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The Madness of Mary Lincoln

Jason Emerson

Publication Year: 2007

In 2005, historian Jason Emerson discovered a steamer trunk formerly owned by Robert Todd Lincoln's lawyer and stowed in an attic for forty years. The trunk contained a rare find: twenty-five letters pertaining to Mary Todd Lincoln's life and insanity case, letters assumed long destroyed by the Lincoln family. Mary wrote twenty of the letters herself, more than half from the insane asylum to which her son Robert had her committed, and many in the months and years after.

            The Madness of Mary Lincoln is the first examination of Mary Lincoln’s mental illness based on the lost letters, and the first new interpretation of the insanity case in twenty years. This compelling story of the purported insanity of one of America’s most tragic first ladies provides new and previously unpublished materials, including the psychiatric diagnosis of Mary’s mental illness and her lost will.

Emerson charts Mary Lincoln’s mental illness throughout her life and describes how a predisposition to psychiatric illness and a life of mental and emotional trauma led to her commitment to the asylum. The first to state unequivocally that Mary Lincoln suffered from bipolar disorder, Emerson offers a psychiatric perspective on the insanity case based on consultations with psychiatrist experts.

            This book reveals Abraham Lincoln’s understanding of his wife’s mental illness and the degree to which he helped keep her stable. It also traces Mary’s life after her husband’s assassination, including her severe depression and physical ailments, the harsh public criticism she endured, the Old Clothes Scandal, and the death of her son Tad.

          The Madness of Mary Lincoln is the story not only of Mary, but also of Robert. It details how he dealt with his mother’s increasing irrationality and why it embarrassed his Victorian sensibilities; it explains the reasons he had his mother committed, his response to her suicide attempt, and her plot to murder him. It also shows why and how he ultimately agreed to her release from the asylum eight months early, and what their relationship was like until Mary’s death.

This historical page-turner provides readers for the first time with the lost letters that historians had been in search of for eighty years.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Book Title

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p. ix-ix

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pp. xi-xiii

An author rarely completes any literary endeavor alone, especially not a book of history. First and foremost, I will be forever grateful to the children of Frederic N. Towers: Frederic C. Towers, Judy Reemtsma, and Dorcy Burns. They gave me complete access to the contents of their father’s Lincoln trunk, allowing me to be the first historian...

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pp. 1-5

Nearly every discussion of the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, culminates in the question, “Was she really crazy?” From there, the discussion inevitably moves toward a juxtaposition of the two theories of her insanity case: (1) she was mentally ill, and her loving son, Robert, committed her to a sanitarium in 1875 because...

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1. Much like an April Day

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pp. 6-19

On Wednesday April 12, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln wrote a playful yet tender note to his wife notifying her that he would join her daily carriage ride on Friday, the fourteenth. It was a pleasant spring day, and the Lincolns, who rode alone at the president’s request, discussed their plans for life after his presidency. They would travel across...

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2. A Most Painful Time of Anxiety

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pp. 20-32

For five weeks after the assassination, Mary Lincoln stayed confined to her bedroom, allowing only the closest family and friends to visit. “I do not have the least desire to live,” she wrote to her friend Madame Berghmans in her last letter from the White House. “Only my extreme agony of mind, has prevented my receiving yourself...

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3. No Right to Remain upon Earth

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pp. 33-43

The four years from Tad’s death in July 1871 to the insanity trial in May 1875 were the darkest, most pitiable period in Mary Lincoln’s life. It was filled with overwhelming grief, loss, and incessant tears. Mary became a homeless wanderer, roaming North America, looking for physical healing at health spas and...

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4. Of Unsound Mind

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pp. 44-61

When Mary arrived in Chicago, she “seemed startled” that a perfectly healthy Robert met her at the station.1 He asked her to come stay at his house, but she declined since she and Robert’s wife still were estranged. Instead, they went to the Grand Pacific Hotel to secure her a room and to have supper. After Mary...

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5. Mrs. Lincoln Admitted Today

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pp. 62-76

Today, there is much disagreement as to whether or not Mary Lincoln was in fact “insane” in May 1875 and, if she was, from which disease she suffered and to what degree. Moreover, the term insanity is a troublesome one with various meanings, which also muddles the discussion. Typically, it is used as a lay term for crazy thought or behavior...

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6. It Does Not Appear That God Is Good

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pp. 77-93

Myr a Br adwell has become known as the woman who orchestrated Mary Lincoln’s release from Bellevue Place Sanitarium, and not without reason. She was somewhat of a female icon in her day. Bradwell was an activist for numerous causes, such as female suffrage and fair legal treatment for women, and counted among her friends such luminaries...

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7. No More Insane than I Am

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pp. 94-108

That Mary Lincoln and the Br adwells knew they must harness the power of the popular press and public sentiment to aid in the widow’s release was evident in Mary’s first request to speak with the Chicago Times in July 1875; yet, between the July 13 Post and Mail story and James Bradwell’s acrimonious reply to Dr. Patterson’s...

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8. A Deeply Wronged Woman

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pp. 109-123

Mary Lincoln was a woman who knew how to hold a grudge, or, as one historian aptly characterized her, she was always “a good hater.”1 Her treatment and criticism during the White House years of her sister Ann Todd Smith and social rivals Frances Seward and Kate Chase are but a few well-known examples of her rancor.2 By the beginning...

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9. Resignation Will Never Come

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pp. 124-139

Before the discovery of Mary Lincoln’s lost insanity letters, very little was known about her time abroad, from 1876 to 1880. There were approximately one hundred known letters from this period, with the majority being to Mary’s banker, Jacob Bunn, and containing only financial matters. She also wrote more personal letters to her nephew, Edward...

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10. To Be Destroyed Immediately

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pp. 140-150

Robert Lincoln was a private man who did not believe that personal facets of his parents’ lives should be made public. As the last male Lincoln, he owned all of his father’s personal and political papers. There was a famous claim by Nicholas Murray Butler, a friend of Robert’s and president of Columbia University, that he witnessed...

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pp. 151-155

The mental illness of Mary Lincoln is a fascinating historical study that has rarely been explored from a psychiatric viewpoint. Despite a historiography of some eighty years, most historians and writers have eschewed the medical perspective, focusing instead on historical, moral, legal, political, and social viewpoints. A true understanding of her...

Appendix 1: Unpublished Mary Todd Lincoln Letters

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pp. 159-178

Appendix 2: Legal Documents Pertaining to the Sale and Destruction of the Mary Lincoln Insanity Letters

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pp. 179-183

Appendix 3: The Psychiatric Illness of Mary Lincoln

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pp. 185-190


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pp. 191-241


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pp. 243-250


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pp. 251-255

Author Bio

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Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780809387557
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809327713

Publication Year: 2007