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Mary Lincoln's Insanity Case: A Documentary History

Mary Lincoln's Insanity Case: A Documentary History

by Jason Emerson

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In 1875 Mary Lincoln, the widow of a revered president, was committed to an insane asylum by her son, Robert. The trial that preceded her internment was a subject of keen national interest. The focus of public attention since Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860, Mary Lincoln had attracted plentiful criticism and visible scorn from much of the public, who perceived


In 1875 Mary Lincoln, the widow of a revered president, was committed to an insane asylum by her son, Robert. The trial that preceded her internment was a subject of keen national interest. The focus of public attention since Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860, Mary Lincoln had attracted plentiful criticism and visible scorn from much of the public, who perceived her as spoiled, a spendthrift, and even too much of a Southern sympathizer. Widespread scrutiny only increased following her husband's assassination in 1865 and her son Tad's death six years later, after which her overwhelming grief led to the increasingly erratic behavior that led to her being committed to a sanitarium. A second trial a year later resulted in her release, but the stigma of insanity stuck. In the years since, questions emerged with new force, as the populace and historians debated whether she had been truly insane and subsequently cured, or if she was the victim of family maneuvering.
In this volume, noted Lincoln scholar Jason Emerson provides a documentary history of Mary Lincoln's mental illness and insanity case, evenhandedly presenting every possible primary source on the subject to enable a clearer view of the facts. Beginning with documents from the immediate aftermath of her husband's assassination and ending with reminiscences by friends and family in the mid-twentieth century, Mary Lincoln's Insanity Case: A Documentary History compiles more than one hundred letters, dozens of newspaper articles, editorials, and legal documents, and the daily patient progress reports from Bellevue Place Sanitarium during Mary Lincoln's incarceration. Including many materials that have never been previously published, Emerson also collects multiple reminiscences, interviews, and diaries of people who knew Mary Lincoln or were involved in the case, including the first-hand recollection of one of the jurors in the 1875 insanity trial.
Suggesting neither accusation nor exoneration of the embattled First Lady, Mary Lincoln's Insanity Case: A Documentary History gives scholars and history enthusiasts incomparable access to the documents and information crucial to understanding this vexing chapter in American history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Mary Lincoln's Insanity Case makes a valuable contribution to the story of Mrs. Lincoln and her son Robert. This volume will enable scholars and students to write about Lincoln and his family with ever greater authority."—Michael Burlingame, author of Abraham Lincoln: A Life

"This book is the first to capture and provide in one resource all of the documentation relevant to Mary Lincoln's long-controversial insanity trial and treatment. Jason Emerson distils the full body of evidentiary material into an easily accessible chronology. An essential reference for anyone interested in the subject."
—Harold Holzer, author of Father Abraham: Lincoln and His Sons

“An impressive array of material, arranged chronologically, stemming from the insanity trial, including private correspondence, progress reports from Lincoln's attending physician at the Bellevue Place Sanitarium, newspaper articles, diaries, and interviews. This is an essential resource for anyone interested in the Lincoln family.”—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

Product Details

University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.80(h) x 2.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Mary Lincoln's Insanity Case

A Documentary History

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2012 Jason Emerson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03707-8

Chapter One

April 1865–May 1875

The specific time and cause of the onset of Mary Lincoln's mental troubles is debated and debatable, but, until the late twentieth century, the general consensus by citizens, journalists, family and friends, and even Robert Lincoln, was that President Lincoln's assassination on April 14, 1865, was the catalyst that drove Mary Lincoln insane.

The first three selections, written within a month after the shooting, were penned by two Lincoln family friends (Anson Henry and Horatio Taft) and by the commissioner of public buildings (Benjamin French); the latter encountered Mary Lincoln on a nearly daily basis.

DR. ANSON G. HENRY TO HIS WIFE Washington, D.C., April 19, 1865

My Dear Wife,

Today has been the saddest day of my life, if indeed one can be sadder than another of the sad days that has shrouded the nation in gloom....

I was in Richmond on the night of the assassination. The next day in the afternoon I went down to City Point and met the sad news. I was so stunned by the blow that I could not realize that he was dead until I saw him lying in the [White House] Guest's chamber cold and still in the embrace of Death. Then the terrible truth flashed upon me and the fountain of tears was broken up and I wept like a child refusing to be comforted....

After recovering my composure I sought the presence of poor broken hearted Mrs. Lincoln. I found her in bed more composed than I had anticipated, but the moment I came within her reach she threw her arms around my neck and wept most hysterically for several minutes, and this completely unmanned me again, but my sympathy was to her most consoling, and for half an hour she talked very composedly about what had transpired between her and her husband the day and evening of his death, which I will tell you when we meet. She says he was more cheerful and joyous that day and evening than he had been for years. When at dinner he complained of being worn out with the incessant toils of the day, and proposed to go to the Theater and have a laugh over the Country Cousin. She says she discouraged going, on account of a bad headache, but he insisted that he must go, for if he stayed home he would have no rest for he would be obliged to see company all evening as usual.

Finding that he decided to go, she could not think of having him go without her, never having felt so unwilling to be away from him. She sat close to him and was leaning in his lap looking up in his face when the fatal shot was fired, his last words being in answer to her question "What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on you so"—"She won't think anything about it"—and said accompanied with one of his kind and affectionate smiles. Yes, that look and expression is stamped upon her soul so indelibly to ever be effaced by time, and its recollection will never fail to soothe and comfort her in her hours of darkest affliction.

Lincoln Miscellaneous manuscripts, University of Chicago library

HORATIO NELSON TAFT Diary entry, April 30, 1865

The President of the United States has been assassinated. Abraham Lincoln, the good and kind hearted, was shot while sitting in his box at Ford's Theatre on the night of the 14th inst., at about half past ten o'clock....

When the shot was fired Mrs. Lincoln was sitting near her husband with her hand on his knee. She says she saw the flash and heard the report of the pistol, thinking it was in some way connected with the play. She leaned forward to see what it was, and then looked to Mr. Lincoln to see where he was looking. He was sitting with his head drooped down and eyes shut. She was not alarmed at this, he sometimes held his head in that way when in deep thought, but she put her hand on his forehead and he not stirring she put it on the back of his head and feeling it wet she immediately withdrew it covered with blood. She then screamed and that is the last she remembered that took place in the Theatre. She says, as she put her hand on his head she recollects that something suddenly brushed past her and rubbing off her shawl. It was Booth as he jumped from the box. The president made no noise, nor attempted to speak, nor stirred a limb after he was shot, nor was he conscious for one moment from that time until he died. When his skin was touched or his hand was taken, there was a slight quiver or tremor of the muscles, but that was all....

[Lincoln was taken across the street to the Petersen house.] The room [he was placed in] is at the end of the entrance hall about 9 feet by 15, with two windows and three doors, one door entering from the hall, one at the left as you enter, opening to an open porch or piazza, and the other at the farther end of the room, opening into another small room from which stairs descended to the basement. Some few individuals came in to the room through that door clandestinely. Mrs. Lincoln occupied a room near by with some of her friends who were there. She went in frequently to see the president with Doct. Gurley (The family pastor) who had been sent for about 3 o'clock. She was not in the room when he died. Robert Lincoln was there and Dr. Gurley, the two private secretaries of the president Nicolay and Hay. Upon one occasion when Mrs. L went in and saw her husband she fainted and was carried out insensible. It was thought best for her not to be there when he died. Dr. Gurley prayed by the bedside of the president when he first arrived (at 3 o'clock). Then went into the room where Mrs. Lincoln was and prayed with her, and remained with her most of the time, accompanying her and supporting her into the room of the dying president when she visited it....

After the president died Dr. Gurley went to Mrs. L and told her "the president is dead." O—why did you not let me know? Why did you not tell me? "Your friends thought it was not best. You must be resigned to the will of God. You must be calm and trust in God and in your friends." She soon after left, with Dr. G. for her home.

Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft


I think I sent you a printed account of the week's events [after the assassination of President Lincoln], which I wrote for the Republican, so I need not write it here. ... Mrs. Lincoln expects to start for Chicago tomorrow. I think the tragical death of her husband has made her crazyer than she used to be—but the most unaccountable thing she ever did was to purchase about a thousand dollars worth of mourning goods the month before Mr. Lincoln died. What do you suppose possessed her to do it! Please keep that fact in your own house. I will sometime tell you what I have gone through since Mr. L's death. I cannot write it.

Benjamin Brown French Family Papers

After the assassination, Mary and her sons Robert and Tad moved to Chicago to begin a new life. Robert began studying law with the firm of Scammon, McCagg, and Fuller; and Tad, for the first time in his life, began attending school. Mary, during these first years of her widowhood, was consumed not only with grief but also with her finances. She left the White House carrying a debt of tens of thousands of dollars. The income from her husband's estate was modest, so Mary lobbied Congress for her husband's full four years of presidential salary—although she received recompense for only one year—and also requested she be paid a pension as a widow whose husband died in the performance of official duty.

By 1867, having received no pension, Mary believed herself to be on the brink of poverty. Using a pseudonym, she tried to raise money with a sale of her old White House gowns and jewelry in New York City. Her true identity quickly was uncovered and her entire effort was derided and ridiculed in the national press as an embarrassment to the memory of the Great Emancipator. Some commentators found her actions more than just humiliating and indelicate; they declared them unbalanced.

"MRS. LINCOLN [FINANCIAL CONDITIONS]" Illinois State Journal, Oct. 10, 1867

A special dispatch from Chicago to the St. Louis Democrat in referring to Mrs. Lincoln's recent mortifying statements in regard to her financial condition, says:

"Her conduct has greatly distressed her intimate friends and relatives in this city, and the most charitable construction that they can put upon her strange course is that she is insane, which I fear is the case."

The same explanation of her conduct, we understand, has been suggested by those who are acquainted with her in this place. Indeed an impression generally pervades our community that she has not been entirely in her right mind for several years. In this view, she deserves pity and commiseration instead of harsh and uncharitable judgment for her singular behavior.

Illinois State Journal, October 10, 1867, 1

Family friend and Lincoln estate executor David Davis called Mary's attempted clothing sale "an act of insanity" and when he confronted her about it he found that "she really had the insane delusion that poverty stared her in the face." 1 Mary's oldest son, Robert, agreed, as can be seen in a letter he wrote to his fiancée at the time.


Excerpted from Mary Lincoln's Insanity Case by JASON EMERSON Copyright © 2012 by Jason Emerson. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

"Mr. Emerson pulls no punches, happily free to do so away from the strictures of academic political correctness and false orthodoxies, as well as distorting ideological hindsight. . . . the particular virtue of this volume is that it gives you the tools to make a really informed decision on the vexed topic and in so doing Mr. Emerson has rendered a great service."—Washington Times

Jason Emerson is an independent scholar living in Cazenovia, New York. He is the author of The Madness of Mary Lincoln, Lincoln the Inventor, and Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln.

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