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The Insanity File

The Case of Mary Todd Lincoln

Mark E. Neely, Jr. and R. Gerald McMurtry

Publication Year: 1993

In 1875 Robert Todd Lincoln caused his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, to be committed to an insane asylum. Based on newly discovered manuscript materials, this book seeks to explain how and why.

In these documents—marked by Robert Todd Lincoln as the "MTL Insanity File"—exists the only definitive record of the tragic story of Mary Todd Lincoln’s insanity trial. The book that results from these letters and documents addresses several areas of controversy in the life of the widow of Abraham Lincoln: the extent of her illness, the fairness of her trial, and the motives of those who had her committed for treatment. Related issues include the status of women under the law as well as the legal and medical treatment of insanity.

Speculating on the reasons for her mental condition, the authors note that Mrs. Lincoln suffered an extraordinary amount of tragedy in a relatively few years. Three of her four sons died very young, and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. After the death of her son Willie she maintained a darkly rigorous mourning for nearly three years, prompting the president to warn her that excessive woe might force him to send her to "that large white house on the hill yonder," the government hospital for the insane.

Mrs. Lincoln also suffered anxiety about money, charting an exceptionally erratic financial course. She had spent lavishly during her husband’s presidency and at his death found herself deeply in debt. She had purchased trunkfuls of drapes to hang over phantom windows. 84 pairs of kid gloves in less than a month, and $3,200 worth of jewelry in the three months preceding Lincoln’s assassination. She followed the same erratic course for the rest of her life, creating in herself a tremendous anxiety. She occasionally feared that people were trying to kill her, and in 1873 she told her doctor that an Indian spirit was removing wires from her eyes and bones from her cheeks.

Her son assembled an army of lawyers and medical experts who would swear in court that Mrs. Lincoln was insane. The jury found her insane and in need of treatment in an asylum. Whether the verdict was correct or not, the trial made Mary Lincoln desperate. Within hours of the verdict she would attempt suicide. In a few months she would contemplate murder. Since then every aspect of the trial has been criticized—from the defense attorney to the laws in force at the time. Neely and McMurtry deal with the trial, the commitment of Mary Todd Lincoln, her release, and her second trial. An appendix features letters and fragments by Mrs. Lincoln from the "Insanity File." The book is illustrated by 25 photographs.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Front Cover

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Frontispiece, Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

Illustrations List

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

Stored away in my grandfather Robert Todd Lincoln's Manchester, Vermont, home, Hildene, was a bundle of letters, papers, and documents marked by him "MTL Insanity File." Tied with a ribbon, the file had lain in his file room just off his study, undisturbed since his death on July 26,1926. ...

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pp. xi-xiv

On Christmas Eve, 1985, the last member of the Lincoln family died. Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith was the grandson of Robert Todd Lincoln, the firstborn son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. Beckwith was eighty-one years old and had long been in ill health. ...

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1. The Trial

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pp. 1-26

Because Mary Todd married Abraham Lincoln somewhat in defiance of her family's hopes, she put her all into proving that she had made the right choice. She idolized him and she idealized family life. Lincoln was "lover-husband-father & all[,] all to me," she said after his death. ...

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2. Commitment

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pp. 27-52

Dazzled by headlines about organ transplants and genetic engineering and the outright disappearance of diseases which used to ravage Western society, the modern reader shudders to recall the state of medicine in Mrs. Lincoln's era. The horrors of medical science before germ theory are memorably symbolized by the staggering death rate in the Civil War, ...

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3. Release

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pp. 53-72

May 20, 1875, was Mary Todd Lincoln's first day in the asylum. Dr. Patterson wrote in the ledger that her case was "one of mental impairment which probably dates back to the murder of President Lincoln-More pronounced since the death of her son, but especially aggravated during the last 2 months." ...

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4. The Experiment

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pp. 73-92

On the morning of September 11,1875, Mary Todd Lincoln arrived in Chicago on a 9:00 train. Robert met her at the railway station and then accompanied her that afternoon on the 3:40 train to Springfield. The Lincolns rode in a private car belonging to the president of the railroad. ...

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5. A New Trial

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pp. 93-107

Until Robert received Mr. Edwards' letter of January 14, 1876, he seemed unaware of the severity ofthe crisis. To be sure, his flexibility in dealing with his mother's case was severely limited by forces beyond his control. The law, for example, did not seem to accommodate a full discharge, as he had told John M. Palmer two days before Christmas: ...

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6. Conclusion

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pp. 120-144

Free at last, Mary Todd Lincoln remained in Springfield only until summer's end. Although Elizabeth continued to argue that her sister should at least make Springfield her headquarters, Mary said that the town held too many sad memories. She departed in September 1876 with a new favorite, Edward Lewis Baker, Jr. …


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pp. 147-184


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pp. 185-200


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pp. 201-203

Author Bios, Back Cover

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pp. 221-222

E-ISBN-13: 9780809390694
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809318957

Publication Year: 1993