Posted by Juliana Szucs on December 13, 2013 in Research, Website

MaryIf you’ve been researching for any length of time, you’ve probably run into someone who just wasn’t too concerned about giving a correct age in the records he or she left behind. And yes, it does seem to be the ladies most often. (Jane Kelly Pechin, I am thinking of you.)

Well, now we can say they were in good company. Mary Todd Lincoln was born on 13 December 1818, which for most people would mean that this is her 195th birthday. But when I went to look for her in the census we find that in 1850[1] when she first appears by name, where we would expect that she was 32, she has already dropped a few years and is only 28.

1850 Census Abraham Lincoln

Moving forward ten years (at least for us mere mortals), Mary managed to only age another seven years and gives her age at 35 in the 1860 census.[2]

1860 U.S. Census, Abraham Lincoln

Mary was traveling overseas in 1870 and 1880 so we don’t know how she would have listed her age for those enumerations, but based on these two censuses, we can only guess she would have been 42 and 49, respectively. So the next time an ancestor has you beating your head on the wall, you can take some small comfort in the fact that your ancestor wasn’t the only one who played it fast and loose with the census taker.  So happy 142nd birthday Mary Todd Lincoln!

[1] 1850 U.S. Census, Illinois, Sangamon County, population schedules, Springfield, page 120 [stamped], line 32, Abraham Lincoln household; digital image, ( accessed 13 December 2013); citing NARA microfilm M432, roll 127.

[2] 1860 U.S. Census, Illinois, Sangamon County, population schedules, Springfield, page 140, line 16, Abraham Lincoln household; digital image, ( accessed 13 December 2013); citing NARA microfilm M653, roll 226.

Juliana Szucs

Juliana Szucs has been working for for more than 19 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program.


  1. Adriana

    Hilarious! I am researching a friend’s great-grandmother was of Italian Swiss descent. Not only did she change her father’s birthplace from Switzerland to France, but she changed her first name from Jean to Jeanette (to sound more French?). What’s more, she lied-up her age because she left home as a young teenager and worked as a domestic, and then lied down her age when she reached her 30s.

    This serves as a lesson for all genealogists. Don’t rule out possible matches because dates and nationalities don’t match. Expand your search parameters in case vanity or discretion caused your ancestor to lie – er, bend the truth.

  2. Janice

    Ah, I’ve noticed this sometimes as well. But don’t think that this is exclusive to women! My great-grandfather seems to have subtracted 7 years from his age. I think it was so that he wouldn’t be considered to be too old to join the military! (He gave age as about 43 instead of 50.) I’ll bet lots of young men lied about their age to join the military throughout history – either they were too young or too old and so modified it! I’m just saying!

  3. Linda Swisher

    We’re presuming that Mary provided the info. Maybe Abe was the courteous one, or perhaps the servant or one of the boys made a best guess.

  4. Katherine

    I guess this is the situation behind so many trees where children are born to mothers around the age of 60-80 years old, or the parents were born a hundred or more years after the child was born? Lots of people play loose with their birth dates. (Or maybe the dates got transcribed wrong because the handwriting was difficult to read? I know I’ve seen some interesting situations in ages because of misread numbers. One of my Dad’s military records has him enlisting at the age of 99 and releasing at the age of 102. By that record, he died at the age of 143! He enlisted in 1943 but his birth year was given as 1843 instead of 1923, hence the weirdness.)

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