisters when Frances, in Mary’s view, proved insufficiently grateful. Writing to her cousin Elizabeth Todd Grimsley on September 29, 1861, Mary grumbled, “Notwithstanding Dr. W– has received his portion, in life, from the Administration, yet Frances always remains quiet. E[lizabeth Edwards] in her letter said—Frances often spoke of Mr. L.’s kindness—in giving him his place. She little knows, what a hard battle, I had for it—and how near, he came getting nothing.” Nonetheless, after Willie Lincoln died in March 1862, Mary was eager to have her namesake, Frances’s daughter, come to Washington to stay with her. Elizabeth Edwards, who had been summoned to Washington after Willie’s death, urged Frances to allow her daughter to come, assuring her that Mary would treat her niece well and that due to the hot Washington summers and Mary’s seclusion, it would not be necessary to assemble a special wardrobe for the visit. Mary Wallace must have accepted the invitation, or a later one, as her obituary described her as having spent time with the First Lady at the White House.

William F. Wallace, Frances’s oldest son, enlisted in the Union army in February 1864, serving in Company I of the Seventh Illinois Infantry. Unlike his uncle Abraham, he survived the war. On November 15, 1865, Mary Wallace wed John P. Baker, whose brother, Edward Baker, had married Elizabeth Edwards’ daughter Julia.

Dr. Wallace died on May 27, 1867. Two more losses followed: Frances’s son Charles died of “brain fever” in 1874, at age 15, and Fanny died of the same malady at age 32 in 1881.

Her husband’s death seems to have left Frances in rather straitened circumstances, about which she was sensitive. When Mary Lincoln, having been released from her short stay at a private asylum, returned to Springfield to live with Elizabeth Edwards, the latter wrote to Robert Lincoln on December 1, 1875,  that Mary had bought a shawl and dress to give to Frances as  a Christmas gift. Elizabeth informed Robert, “I told her, she would find it difficult to have them accepted, and it proved so. You understand the proud nature of that Aunt.” She added that it was “only in the seasons of her darkest sorrow” that she and Ann had been able to offer substantial financial help to Frances. In 1876, however, Mary succeeded in getting Frances to accept $600 for new carpets for her home.

On August 2, 1876, Mary wrote to Myra Bradwell, a lawyer who had been instrumental in securing her release from the asylum, that she and Frances would be leaving for San Francisco the next day. Whether Mary and Frances actually made this trip is unclear, but by October 1876, Mary was in Europe, where she remained several years before  returning to Springfield.  While abroad, she continued her generosity to Frances, taking considerable trouble in 1877 to make certain that a trunk full of woolen goods from France was sent safely to her needy sister. Frances finally received the trunk in March 1878.

In 1882, Mary Lincoln died in Springfield, leaving three sisters there: Elizabeth, Ann, and the widowed Frances. The latter, Elizabeth noted in an undated letter to her half-sister Emily Todd Helm, lived in a “cozy cottage,” presumably her house  on 1013 South Second Street, to which she had moved after her husband’s death.

Following Elizabeth’s death in 1888 and Ann’s in 1891, Frances was the last of Mary’s full sisters still alive. On August 14, 1899, Frances followed them to the grave. Like her sisters, she was buried in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery. Her  obituary described her in glowing terms: “The precept that it is more blessed to give than to receive was exemplified in her daily life. Her quiet home was a central place for the entire neighborhood, and young and old alike loved to seek her society. The delight she felt in the companionship of her neighbors was reciprocated to the fullest degree.”

Selected Sources:

Stephen Berry, House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, a Family Divided by War

Jason Emerson, Mary Lincoln’s Insanity Case: A Documentary History

Katherine Helm, Mary: Wife of Lincoln

Eugenia Jones Hunt, My Personal Recollections of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln

Wayne C. Temple, Mrs. Frances Jane (Todd) Wallace Describes Lincoln’s Wedding

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

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

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