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Tom Chaney: Mary Lincoln's Insanity

Of Writers and their Books, Mary Lincoln's Insanity is a review of Jason Emerson's The Madness of Mary Lincoln. This column first appeared 20 January 2008
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: A Trace of Awe

By Tom Chaney

Mary Lincoln's Insanity

On the afternoon of May 19, 1875, ten years and a bit after Abraham Lincoln was murdered by John Wilkes Booth, Mary Todd Lincoln was declared insane. The declaration came as a result of a Chicago jury trial lasting some three hours. The jury returned its verdict in ten minutes. She was committed to Dr. R. J. Patterson's privately run Bellevue Place Sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois, where she remained until October.

Her oldest son Robert reluctantly brought the court action upon the advice of six physicians, and with the concurrence of his mother's relatives.

The sanity of Mary Todd Lincoln was debated during her time in the White House as first lady, continuing through the assassination of her husband, the death of three sons, and her eventual commitment. The debate continues into the current century.

In a 1987 review of Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography by Jean H. Baker, the New York Times pretty well summed up the state of the issue. Baker portrayed Mrs. Lincoln "as a woman tortured by a series of family bereavements and thwarted from developing her natural talents by a patriarchal society that branded as 'unwomanly' her involvement in her husband's political career."

Baker essentially argues for a societal frustration which Mary Todd endured along with other 19th century women, albeit to a greater degree.

The Times concludes that Baker's good use of "sophisticated feminist historical and sociological scholarship" does not make up for her failure to solidify these virtues into a comprehensive psychological analysis. This failure arises from a lack of specific data on Mrs. Lincoln's commitment.

Robert Lincoln has also come in for his share of criticism. Jason Emerson, author of The Madness of Mary Lincoln [Southern Illinois University Press, 2007] sums up the imputed motives of Robert: "It has been suggested that the motivations of Robert Lincoln, David Davis, and Leonard Swett were injudicious at best; cruel, calculated, and ignominious at worst; that Robert sought his mother's commitment in order to steal her money and possessions -- or at least to prevent her from giving away or selling her money and possessions and thereby preserve his future inheritance -- and that all three men were so embarrassed by her behavior that they wanted to get rid of her."

Emerson's new book weighs into the fray with at least two advantages.

In the first place, he avoids the error of the earlier biographers by ringing in psychological analysis. As difficult as such analysis is after more than a century, Emerson avails himself of authoritative psychological advice. He reaches the tentative conclusion that Mary Todd Lincoln suffered from a bipolar disorder.

This condition did not begin with the assassination of her husband. Rather it was cumulative, having some roots in her childhood loss of a mother and an unsatisfactory relationship with a stepmother. It manifested itself in the extravagance of her early days in the White House and, the prolonged grief upon the death of her sons, was exacerbated by a serious head injury in a carriage accident, and cumulated in her unrequited despair over the loss of her husband.

Emerson's second advantage arises from his discovery of some twenty "insanity letters" written by Mary Todd Lincoln between 1872 and 1878. These letters had been preserved among the papers of the descendants of Robert Lincoln's attorney Frederic N. Towers. Emerson is the first to make use of them.

Emerson concludes that Robert acted with "beneficent intentions toward his mother in 1875." As a man with "a reticent demeanor, a private personality, and a Victorian sensibility of manly duty," his motives, far from being vile were honorable. His action in the commitment of his mother was taken to prevent injury to her -- she had often threatened suicide -- and caused him great pain.

The Madness of Mary Lincoln is a most interesting and useful addition to Lincoln scholarship. Emerson writes with clarity without sacrificing the complexities inherent in both historical events and the psychological state of Mrs. Lincoln's mind.

Many of us novice historians have bumped up against the actions of Mary Todd Lincoln during the Lincoln presidency and wondered just what made her tick. Jason Emerson has clarified much.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-01-20 02:58:10
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