Mme. Mentelle’s School


Financial difficulties and mental instability characterized the later years of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, and are what we most remember about her. But it is her formative qualities that prove most instructive. Her intelligence, independence, and worldliness were precisely the qualities that attracted her future spouse, Abraham Lincoln, and helped to make their partnership so complementary.


Early on, Robert Smith Todd of Lexington recognized the precocious intelligence of his daughter Mary, and he furnished her a superior education that was extremely rare for women of her day. At a time when most young women of her social class ended their formal education after four or five years, Mary’s lasted nine years. The first five she spent at Shelby Female Academy, followed by four more at a boarding school run by Augustas Waldemare Mentelle and his wife, Charlotte Victorie Leclere Mentelle, both natives of Paris and émigrés who had fled the revolution in France in 1792. By the late 1790s, the Mentelles had made their way to Lexington, where in 1805 they opened their “very academic and very French” school on five acres neighboring Henry Clay’s Ashland estate, donated to them by Mary’s great aunt Mary Todd Russell Wickcliffe.


Through Mme. Mentelle’s rigorous academic training, Mary excelled “in every branch of good education.” Moreover, Mentelle became for Mary a living example of female intelligence and independence. A vivid, excitable storyteller who deplored “girlish frivolities,” Mentelle played the fiddle and was known to take vigorous walks, reading and talking to herself along the way. If Lexingtonians viewed the Mentelles as eccentrics, Mary found in their example an antidote to the sedentary life imposed upon her female relatives and peers. Living with the Mentelles, Mary gained a lifelong fluency in French, a love of reading and learning, and knowledge of the world that fueled her desire to flee Lexington.


The only known image of Charlotte Victorie Leclere Mentelle is this porcelain miniature.

Mary Todd Lincoln House, Lexington, KY