Skip to main content

First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln: Was She Insane?

Thelma Raker Coffone is an award winning non-fiction writer. She enjoys sharing information about America's presidents and their families.

A Young and Beautiful Mary Todd Lincoln

A Young and Beautiful Mary Todd Lincoln

Mention the name Mary Todd Lincoln and people will usually think of President Lincoln's wife who had mental problems. History has led us to believe Mrs. Lincoln was mentally unbalanced because of reports of her strange and irrational behavior. And there is the fact that she was committed to an insane asylum. But how accurate were these stories and were there other underlying circumstances behind the odd behavior? Was the asylum stay warranted or was it a massive betrayal by someone who stood to gain financially by Mrs. Lincoln's confinement?

Let's explore some of the events that happened during Mrs. Lincoln's lifetime and you decide if you think she was truly insane or reacting to overwhelming grief.

Mary as a Young Girl

Mary as a Young Girl

President and Mrs. Lincoln's Troubled Courtship and Marriage

The courtship of Abe and Mary Lincoln was troubled from the start. Her family thought he was not worthy of her, resulting in Lincoln breaking the engagement and he and Mary separating for 18 months. They secretly reunited and were eventually married in November, 1842.

During much of her early married life, Mary was left alone at home in Springfield, Illinois to raise their sons while her husband was pursuing his law career. There weren't enough clients in Springfield, so Mr. Lincoln had to "ride the circuit" to practice in various towns throughout Illinois. He was gone as much as 6 months out of the year. It has been said that Mary believed this was Abe's way of getting away from her and she considered it to be abandonment.

Mary was known to have a terrible temper and she exhibited mood swings. Lincoln's passive behavior during their arguments infuriated her and their totally diverse personalities had a harmful effect on the marriage.

Not only did their temperaments pose problems, their backgrounds were very different. Mary was born into Southern aristocracy while Lincoln was born into poverty. Mary had a good education and Abe had very little formal schooling.

Abandonment issues arose for Mary again during her White House years. The state of the war-torn nation during the Civil War demanded all of President Lincoln's attention. This left Mary to fend for herself again.

Mary Todd Lincoln - The White House Years

Mary Todd Lincoln in 1861, Age 43

Mary Todd Lincoln in 1861, Age 43

False Expectations

During their courtship, Mary said she wanted to marry someone who would one day be President. Her ambition was to advise her husband in all matters, be his confidante and help to further his political career. In reality, she would play the same role as many, albeit not all, of the presidential wives before and after her tenure ... she would merely be the White House hostess. This role was much less than Mary had bargained for in the grand scheme of things.

Her success in the Washington social arena was hampered by the fact she was not accepted well by the capital's society. Southerners considered her to be a traitor because she supported the abolishment of slavery. Northerners resented the fact she had close relatives fighting on the side of the Confederacy. Her step-sister came to live in the White House when her Confederate husband was killed in action.

It was indeed a troubled time for the nation and Mary found herself and her views right in the middle of it and not accepted by either side. Her wish for power, control and adulation by the American people was never to be realized.

From the Movie "Lincoln" - Actress Sally Field Portrayed Mary Todd Lincoln in the 2012 Movie

Sally Field Portrayed Mary Todd Lincoln in Movie "Lincoln"

Sally Field Portrayed Mary Todd Lincoln in Movie "Lincoln"

Mrs. Lincoln's Overwhelming Grief Over the Death of Her Husband and Three Sons

What woman could live with the tragedy of three sons and a husband dying in 21 years? That's exactly what Mary Todd Lincoln had to bear. In 1850, Eddie died at the age of three due to tuberculosis. Willie died in the White House at age 11 in 1862, from typhoid fever. Mary held seances in the White House in hopes of contacting her two lost sons. Then, in 1871 at the age of 18, Tad passed away as a result of tuberculosis.

As we all know, Mary was sitting next to President Lincoln in Ford's Theater when he was shot in 1865. Who could overcome the shock of witnessing their spouse being shot in the head while sitting just inches away?

Mary was stricken with grief which prevented her from attending her husband's funeral. President Lincoln's body was transported by train back to Illinois for burial, with the trip taking 12 days. There were many stops along the way where the funeral procession was greeted by millions of Americans paying their last respects. It is doubtful that fragile, grief-stricken Mary could have withstood such mourning.

In 1876, Mary was faced with the shock of an attempted theft of President Lincoln's coffin!

Mary had faced grief at the young age of just 6 years old when her mother died and she would continue to experience it for the rest of her life.

Odd Behavior and Financial Distress

Mary exhibited strange behavior after the deaths of her first two sons. She had mood swings and suffered from depression and exhaustion. She was deeply afraid of dogs, lightning storms and burglars. She had migraine headaches that would leave her incapacitated for days.

Another possible explanation that has not been discussed by historians is the fact that Mary very possibly was going through menopause. She was at the right age for the "change of life" and medication to help control her symptoms was not readily available as it is today. Of course, during that time period, a woman's delicate condition was not openly discussed but menopause could certainly have been the cause for much of her difficulties.

Much like a drunk on a drinking binge, Mary would have shopping frenzies where she purchased hundreds of dresses with matching shoes and accessories which she never even unpacked when she got home. The public was aware of these buying sprees and criticized her relentlessly.

After President Lincoln's assassination, Mary was in dire financial straits. She was cash strapped due to her extravagant spending and she did not receive a pension from the government after her husband's death.

Mary came up with a plan to make some quick cash. At the time of Abe's death, she vowed to wear mourning attire for the rest of her life so she had no use for her fancy dresses, furs and jewels. She shipped everything to New York to be sold. She received much less money than she had planned and got much more publicity than she needed ... bad publicity. The American public felt it was undignified for Lincoln's widow to sell her belongings in such a fashion. Today she would be known as the "queen of yard sales", a title not becoming a former First Lady.

The First Lady's Dressmaker and Friend

Elizabeth Keckley, Dressmaker and Friend of Mary Todd Lincoln

Elizabeth Keckley, Dressmaker and Friend of Mary Todd Lincoln

Dress made for Mrs. Lincoln by Elizabeth Keckley. Dress is part of the Smithsonian's First Ladies Collection

Dress made for Mrs. Lincoln by Elizabeth Keckley. Dress is part of the Smithsonian's First Ladies Collection

Her Greatest Heartbreak: Betrayal

Betrayal was the basis for what might have been Mary's greatest heartbreak. Two people that meant the world to her ended up betraying Mary in her darkest hours.

Elizabeth "Lizzy" Keckley, a freed slave, was Mary's closest friend and confidante. This was another thorn in the sides of Southerners who believed that a white genteel woman like Mary Todd Lincoln should not associate with a black former slave. Lizzy was her seamstress and the one person that stood by Mary's side during the death of her children and her husband. Mary confided in Lizzy all of her personal, health, financial and marital problems. Mary had the greatest trust in her. Unfortunately, that trust would be broken when Keckley authored Behind the Scenes, a book about the Lincolns' private life. She disclosed information that Mary had shared with her in utmost confidence. Personal letters that Mary had written to Lizzy contained intimate details that made Mary appear to be unstable. After the book was released, Mary supposedly severed all ties with her dear friend.

As disturbing as Keckley's book was to Mary, it pales in comparison to the ultimate betrayal by her only surviving child, Robert. Ten years after the assassination of President Lincoln, Robert requested the court to hold a hearing to determine if his mother was insane!

On the morning of May 19, 1875, two detectives showed up unexpectedly at Mary's front door to forcibly take her to court for an insanity hearing. She had no advance knowledge of the trial or time to arrange for a defense. She was taken immediately to the courthouse where a family friend stepped up to be her defense attorney. Seventeen witnesses testified that she was unstable including her son, Robert, who tearfully gave testimony that he had no doubt that his mother was insane. Mary's attorney did not call a single witness in her defense.

The jury returned an insanity verdict and ruled that she be committed to an insane asylum right away. She was taken to Bellevue Place, a mental institution in Batavia, Illinois where she stayed for 3 months before being released to her sister's custody. After her release from the asylum, she never recovered from her son's actions against her.

Mary Todd Lincoln died in 1882 at the age of 63 and is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois next to her husband and three of her sons. Robert is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Mary Todd Lincoln's Insanity Hearing ... Was it Fair?

Mary Todd Lincoln's mental condition has served as a point of debate for historians for years. With today's understanding of psychiatry, symptoms displayed by Mary are more likely to be classified as bipolar behavior or the side effects of an extremely stressful life. We will never know if she was truly insane.

However, a valid question that has often been overlooked in history is whether she had a fair trial when she was declared insane.

In 2012, mock trials were held in both Chicago and Springfield, Illinois to examine that question. The performances were sponsored by the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Expert witnesses gave testimony, actors portrayed Robert and Mary, real judges acted as the attorneys and the audience was the jury. The emmy nominated PBS video, courtesy of WTTW Documentaries, presents The Insanity Retrial of Mary Todd Lincoln. The presentation is approximately 1 and 1/2 hours long and is a riveting performance. If you are unable to view the video, the results of the mock trial are shown below.

Pamela Brown Portrays Mary Lincoln in Mock Retrial

Pamela Brown actress who portrayed Mary Todd Lincoln in the mock trial

Pamela Brown actress who portrayed Mary Todd Lincoln in the mock trial

Results of Mock Retrial of Mrs. Lincoln

The vote in the Springfield, Illinois reenactment of the trial ended in 68 votes for sending Mary Todd Lincoln to a mental institution and 159 against. The Chicago jury also ruled in Mary's favor: 67 voted for confinement and 266 said she was not mentally ill.

The results of these mock retrials show how today's knowledge of law and modern theories of mental illness have advanced since the 1800's. Mary's life may have been much different if she had lived in modern times.

© 2013 Thelma Raker Coffone


linda on February 11, 2018:

I believe Mary was going through an extremely severe menopause while in the White house. With no medicine to help with the hormonal imbalances and physical problems she had to be miserable. Add to this the deaths of the people she loved most and the horrible way she was treated by Robert and society.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on April 23, 2017:

Very interesting and extremely well written article. It makes me want to watch the Lincoln movie. Maybe the wife will also have a big part in it. And also the documentary you mention about her. Thank you for writing about her illness in the context of her family life.

Mary on November 30, 2015:

I learned so much from this article about Mary Todd Lincoln. You certainly did a great job researching it.

I was surprised at the number of people that had not seen the Lincoln movie.

Chantelle Porter from Ann Arbor on September 21, 2015:

Fascinating article. I love reading historical articles about women as they have been so often overlooked. Nicely done.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on November 22, 2014:

Marilyn thanks so much for pointing out about the menopause. I had not thought of that and will add a reference to that in my article. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

Marilyn Steber on November 22, 2014:

I'm listening to a book about Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker now and I wonder why it has never been pointed out that she (Mary) was entering menopause at the time of all these horrible events. I've found only one reference to it on-line. Robert Todd Lincoln said that she had ordered many pairs of gloves. When shaking hands these days, I think it was a pretty good way, given the "unwashed" that she had to deal with.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on September 11, 2014:

Craftypicks thanks for reading this and your nice comments. I am especially thrilled to have received an Editor's Choice award for this hub.

Welcome to HubPages. I know you will enjoy it here!

Lori Green from Las Vegas on September 11, 2014:

This was really interesting. I knew virtually nothing about Mary. Excellent Hub.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 28, 2014:

FlourishAnyway thanks for your kind words and for pinning this hub. I look forward to us following each other and becoming friends.

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 28, 2014:

This was such a fascinating read. We all take it for granted as a footnote in history that she was mentally ill, as was poor ol' Honest Abe. However, learning the details of her abandonment, grief, spending sprees, betrayals, and involuntary confinement makes me feel such empathy for the woman. Mental illness was certainly not regarded the same way then as it is now. Excellent hub. Voted up and more, and pinning.

Suzie from Carson City on May 27, 2014:

This is positively fascinating. Most of your information I had been unaware of and I look forward to viewing the Mock Trial! That will be most interesting to me.

Albeit, I will use a touch of my infamous sarcasm here, Thelma...but between you and me and the readers.....

With 50 years of Mental Health study and in-depth research ASIDE.....Reading the events and situations of Mary's life,marriage and continual TRAGEDIES....even by today's standards, I feel confident in saying 9 out of 10 women would have become a bit Looney Tunes ! Good grief! The poor woman couldn't get away from anyone or anything attempting to beat her down!.....

The death of not 1 or 2 but THREE sons and seeing your husband assassinated before your eyes, being judged and scorned by society UNFAIRLY.....C'mon.....

Her son Robert was a real sweetie, now wasn't he? "My mother's crazy...lock her up!" There went his" Son of the Year" Award!........UP+++

WhiteMuse on May 27, 2014:

It did sound to me before as if she had a bad deal. It was tough for women. She may have had something wrong. I saw a program on her before. It is not okay just to put women away like that. At the time it was a way for them to control behavior. I also certainly know a bit about it myself. It is not good what they can do.

My mother was put away for awhile but I am not really sure exactly for what. She acted strange.

Brenda Thornlow from New York on May 27, 2014:

Very interesting hub! Losing 3 sons and a husband in 21 years? How is anyone expected to come out of that unscathed? Voted up!

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on May 27, 2014:

It is truly sad how those with mental, emotional or grief issues were treated in the past. A recent Hub of the Day told the story of a woman who was considered mentally ill because she disagreed with her husband's religious inclinations. Oh, how far we've come in the fields of psychiatry and psychology... as well as being more socially supportive of those who need this help. Great hub discussing some less remembered aspects of the Lincoln era!

mbuggieh on May 27, 2014:

While it is not possible to diagnose Mrs. Lincoln from the present, the historical record suggests to us---if psychologizing a historical subject is a possible or worthwhile effort, that Mrs. Lincoln suffered from depression exacerbated by events in her life.

The term "insane" is not scientific and informal, and in this particular case, seems---even in its unscientific and informal usage, to fail to describe the particular problems experienced by Mrs. Lincoln.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 27, 2014:

purl3agony like you I think she was a victim of her times. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

Donna Herron from USA on May 27, 2014:

Very interesting hub. Mary Todd Lincoln was certainly a tragic figure in history and perhaps a victim of her times. Thanks for sharing your insight!

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 27, 2014:

Audrey thank you so much for sharing my hub. I have been wanting to read the book "Mary" that you mentioned. Hopefully, I can get to it this summer.

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on May 27, 2014:

Very interesting and well-presented hub, Thelma. I enjoyed reading it.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on May 27, 2014:

Poor Mary - what a sad life so filled with grief and horror. You've created a sympathetic article here that leads us to decide for ourselves. Her behavior sure sounds like bipolar, yet grief can throw us into states that closely resemble mental illness. Years ago, they used to say that people had a nervous breakdown, that one could become unhinged for a short period of time, and not necessarily a whole life. You've given us something to think about. (voted up)

travmaj from australia on May 27, 2014:

I have learnt so much about Mary Todd Lincoln from reading this. A most complex lady. Losing her three sons and husband and being betrayed by her friends and her remaining son s a huge load for any person to cope with. Stress, depression, how to react? I simply don't know but I'm sure I would be one big mess. How sad this is. Most informative hub. Thanks.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on May 27, 2014:

interesting hub, now I have to rent the movie.. thanks for the share :)

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on May 26, 2014:

Thelma, this is a very interesting and well presented hub. I do not believe Mary Todd Lincoln was insane -- depressed, yes, for she suffered great losses. The way her son had her abducted and taken to court was shameful and cruel. The laws at that time were not beneficial to the rights of women. I recently wrote an article about a similar situation and a woman accused of insanity by an adult family member had no rights at all. It was much like the early "witch hunts" in Salem when if one was accused they were seen as guilty. Thank you for writing this hub.

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on May 26, 2014:

This hub is very interesting, Thelma, and well presented. I do not believe Mary Todd Lincoln was insane -- depressed, yes, for she suffered great loss that many women even today would have an extremely difficult time coping with. The trial that her son, Robert, demanded was highly unfair and Mrs. Lincoln had no attorney to defend her nor were there any witnesses to defend her. The way she was informed was by surprise and arrest. I recently wrote an article on Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, who was committed in a similar manner and the whole thing was totally unfair. Laws back in the time of Mrs. Lincoln's trial were not conducive to the rights of women, in fact women did not have any rights when a accused of insanity -- much like the "witch hunts" in early colonial days, where if one was accused, they were guilty according to the "law". Thanks for writing this article, Theresa -- it posthumously gives Mrs. Lincoln some support in her defense by allowing comments.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on May 26, 2014:

Thelma - I have been reading the book "Mary" and am almost finished with it. This poor woman went through so much. How could she not have been effected emotionally at some level? Still I would like to believe that she did not deserve to be committed.

Thank you for this very well-written hub about Mary Todd Lincoln. I enjoyed it and voted Up, Useful, Awesome, Interesting and will share as well. My best to you - Audrey

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on April 28, 2014:

Thanks so much billybuc for taking the time to read my hub and post a comment. Yes, she is a very interesting person and I am always learning something new about her.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 28, 2014:

She has always been an interesting figure in American history. I have read much about her and still to this day I do not have a definite opinion on her mental state. Interesting article...nice job!

ORION SERENDIPITY on April 20, 2014:

Thanks! I look forward to that!

I hope to publish my third article in another day or two. Hopefully I am on a roll and that I will clear the Five Featured articles "Boot Camp" quickly. I am enjoying doing this and still learning the software.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on April 20, 2014:

Orion Serendipity thank you for your nice comment. I think we are going to enjoy following each other!

ORION SERENDIPITY on April 19, 2014:

Thank you for a great read! I devour anything and everything about Lincoln.Well done!

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on September 06, 2013:

mpropp thanks for reading my hub and I'm glad you liked it. I am enjoying getting to know you!

Melissa Propp from Minnesota on September 06, 2013:

Wow, I had no idea this poor woman had gone through so much grief..This was a very thorough and interesting hub. Thanks for sharing!

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on August 24, 2013:

Bobbi thanks for your nice comments and I'm glad you learned something from my article. You don't find many people named Thelma these days!

Barbara Purvis Hunter from Florida on August 24, 2013:

Hi ThelmaC,

I love reading anything about President Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln, and I feel she was misunderstood and very mistreated by her son in such a way it is unbelievable.

Thanks for writing this hub---I did learn something new.

Have a great weekend.

Bobbi Purvis

My oldest sister's name was Thelma.

poe9368 on July 29, 2013:

Very informative Hub. Got to find out things about Mary Todd Lincoln I didn't know before. Well done.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on July 22, 2013:

realtalk247 your nice comments made my day! I loved researching this article and learned so much about an amazing lady. Thanks so much for reading my work!

realtalk247 on July 08, 2013:

What an amazing story. I learned so much from your hub. I never knew about the betrayal from people closest to her heart.

It is my personal opinion that Mary Todd Lincoln was a victim of grief. I always believed burying her children and witnessing the assassination of her husband would be enough to drive a woman to insanity by grief alone. I always watch documentaries regarding the Abe and Mary with the belief that the life they lived and the decisions of the time unfolding in our country at that time, thinking in amazement these were two people. Historical figures; but people who lived a hard life in the spotlight.

Loved this hub. I felt like I was reading the equivalent of a history channel special.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on June 25, 2013:

grandmapearl I just got back today from vacationing in your state of New York! Went to the small town of Ft. Edward near Saratoga Springs to visit family. Thank you so much for reading my story on Mary Lincoln and for your very insightful comments. If you get a chance to view the video on my hub, I think you would enjoy it very much. Thanks for the vote up!!!

Connie Smith from Southern Tier New York State on June 18, 2013:

This was most interesting and revealing. I enjoyed every bit of it. When I saw the older movie on Lincoln, they portrayed Mary as a neurotic and pushy person. I wondered then if they had it right or if the movie had been 'Hollywood-ized'. From what you have presented here, I have to say that she was bi-polar at worst and very much in pain and beset with grief at best.

Thank you for this most excellent article. Voted Up+++

;) Pearl

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on June 11, 2013:

angryelf you should write a hub on that ... it would be very interesting. I'm sorry it's not a video attached to the hub but a link to the video. I had trouble attaching the video so I just did a link. Look in the capsule titled "Mary Todd Lincoln's Insanity Hearing...Was it Fair" and you will see the link. Sorry I told you wrong before. I love the actress that portrayed Mrs. Lincoln in the mock trial.

angryelf from Tennessee on June 11, 2013:

Hmmmm, I'm not finding it! And with it having been so long ago, I could see how little respect sons would have for their mothers versus their fathers. Women had such a lowly status it was not funny. Did you know that when the western frontier began, families would ship off their daughters to a settled pioneer if they weren't able to attract a decent bachelor.... Be left in a teeny tiny quick built home on the prairie, no one anywhere close... Staying by themselves for weeks at a time.... up until popping out kids. I should write up a hub on that, the women of the frontier. Their lives were so rough!

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on June 11, 2013:

angryself if you get a chance, look at the video I have on the hub of the retrial. It is a little lengthy but worth the time. One point that I really liked was when Mrs. Lincoln's attorney asked Robert Lincoln if he would have handled this the same way if it was his father that was acting strange (or something to that effect). Let me know if you watch it and what you think.

angryelf from Tennessee on June 11, 2013:

Thank you Thelma! I love reading these insightful historic hubs! You took hold of my inner geek when I came across it :) Before this, I didn't know that there was a book released in that day; I knew of her being locked away, and there are actual documents of her admittance the the hospital that are still alive as well; even the log book. Saw it on Antiques Roadshow :)

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on June 11, 2013:

angryelf thank you so much for taking the time to read my hub and give me your good comments. I will be reading some of yours also!

angryelf from Tennessee on June 11, 2013:

I wouldn't have thought her to be insane; she was a woman dealing with loss in every direction, and hardly anyone to turn to clearly. Everyone has nervous breakdowns when it becomes too much to handle, after all we're human. Perhaps she had bipolar disorder and depression; she was a spoiled child as well. Amazing hub though, definitely a vote up!

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on June 07, 2013:

Michele thanks for your comments. I also think she was in much pain. Appreciate you reading my hub!

Michele Travis from U.S.A. Ohio on June 07, 2013:

Very interesting hub. Never heard of all these things that happened to her. No wonder she was in such pain. Probably not mentally ill, but in pain for sure.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on June 07, 2013:

lcbenefield thanks for the comments and for reading my hub. I'm like you, I had heard of some of her problems but didn't realize just how much she endured until I started to put all of it together. Thank you my fellow Georgian!

lcbenefield on June 07, 2013:

This is a very interesting read. I had heard of some of the stress in Mary Lincoln's life but had never really given much thought to what she endured. Voted up and interesting.