Mary Todd Lincoln: Was She Insane?
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.
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
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
Did You See the 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.
Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker and Friend
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.
Do you think Mrs. Lincoln should have been confined to a mental institution?
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
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.
Questions & Answers
© 2013 Thelma Raker Coffone