11. "I Have Done My Duty as I Best Know"
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169 11 “I Have Done My Duty as I Best Know” In 1879, four years after having his mother declared insane, Robert Lincoln wrote, “If I could have foreseen my own experience in the matter, no consideration would have induced me to go through with it, the ordinary troubles and distresses of life are enough without such as that.”1 The institutionalization of his mother, in fact, not only ruptured his relationship with his mother for half a decade but also put his life in jeopardy. Robert checked his mother into the sanitarium on May 20, 1875.2 Bellevue Place was located in the beautiful Fox River valley in Batavia, Illinois, about a ninety-minute train ride from Chicago. The facility was established in 1867 as a retreat for the treatment of nervous and mental diseases for “a select class of lady patients of quiet unexceptionable habits” and used only the most modern method of “moral” psychiatric treatment: rest, diet, baths, fresh air, occupation , diversion, change of scene, minimal medications, and the least restraint possible.3 Part of the treatment included exercise on the grounds: twenty acres of secluded and manicured lawns containing numerous shady trees, flowers beds, and ornamental shrubs, all interwoven by concrete walks and driveways. The property included forty thousand square feet of greenhouses, also with wide walks, and offered carriages and sleighs for patients to use for daily outings.4 The main building of Bellevue Place was a three-story limestone structure built to be welcoming and spacious and decorated to give a “bright, cheerful and homelike expression” in order to “create an atmosphere of home, with its restfulness, freedom and seclusion.”5 Bellevue Place had twenty inmates during Mary Lincoln’s stay; it also housed Dr. Patterson and his family, along with about a dozen attendants and nurses.6 Mary Lincoln had her own private chapter eleven 170 suite of two rooms on the second floor (including a private bath), which she shared with a personal attendant—a young former schoolteacher selected for the position “on account of her kindness and intelligence.”7 Robert Lincoln traveled to Batavia usually every week to visit his mother. Often he brought along his five-year-old daughter, Mamie, his mother’s beloved little namesake, which he knew gave the widow pleasure. Robert found his mother typically amiable but depressed on his visits. “While she will not in words admit that she is not sane, still her entire acquiescence in absolutely everything, while it arises in part from the plain enfeebled condition of her mind, makes me think that she is aware of the necessity of what has been done,” he wrote in early June.8 The public reaction to Mary Lincoln’s commitment predominantly supported Robert’s actions and commiserated with the poor widow.9 There was, of course, criticism, which Robert expected.10 As he wrote to John Hay two weeks after the trial, “I knew that on the next day after my action the whole country would be flooded with criticisms, kind or unkind as might happen, but all based on a short press dispatch, which could not sufficiently give the facts.” It would be “impossible” for anyone to understand “the distress and anxiety of my mind for the two months before that time,” he added.11 Yet, although Robert anticipated the censure—which he found annoying and “impertinent”—he noticed a general misunderstanding of his mother’s situation. In all the letters he received, there was an impression that his mother was locked in a veritable prison, “the writers using the word ‘asylum,’ with a notion of straightjackets, cells and brutal keepers.” He and Leonard Swett both felt it necessary to correct this public misperception, and so he asked his friend Hay, an editor at the New York Tribune, if he would publish a clarifying article (anonymously written by Robert) in the form of a letter from the newspaper’s Chicago correspondent. “It will be a ‘triumph of journalism’ for there isn’t a lie in it,” Robert wrote, showing his lifelong distrust of sensationalist reporting, “but you must not tell the personal column man so, or he wouldn’t touch it with a pair of tongs.”12 Robert’s anonymous editorial explains that his action was taken only after consultation with family friends and medical experts. It describes Mary’s situation as pleasant, with private rooms, friendly attendants, and personal freedom. “Such has been the influence of the quiet and pleasant surroundings that nothing...


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Subject Headings

  • Lawyers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Lincoln, Robert Todd, 1843-1926.
  • Children of presidents -- United States -- Biography.
  • Ambassadors -- United States -- Biography.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1865-1933.
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