The Insanity File

The Madness of Mary Todd Lincoln by Jason Emerson
Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007, 258 pp., $29.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Joan D. Hedrick

 Mary Todd Lincoln was a difficult woman whose life was darkened by the deaths of three sons and the assassination of her husband, Abraham Lincoln. In 1875 she was forcibly installed in Bellevue Place, a sanitarium in Chicago, after her oldest son Robert had her legally declared insane. Was she at risk to herself and others, or did her son incarcerate her to avoid the embarrassments of her eccentric behavior and to preserve his inheritance?

 This debate has been shaped by the availability of historical evidence. Robert Lincoln sealed the Lincoln Papers until 21 years after his death, which meant that they were unavailable until 1947. A 1975 discovery in his closet added to these an “insanity file” compiled by Robert on his mother. The scholarship that has ensued from these documents has portrayed Robert Lincoln as a rigid, uncompassionate son, embarrassed by his mother’s lavish tastes, public displays of temper, penchant for political imbroglios, morbid turns, and obsession with having enough money. In an elegantly written life of Mary Todd Lincoln (1987), Jean Baker argues that his was the response of a typical Victorian man to the excesses of an unconventional woman who refused to stay quietly within the bounds of proper womanhood. The corollary is that Mary Todd Lincoln was no more insane than you or I.

 In the process of writing a biography of Robert Lincoln, Jason Emerson had the researcher’s persistence and good luck to find Mary Todd Lincoln letters long thought to have been destroyed—the discovery of which, detailed in chapter ten, is a detective story in its own right. Handed down by Myra Bradwell, the wife of the Lincoln family lawyer Frederic Towers, to her granddaughter, along with the express mission to recoup Mary Todd Lincoln’s reputation, these letters and the manuscript Myra Pritchard wrote based on them were suppressed by Robert Lincoln’s widow, who paid the enormous sum of $22,500 for the right to destroy them. However, Lincoln family lawyer Frederic Towers, who had witnessed other Lincoln family conflagrations of valuable historical material, kept copies. Jason Emerson, discovering the thread of this plot and reasoning “that the story was a legal affair,” made a call to Frederic Towers’s son, who revealed the recent discovery of “an old steamer trunk, labeled ‘F. N. Towers Lincoln Papers.” The Towers family, then in the process of deciding what to do with them, agreed to permit Jason Emerson “to write the story of the letters.”

 Written just before, during, and after her institutionalization, not only do these letters demonstrate Mary Lincoln’s frame of mind at this critical time, they add significantly to the historical record. The Madness of Mary Todd Lincoln employs this new evidence and re-examines the previously existing archive to argue that Robert Lincoln acted responsibly, reluctantly, and with considerable care in making his decision to bring his mother to a public insanity trial, as the laws of Illinois required before a person could be put in a sanitarium. Passed after the infamous 1864 incarceration of Elizabeth Packard on the ground of her spiritualism, this law was meant to protect vulnerable family members against predatory relatives—though it did not protect Mary Lincoln.

 Three months after being installed in Bellevue Place, Mary Lincoln engineered her escape. She smuggled letters to her lawyer and his wife, who was not only her friend but also a feminist lawyer and fellow spiritualist. She also wrote to the editor of the Chicago Times, known for its sensational journalism. Soon, the public embarrassments Robert had hoped to avoid were looming, and his character and motives were in question. The director of Bellevue, who at Mary’s trial had assured the jury she would benefit from treatment at his facility, now in the face of potentially damaging publicity declared her well enough to go to Springfield to live with her sister as she desired. The newspapers announced the marvelous cure of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. Mary Lincoln, who was heard to whisper to her son at the trial, “O Robert, to think that my son would ever have done this!” never forgave him—at least, according to earlier accounts. Emerson claims that mother and son reconciled after Robert was nominated for president and the ever-ambitious Mary fantasized about the composition of his cabinet. (Robert declined to run, but became James Garfield’s secretary of war.)

 All this makes for a very good story, and Emerson’s account is absorbing, concisely told, and grounded in generous use of sources. As a biographer of Robert Lincoln, he makes no secret of his belief that Robert has been unfairly treated by previous scholars. The documents he produces in his defense are mainly ones that have been available previously, though his discovery of Mary’s letters enables us to know for certain that it was Mary herself, not the Bradwells, who initiated her release from Bellevue. Emerson provides clear contexts for her insanity trial, explaining both the law of Illinois and the common view of spiritualism as evidence of insanity. This is relevant, for Mary Todd Lincoln, like many contemporaries who had lost family members to the ravages of childhood diseases or the slaughter of the Civil War, attempted through séances, table-rappings, and spirit photographs to communicate “beyond the veil” with departed loved ones.

 Emerson does not take this to be evidence of insanity, but remarks on Mary Lincoln’s extended periods of mourning after the losses of her four-year-old son Eddie to tuberculosis in 1850 and her twelve-year old son Willie to typhoid fever in 1862. He argues that Abraham Lincoln was her balance wheel and that after his assassination, her morbidity and excesses of temperament were given full sway. He carefully documents long-standing behaviors that suggest her mental instability. These center on money, both the spending of excessive amounts of it and its flip side, exaggerated and unrealistic fears of impoverishment. Both led to political embarrassments such as her lavish decoration of the White House and her attempt to raise money for her widowhood by selling her extensive wardrobe of clothes—according to Democrats, particularly putting the squeeze on politicians whose careers she and her husband had advanced. The newspapers had a field day with what they dubbed “The Old Clothes Scandal.” Clearly a proper Victorian man (as Emerson portrays Robert Lincoln) would have been mortified by this spectacle of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln.

 Emerson argues—and the appendix by psychiatrist James S. Brust concurs—that Mary Lincoln was probably suffering from what is now called bipolar disorder, a diagnosis consistent with her alternating depressions, in which she would isolate herself for extended periods in a darkened room, and spending sprees, in which she would acquire such things as 72 pairs of gloves and lavish gowns she would never wear. (When Mary came to live with her sister Elizabeth, Elizabeth dedicated two rooms to the storage of Mary’s 64 trunks, which weighed upwards of eight tons.)

 While there is ample evidence of what nineteenth-century observers called Mary Lincoln’s “insanity,” it does not follow that she required forcible incarceration. When Mary’s sister learned of her plight, she wrote,

“My heart rebelled at the thought of placing her in an asylum, believing that her sad case merely required the care of a protector, whose companionship, would be pleasant to her. Had I been consulted, I would have remonstrated earnestly against the step taken.”

Emerson describes at some length the impressive credentials of the doctors and family friends Robert did consult, but he omits significant details about them, such as the fact that, according to Jean Baker, David Davis, whom Emerson describes as a “father figure” and trusted friend of Abraham Lincoln, disliked Mary Lincoln and “the whole family of Todds.” He also neglects to mention that the lawyer who represented Mary, who failed to dispute any of the testimony at her insanity trial, was hand-picked by Robert Lincoln’s lawyer. As Jean Baker observes, this is “similar to having plaintiff’s counsel choose the defense lawyer.”

 The only evidence the medical experts and other witnesses produced of Mary’s possible danger to herself stemmed from her fear of fire. Given that she witnessed the Great Fire of 1871, which burned for nearly a week, killed 200 people, and destroyed virtually the whole city of Chicago, this fear seems justified. Although she had never acted erratically or dangerously in response to this fear, “the doctors told Robert that a person with such a delusion might suddenly jump out of a window, believing the building to be in flames” and “that the time had come when her personal safety had to be assured.” Without further elaboration, the six medical experts hand-picked by Robert issued one-page decisions declaring Mary Lincoln insane and fit to be consigned to an asylum.

 The most admirable characteristic of Emerson’s book is that he argues close to the primary sources and includes all of the newly discovered material in appendices. This allows the reader considerable room for interpretations he does not care to make. For example, he quotes Robert Lincoln on Myra Bradwell, who assisted Mary in her successful bid for freedom:

“What trouble Mrs. Bradwell may give me with her interference I cannot foretell. I understand she is a high priestess in a gang of Spiritualists and from what I have heard it is to their interest that my mother should be at liberty to control herself and her property.”

Thus we learn only in passing that Robert feared the spiritualists were going to tap into his inheritance. Surely this merits more than oblique consideration as a motive for the very painful, public trial of his mother, especially since the immediate catalyst for his decision to have her arrested and threatened with handcuffs was the information that she was being visited “by suspicious people.” Because of the long history of strong, economically independent women being declared witches or insane or otherwise rendered unable to control their property, it is particularly incumbent upon scholars to carefully consider all the evidence. Jason Emerson has provided a sympathetic, balanced account of both Mary Lincoln and her son and has made accessible his cache of new sources. But he hasn’t settled the case. 


Joan D. Hedrick is Charles A. Dana Professor of History at Trinity College (Hartford) and author of the Pulitzer-prize winning Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life.

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