The Madness of Mary Lincoln

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Overview

In 2005, historian Jason Emerson discovered a steamer trunk formerly owned by Robert Todd Lincoln's lawyer and stowed in an attic for forty years. The trunk contained a rare find: twenty-five letters pertaining to Mary Todd Lincoln's life and insanity case, letters assumed long destroyed by the Lincoln family. Mary wrote twenty of the letters herself, more than half from the insane asylum to which her son Robert had her committed, and many in the months and years after.

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Overview

In 2005, historian Jason Emerson discovered a steamer trunk formerly owned by Robert Todd Lincoln's lawyer and stowed in an attic for forty years. The trunk contained a rare find: twenty-five letters pertaining to Mary Todd Lincoln's life and insanity case, letters assumed long destroyed by the Lincoln family. Mary wrote twenty of the letters herself, more than half from the insane asylum to which her son Robert had her committed, and many in the months and years after.

            The Madness of Mary Lincoln is the first examination of Mary Lincoln’s mental illness based on the lost letters, and the first new interpretation of the insanity case in twenty years. This compelling story of the purported insanity of one of America’s most tragic first ladies provides new and previously unpublished materials, including the psychiatric diagnosis of Mary’s mental illness and her lost will.

Emerson charts Mary Lincoln’s mental illness throughout her life and describes how a predisposition to psychiatric illness and a life of mental and emotional trauma led to her commitment to the asylum. The first to state unequivocally that Mary Lincoln suffered from bipolar disorder, Emerson offers a psychiatric perspective on the insanity case based on consultations with psychiatrist experts.

            This book reveals Abraham Lincoln’s understanding of his wife’s mental illness and the degree to which he helped keep her stable. It also traces Mary’s life after her husband’s assassination, including her severe depression and physical ailments, the harsh public criticism she endured, the Old Clothes Scandal, and the death of her son Tad.

          The Madness of Mary Lincoln is the story not only of Mary, but also of Robert. It details how he dealt with his mother’s increasing irrationality and why it embarrassed his Victorian sensibilities; it explains the reasons he had his mother committed, his response to her suicide attempt, and her plot to murder him. It also shows why and how he ultimately agreed to her release from the asylum eight months early, and what their relationship was like until Mary’s death.

This historical page-turner provides readers for the first time with the lost letters that historians had been in search of for eighty years.

Univeristy Press Books for Public and Secondary Schools 2013 edition

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Jason Emerson's The Madness of Mary Lincoln will become a classic of American history. It has everything—a compelling story; a fascinating cast of characters; the thrilling discovery of long-lost documents; shrewd analysis of the people, the period, and the sources; and it's a pleasure to read. Here is a model of the historian's art.”—American Spectator

“Jason Emerson has written the definitive work on Mary Todd Lincoln’s mental health in general and her insanity problems in particular. Written with verve and complete understanding of the subject, The Madness of Mary Lincoln is a masterpiece.”—Wayne C. Temple, author of Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet

The Madness of Mary Lincoln is precise, documented, and detailed. . . . Every word counts and every word adds up to a riveting and until-now neglected chronicle begging to be told.”—Carl Sferrazza Anthony, author of First Ladies 

“A judicious, convincing analysis. . . . Emerson's new evidence demonstrates that Mary Todd Lincoln deserves to be pitied more than censured, but also that she behaved very badly indeed.”—Michael Burlingame, author of The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln

“Jason Emerson's heroic efforts to uncover new material on Robert Lincoln have paid off handsomely with this engaging interpretation of Mary Lincoln’s later years.”—Catherine Clinton, author of Fanny Kemble’s Civil Wars

“Jason Emerson is a very, very good writer and a superior historical detective. This is a most original book, taking new evidence to new heights of sophisticated analysis.”—Harold Holzer, author of The Lincoln Family Album

Journal of American Culture - Ray B. Browne
Those of us who have at the same time anguished over what has through the years been called Mary Lincoln's madness and Abraham's discomfort with having to live with it will be pleased with this volume, the third on the subject through the years. It also explains the behavior of the only remaining son, Robert Todd, and exonerates him from cruelly committing his mother to an insane sanitarium in Chicago.

Mary, admittedly, was high-strung, driven by pride and conceit, all resulting from what Emerson diagnoses as "depression, of mania, of a relapsing-remitting course, and even of a regular cycle. These are consistent with Bipolar Disorder" (188). There is evidence of "serious psychiatric illness in Mary Lincoln's family," and she was, "at times, clearly psychotic" (189). These new conclusions come by Emerson through examination of a steamer trunk formerly owned by Robert Todd Lincoln's lawyer and stowed in an attic for forty years, which contained twenty-five letters, twenty of which were written by Mary herself, the others about her. Emerson looks upon this trunk and these letters as a priceless treasure-trove, and so will all of us who are interested in Abraham, Mary, Robert, medicine in general and the treatment of those mentally ill during the last of the nineteenth century.

Lincoln Herald - Steven Lee Carson
"At long last the definitive work on Mrs. Abraham Lincoln's oft discussed mental state has been published based on recently discovered 25 long lost letters by her and associates from the asylum where she had to be incarcerated and from elsewhere. Actually the letters were with the descendants of the Lincoln family attorney. With the help of officials at Hildene, the Robert Todd Lincoln Vermont estate of the President's son, independent historian Jason Emerson, formerly of the National Park Service, was able to uncover this treasure trove."
JAMA - Mark H. Fleisher
"...The Madness of Mary Lincoln will be greatly appreciated by history buffs and serious historians for its thoughtful and detailed look at some of the great personages of the Civil War era. Others will enjoy the glimpses of the past that foster appreciation of how US society arrived at its current condition."
H-Net Reviews - Matthew C. Sherman
A Dutiful Son and a Disturbed Mother: New Perspectives on Robert and Mary Todd Lincoln

Upon Mary Todd Lincoln's death in July 1882, the editor of the Springfield Monitor (Illinois) began the former First Lady's obituary with a simple but powerful statement: "Mary Lincoln was no ordinary woman." She was "princely in her nature" and worthy of the position she held in the White House, but the editor was quick to note the perceived effect of Abraham Lincoln's assassination on her eccentricities. Since that fateful day, "her history has been well known to this country."[1]

While a general history of her activities may have been known to her contemporaries, the scarcity of materials related to her later life has vexed historians for years, especially in regard to what former National Park Service ranger Jason Emerson refers to as her "Institutionalization Episode" (p. 63). In the first published compilation of Mary's letters by Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner in 1972, the author of the introduction, Fawn M. Brodie, bemoaned that "there has never been a good clinical study of Mary Lincoln" because the only record of her insanity trial was the court report. She predicted, though, that the letters found in the Turners' edited volume "will surely stimulate a new and more subtle book-length study."[2] Indeed, she was correct. Historians Mark Neely Jr. and R. Gerald McMurty answered the call in 1986 with a study of Mary's insanity trial. It was a timely work based on recently discovered manuscripts found in Robert Todd Lincoln's file room in his Manchester, Vermont, home.[3] In 1987, Mary Jean Baker also used these papers to analyze Mary's condition in her biography of the First Lady.

In spite of these important books, Lincoln scholars continued to bitterly debate the source of her incarceration since the former First Lady's voice remained largely unheard as a result of her eldest son's meticulous quest to destroy or hide his family's private papers. Due to the historical vacuum, historians wondered if her admittance to the asylum was the product of a caring son or if Mary was the victim of her son's male chauvinistic behavior. These debates have plagued Lincoln scholars until 2005 when Emerson tracked down manuscripts owned by the family of Robert's lawyer, Frederic N. Towers. His son, Frederic C. Towers, had recently found them in a steamer trunk in his basement. This landmark discovery shed new light on Mary's insanity, incarceration, her release, and her son's seemingly dishonest intentions. The unpublished letters of Mary and legal documents pertaining to the acquisition of these letters appear in appendices at the end of the monograph.

The Madness of Mary Lincoln begins with an important evaluation of Mary's personality as a young woman, her relationship with Abraham Lincoln, and the tragedy she faced as a mother and wife. Emerson argues that Mary, as a child and young woman, exhibited the characteristics of a dual personality because of her erratic changes in emotion. He cites several of Mary's contemporaries who commented on her behavior, including her cousin Elizabeth Edwards, Lincoln's presidential secretary William O. Stoddard, and William H. Herndon. One, however, might question the use of Herndon's opinions given his and Mary's mutual hatred of each other. By focusing on these early episodes in Mary's life, Emerson revives the argument first posed by Mary's first biographer, W. A. Evans, in 1928 that Mary's "emotionalism ... shaped her personality ... and formed the background for her later hysteria and self-indulgence following the deaths of her husband and children" (p. 10). Emerson also contends that the marriage of Abraham and Mary was not an easy one, but Abraham played a critical role in their relationship as a "restraining influence" (p. 11). Not only did Abraham tolerate her behavior, but his moderating personality tempered her childlike actions when she became too volatile. Emerson maintains that when coupled with her "emotionalism," her son Willie's death and her husband's assassination acted as catalysts for her rapidly degrading mental state.

With the death of the sixteenth president, Robert became the head of the Lincoln family, and in this role, he took primary responsibility for his mother's physical and mental well-being. He did so, Emerson argues, because he was not only devoted to his family, but he was also the "quintessential Victorian-era gentleman" (p. 21). "Duty" and "honor" formed Robert's worldview, which also informed his notions of privacy and commanded his actions as the head of the family (p. 21). It is of little surprise, then, that Robert became increasingly protective of his family and acutely aware of the seriousness of his mother's mental health. In 1867, Robert started to notice that his mother was spending exorbitant sums of money on clothing. Not only was Mary spending money, but she also tried to sell her clothing under a pseudonym to her husband's old political friends because she believed she was poor. The "Old Clothes Scandal of 1867" became a fiasco for Robert and caused him to suspect that she was "'mentally irresponsible'" (p. 28). By 1875, after several incidents, Robert was firmly convinced that his mother's mind had finally broken. He subsequently consulted physicians and such close family friends as U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Davis and lawyer Leonard Swett on the appropriate course for his mother. They concluded she was insane and that she needed medical care in an institution. Under Illinois law, however, this could only be done through a trial.

Based on the information Emerson gleaned from the "Lost Insanity Files," he takes this opportunity to revise the historical narrative regarding Mary's trial. Unlike previous historians who have criticized Robert for railroading his mother in her insanity trial to acquire her money, Emerson portrays Robert as a dutiful and caring son who only wanted the best for his mother. He hired a Pinkerton detective to guard her and ensure her physical well-being. Additionally, he consulted a total of six physicians to accurately gauge his mother's mental health, all of whom concluded that Mary ought to be committed to a facility for her own personal safety. Emerson also contends that an evaluation of the legal system in which Mary was tried is important to understanding the case as a whole. As early as 1823, Illinois law provided anyone accused of insanity the right to a trial by jury. The law was changed in 1851 and allowed husbands to institutionalize their wives or children without a trial. This sexist legal system was challenged in 1860, and all accused insane were subsequently given the right to a trial by jury. Under this system, Mary's case was heard before a jury of eighteen witnesses, including Mary's son. In a rare display of emotion, Robert cried several times during his testimony and found it very hard to state that his mother was mentally ill. Physicians and others who had direct contact with Mary also testified that she was insane. Based on this testimony, the jury concluded the same and sentenced the former First Lady to institutionalization. Robert was appointed her conservator and managed her finances and property.

Emerson continues to challenge prevailing theories of Mary's "Institutionalization Episode" and the source of her release. Prior to her trip to Bellevue Sanitarium, Mary attempted to commit suicide by obtaining a lethal concoction of medicine, but she was continually foiled by a diligent pharmacist. Emerson maintains that Mary's suicide attempt only demonstrates that she was disturbed, not that she sought to escape the perceived bonds placed on her life by her son. He also disagrees with Baker that her suicide attempt was a "false story planted" by Robert in the newspapers to justify his actions (p. 70). Emerson supports his claim by citing five separate newspapers that carried the story. Emerson also argues that Mary's tenure at Bellevue was not as harsh as the contemporary press or other biographers have portrayed. She had a private suite on the second floor with a bathroom. Her door was locked at night, and her windows had a wire mesh in place to prevent her from committing suicide. Her son visited his mother every week. Mary seemed quite happy from the accounts provided by Robert and the Bellevue Sanitarium staff, but she increasingly longed for contact with the outside world, specifically with Myra Bradwell, one of her Chicago friends. It has been believed by historians that Bradwell planned Mary's release from Bellevue, and based on information found in the lost letters of Mary, she secretly was the architect of her release, which occurred in September 1875. On June 15, 1876, Mary's property was restored to her, and she left for Europe once again.

The concluding chapters of The Madness of Mary Lincoln analyze Mary's life while she was in Europe from 1876 to her death in 1882. These chapters are informative and intriguing as they outline Mary's activities that have remained unknown to historians because of the dearth of materials. Additionally, Emerson also includes a very good chapter outlining the odyssey of papers related to Mary's trial and institutionalization. These papers appear in an appendix at the end of the monograph.

Not only does Emerson clarify many facets of the trial and the institutionalization of Mary, but he also rescues Robert from historical victimization and obscurity in the Lincoln literature. Emerson successfully captures Robert's character and worldview, and even though Robert's actions may appear cold to the modern observer, his familial devotion to his mother was unfailing; his estrangement from his mother caused him much anguish. In a letter that Emerson does not cite, on July 30, 1882, Robert wrote Lucretia Garfield, wife of martyred President James A. Garfield, "I have great satisfaction that a year ago I broke down the personal barrier which her disturbed mind had caused her to raise between us. At last in the end the estrangement had ceased."[4] Clearly, Robert treasured the last year that he shared with his mother.

Emerson's intrepid study of this critical period in Mary's life will be a lasting contribution to the scholarship on the Lincoln family. It will surely stimulate new studies on her life and the Lincoln family, and as scholars, we must be thankful for the discovery of these letters.

Civil War Book Review - Giselle Roberts
"The Madness of Mary Lincoln is a well written and intriguing work. Emerson’s appendices are a wonderful addition to his study, containing transcriptions of the twenty-five previously unpublished Mary Todd Lincoln letters, the legal documents pertaining to the sale and destruction of the correspondence, and a short essay on the psychiatric illness of Mary Lincoln by Dr. James S. Brust. In all, Jason Emerson should be congratulated for both his detective work and his historical analysis which have culminated in a groundbreaking study on the life of this complex and troubled woman."

Giselle Roberts is a Research Associate in American History at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. She is the author of The Confederate Belle (University of Missouri Press, 2003) and the editor of The Correspondence of Sarah Morgan and Francis Warrington Dawson (University of Georgia Press and the Southern Texts Society, 2004).

Choice August 2008 - M. Puskar-Pasewicz
Basing his work on recently discovered letters of Mary Todd Lincoln, independent historian Emerson reconstructs the events surrounding her infamous insanity case in 1875. This new evidence, along with the author's examination of other contemporary and scholarly accounts, provides a comprehensive, sympathetic retelling of Mary Lincoln's life in the years following her husband's assassination. Emerson weaves together the social, legal, and psychological factors that shaped Lincoln's lifelong struggle with mental illness as well as how those around her perceived her erratic behavior. In particular, he persuasively argues that Robert Lincoln's decision to commit his mother to an asylum was motivated by deep affection and concern, not the self-serving impulses to which other observers and scholars have alluded. Finally, Emerson's fascinating account of how Lincoln's "insanity" letters were originally lost and then rediscovered offers a useful reminder that what is known about the past can depend as much on sheer luck as on careful detective work. Emerson's concise, engrossing book will be of interest to students and scholars. Summing Up: Recommended.
American Spectator - Thomas J. Craughwell
American historians dream of finding a cache of Lincoln letters the way the rest of us dream of picking six winning numbers for Powerball Lotto. In summer 2005, independent scholar Jason Emerson hit the jackpot-twenty forgotten, never-before-published letters written by Mary Lincoln. And these are not letters from some random period in Mary's life-these letters date from "the insanity episode," as Emerson calls it, the months before, during, and after her 1875 confinement in the Bellevue Place Sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois. In addition to the Mary Lincoln letters, Emerson found five other previously unknown letters written to the president's widow during this unhappy chapter in her life. Taken together, these documents offer scholars what they have never had before: fresh insights into Mary's mental and physical condition before she was sent to Bellevue; the actions she took to win her release from the sanitarium; the less-than-flattering role her friends James and Myra Bradwell played in the case; and the intense feelings of resentment and even hostility Mary nurtured against her son Robert Todd Lincoln in the years after her release from Bellevue. It is simply a breathtaking find, and the fact that Emerson stumbled on the letters in an old steamer trunk tucked away in the Towers family's attic (Frederic N. Towers had been Robert Lincoln's attorney) gives the discovery an almost fairy tale quality. If at the bottom of the trunk Emerson had also turned up a hand-drawn map with "X" marking the spot where Jefferson Davis buried the gold from the Confederate treasury, I wouldn't be a bit surprised.

The discovery of these letters is thrilling, but the documents themselves are only useful if they are set within their historical context, and that is what Emerson does so well in The Madness of Mary Lincoln. The book is, first of all, a sympathetic portrait of Mary Lincoln, a woman who showed signs of mental illness long before the assassination of her husband, Abraham Lincoln, on April 14, 1865 (although that event is generally considered the poor woman's breaking point). In an attempt to identify Mary Lincoln's specific mental illness, Emerson called in John M. Suarez of the Department of Psychiatry, Neuropsychiatric Institute, University of California Medical Center in Los Angeles, and James S. Brust, M.D., chair of the department of psychiatry and medical director of the psychiatric unit at San Pedro Peninsula Hospital, San Pedro, California, to evaluate the case. The psychiatrists believe she suffered from Bipolar Disorder, which would account for the periods of depression, wild mood swings, reckless shopping binges, and hallucinations-at the time of her committal to Bellevue, Mary complained that the spirit of an Indian removed, then replaced, her scalp, picked bones out of her face, and drew wires from her eyes.

Jason Emerson, then, places himself squarely in the camp of those biographers and historians who believe that Mary Lincoln suffered from a severe mental illness. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I have tended to regard Mary Lincoln as an eccentric who was railroaded into an asylum by her unfeeling son Robert. After reading Emerson's arguments and the documentary evidence he has marshaled to support them, I am now convinced that Mary Lincoln was not of sound mind, and that Robert Todd Lincoln, while not exactly the most lovable character in American history, was not the cold-hearted bastard I took him to be. Live and learn.

Nor was Mary shipped off to some Dickensian madhouse. Bellevue was a private sanitarium run by Dr. Richard J. Patterson. He cared exclusively for women who suffered from nervous disorders, or depression, or had suicidal tendencies. In keeping with his treatment program, which emphasized "rest, diet, baths, fresh air, occupation, diversion, change of scene, no more medicine than... absolutely necessary, and the least possible restraint," Dr. Patterson would not accept patients who were violent or destructive. There were 20 women staying at Bellevue when Mary Lincoln was admitted. In keeping with her status, she was given a suite of two rooms with a private bath on the second floor in the part of the building that served as the Patterson family's residence (Dr. Patterson lived there with his wife and two adult children). Mary was welcome to take her meals with the Pattersons, or privately in her suite. Like all the other patients, she had freedom to wander Bellevue's 20 acres of lawns, woodland, and gardens; carriages and sleighs were at her disposal to take her on outings off the grounds. As for the building, all the rooms were large, airy, well lit, and elegantly furnished. There were no bars on the windows, just a white wire netting or screen, and the doors were only locked at night. Clearly Robert Lincoln had not packed his mother off to some hellhole.

While making the case for Mary's mental instability, Emerson also rehabilitates the reputation of her sole surviving son, Robert. Emerson characterizes Robert Lincoln as a classic Victorian gentleman motivated by a profound sense of duty. As his mother's behavior became more and more erratic Robert felt obliged to collect medical opinions of her condition from physicians (he consulted at least half a dozen), and then to arrange for the trial that would determine if his mother should be institutionalized. Yet while some biographers of Mary Lincoln have accused Robert of scheming to get his hands on his mother's money, Emerson has collected a small mountain of letters written by Mary's family and friends assuring Robert that he had done the right thing in placing his mother "under the loving care and wise guidance [of Dr. Patterson]," as Mary's closest friend, Sally Orne put it.

Mary Lincoln was not so forgiving. She excoriated her son as one "of the greatest scoundrels of the age," warning him that in the afterlife when she was reunited with Abraham Lincoln and her three dead sons, Robert would not be permitted to come near them. After her release from Bellevue (she stayed there four months) her rage against her son escalated. She would not let him touch her, denounced him as "wicked." She sent him long lists itemizing all the gifts she had ever presented to Robert and his wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln-jewelry, furniture, books, even clothing given years earlier and worn out long ago-and demanded that everything be returned to her. In letters to friends Mary could not bring herself to write her son's name, referring to him as "the young man" or using his initials. Mary Lincoln even took pleasure in the thought that her son would end up in hell. "God is just," she wrote to a friend, "retribution must follow those who act wickedly in this life." And she started carrying a pistol. Why Mary Lincoln suddenly went about armed is unknown, but her sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth and Ninian Edwards, feared Mary planned to use it on Robert the next time he visited his mother. "She says she will never again allow you to come into her presence," Uncle Ninian wrote Robert. "We do not know what is best to be done." Painful as it is to read such letters, they do give us, at last, a clearer picture of the state of Mary Lincoln's mind, as well as the true character of Robert Lincoln.

Finally, I'd like to make a prediction: Jason Emerson's The Madness of Mary Lincoln will become a classic of American history. It has everything-a compelling story; a fascinating cast of characters; the thrilling discovery of long-lost documents; shrewd analysis of the people, the period, and the sources; and it's a pleasure to read. Here is a model of the historian's art.

Washington Times
Abraham Lincoln dealt with quite a few problems as 16th president of the United States. Alas, one of them was his troubled wife, Mary, whose tragic later years are the subject of a fine new book by Virginia historian Jason Emerson, The Madness of Mary Lincoln (Southern Illinois University, $29.95, 258 pages, illus.).

Born into a well-to-do Kentucky family, Mary was, in Mr. Emerson''s judgment, "intelligent, witty, vivacious and cultured, but she also was spoiled, petulant, selfish, nervous, and excitable." As first lady, her extravagant refurnishing of the While House in time of war invited considerable criticism. Then came tragedy. Her 12-year-old son, Willie, died of typhoid fever in 1862, and three years later her husband died at the hand of John Wilkes Booth. The remaining 17 years of Mary''s life were filled with anguish as she attempted to cope with the frowning world from which her husband had long protected her.

Congress voted Mary a pension of $3,000 a year, but she had no home and few friends. She migrated from hotel to hotel, often pursued by demons. In a Chicago hotel she went downstairs half dressed, claiming that the hotel was on fire. When her older son, Robert, induced her to return to her room, she accused him of trying to murder her. She complained that people were attempting to speak to her through the wall. She carried huge sums of money on her person, leading acquaintances to fear for her safety.

Mary''s erratic behavior placed Robert in a difficult position. Today, Mary Lincoln''s symptoms would be treated with drugs (Mr. Emerson believes she was bipolar), and she would be able to function in society. No such treatment was available in 1875, and psychotics such as Mary were often incarcerated for their own protection. But, as the author points out, in Illinois this could only be done after a trial by jury.

Robert consulted with a legion of doctors who unanimously advised that Mary required treatment. The physicians told Robert that delay in his mother''s treatment would make him morally responsible for some forthcoming tragedy.

It fell to Leonard Swett, an old friend of President Lincoln''s, to get Mary into a Chicago court on May 19, 1875. It took an hour for him to coax Mary into his carriage while she showered him with abuse. The ensuing trial lasted three hours, during which 18 witnesses - physicians, hotel employees and merchants - testified as to Mary''s derangement. According to Mr. Emerson, "Robert allowed only the barest minimum of evidence . . . in order to minimize public exposure and embarrassment." But Robert, in tears, called her "eccentric and unmanageable," and Mary said nothing in her own defense.

The jury found Mary to be incompetent, and she was sent to an upscale mental institution outside Chicago, where she was confined for four months. At the end of that period Robert requested a second trial that found Mary "restored to health," though this view was not widely held by those closest to her. Estranged from Robert, she moved to Springfield. Convinced that her son would try to institutionalize her again, Mary fled to Europe, where she lived until shortly before her death in 1882.

The treatment of the mentally ill has come a long way since the trials of Mary Lincoln. But Mr. Emerson rejects any attempt to demonize Robert Lincoln, concluding that "he acted with concern, compassion, and benevolence toward his mother."

— John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor

American Spectator
American historians dream of finding a cache of Lincoln letters the way the rest of us dream of picking six winning numbers for Powerball Lotto. In summer 2005, independent scholar Jason Emerson hit the jackpot-twenty forgotten, never-before-published letters written by Mary Lincoln. And these are not letters from some random period in Mary''s life-these letters date from "the insanity episode," as Emerson calls it, the months before, during, and after her 1875 confinement in the Bellevue Place Sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois. In addition to the Mary Lincoln letters, Emerson found five other previously unknown letters written to the president''s widow during this unhappy chapter in her life. Taken together, these documents offer scholars what they have never had before: fresh insights into Mary''s mental and physical condition before she was sent to Bellevue; the actions she took to win her release from the sanitarium; the less-than-flattering role her friends James and Myra Bradwell played in the case; and the intense feelings of resentment and even hostility Mary nurtured against her son Robert Todd Lincoln in the years after her release from Bellevue. It is simply a breathtaking find, and the fact that Emerson stumbled on the letters in an old steamer trunk tucked away in the Towers family''s attic (Frederic N. Towers had been Robert Lincoln''s attorney) gives the discovery an almost fairy tale quality. If at the bottom of the trunk Emerson had also turned up a hand-drawn map with "X" marking the spot where Jefferson Davis buried the gold from the Confederate treasury, I wouldn''t be a bit surprised.

The discovery of these letters is thrilling, but the documents themselves are only useful if they are set within their historical context, and that is what Emerson does so well in The Madness of Mary Lincoln. The book is, first of all, a sympathetic portrait of Mary Lincoln, a woman who showed signs of mental illness long before the assassination of her husband, Abraham Lincoln, on April 14, 1865 (although that event is generally considered the poor woman''s breaking point). In an attempt to identify Mary Lincoln''s specific mental illness, Emerson called in John M. Suarez of the Department of Psychiatry, Neuropsychiatric Institute, University of California Medical Center in Los Angeles, and James S. Brust, M.D., chair of the department of psychiatry and medical director of the psychiatric unit at San Pedro Peninsula Hospital, San Pedro, California, to evaluate the case. The psychiatrists believe she suffered from Bipolar Disorder, which would account for the periods of depression, wild mood swings, reckless shopping binges, and hallucinations-at the time of her committal to Bellevue, Mary complained that the spirit of an Indian removed, then replaced, her scalp, picked bones out of her face, and drew wires from her eyes.

Jason Emerson, then, places himself squarely in the camp of those biographers and historians who believe that Mary Lincoln suffered from a severe mental illness. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I have tended to regard Mary Lincoln as an eccentric who was railroaded into an asylum by her unfeeling son Robert. After reading Emerson''s arguments and the documentary evidence he has marshaled to support them, I am now convinced that Mary Lincoln was not of sound mind, and that Robert Todd Lincoln, while not exactly the most lovable character in American history, was not the cold-hearted bastard I took him to be. Live and learn.

Nor was Mary shipped off to some Dickensian madhouse. Bellevue was a private sanitarium run by Dr. Richard J. Patterson. He cared exclusively for women who suffered from nervous disorders, or depression, or had suicidal tendencies. In keeping with his treatment program, which emphasized "rest, diet, baths, fresh air, occupation, diversion, change of scene, no more medicine than... absolutely necessary, and the least possible restraint," Dr. Patterson would not accept patients who were violent or destructive. There were 20 women staying at Bellevue when Mary Lincoln was admitted. In keeping with her status, she was given a suite of two rooms with a private bath on the second floor in the part of the building that served as the Patterson family''s residence (Dr. Patterson lived there with his wife and two adult children). Mary was welcome to take her meals with the Pattersons, or privately in her suite. Like all the other patients, she had freedom to wander Bellevue''s 20 acres of lawns, woodland, and gardens; carriages and sleighs were at her disposal to take her on outings off the grounds. As for the building, all the rooms were large, airy, well lit, and elegantly furnished. There were no bars on the windows, just a white wire netting or screen, and the doors were only locked at night. Clearly Robert Lincoln had not packed his mother off to some hellhole.

While making the case for Mary''s mental instability, Emerson also rehabilitates the reputation of her sole surviving son, Robert. Emerson characterizes Robert Lincoln as a classic Victorian gentleman motivated by a profound sense of duty. As his mother''s behavior became more and more erratic Robert felt obliged to collect medical opinions of her condition from physicians (he consulted at least half a dozen), and then to arrange for the trial that would determine if his mother should be institutionalized. Yet while some biographers of Mary Lincoln have accused Robert of scheming to get his hands on his mother''s money, Emerson has collected a small mountain of letters written by Mary''s family and friends assuring Robert that he had done the right thing in placing his mother "under the loving care and wise guidance [of Dr. Patterson]," as Mary''s closest friend, Sally Orne put it.

Mary Lincoln was not so forgiving. She excoriated her son as one "of the greatest scoundrels of the age," warning him that in the afterlife when she was reunited with Abraham Lincoln and her three dead sons, Robert would not be permitted to come near them. After her release from Bellevue (she stayed there four months) her rage against her son escalated. She would not let him touch her, denounced him as "wicked." She sent him long lists itemizing all the gifts she had ever presented to Robert and his wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln-jewelry, furniture, books, even clothing given years earlier and worn out long ago-and demanded that everything be returned to her. In letters to friends Mary could not bring herself to write her son''s name, referring to him as "the young man" or using his initials. Mary Lincoln even took pleasure in the thought that her son would end up in hell. "God is just," she wrote to a friend, "retribution must follow those who act wickedly in this life." And she started carrying a pistol. Why Mary Lincoln suddenly went about armed is unknown, but her sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth and Ninian Edwards, feared Mary planned to use it on Robert the next time he visited his mother. "She says she will never again allow you to come into her presence," Uncle Ninian wrote Robert. "We do not know what is best to be done." Painful as it is to read such letters, they do give us, at last, a clearer picture of the state of Mary Lincoln''s mind, as well as the true character of Robert Lincoln.

Finally, I''d like to make a prediction: Jason Emerson''s The Madness of Mary Lincoln will become a classic of American history. It has everything-a compelling story; a fascinating cast of characters; the thrilling discovery of long-lost documents; shrewd analysis of the people, the period, and the sources; and it''s a pleasure to read. Here is a model of the historian''s art.

— Thomas J. Craughwell

Journal of American Culture
Those of us who have at the same time anguished over what has through the years been called Mary Lincoln''s madness and Abraham''s discomfort with having to live with it will be pleased with this volume, the third on the subject through the years. It also explains the behavior of the only remaining son, Robert Todd, and exonerates him from cruelly committing his mother to an insane sanitarium in Chicago.
Mary, admittedly, was high-strung, driven by pride and conceit, all resulting from what Emerson diagnoses as "depression, of mania, of a relapsing-remitting course, and even of a regular cycle. These are consistent with Bipolar Disorder" (188). There is evidence of "serious psychiatric illness in Mary Lincoln''s family," and she was, "at times, clearly psychotic" (189). These new conclusions come by Emerson through examination of a steamer trunk formerly owned by Robert Todd Lincoln''s lawyer and stowed in an attic for forty years, which contained twenty-five letters, twenty of which were written by Mary herself, the others about her. Emerson looks upon this trunk and these letters as a priceless treasure-trove, and so will all of us who are interested in Abraham, Mary, Robert, medicine in general and the treatment of those mentally ill during the last of the nineteenth century.

— Ray B. Browne

Lincoln Herald
At long last the definitive work on Mrs. Abraham Lincoln''s oft discussed mental state has been published based on recently discovered 25 long lost letters by her and associates from the asylum where she had to be incarcerated and from elsewhere. Actually the letters were with the descendants of the Lincoln family attorney. With the help of officials at Hildene, the Robert Todd Lincoln Vermont estate of the President''s son, independent historian Jason Emerson, formerly of the National Park Service, was able to uncover this treasure trove. An indefatigable researcher, Emerson not only writes well but judiciously in showing that Mary Todd Lincoln almost assuredly suffered from bipolar disorder, which used to be called manic depression. Moreover, through the generosity of Abraham Lincoln''s biographer Dr. Michael Burlingame, whose own multi-volume work on the President is much anticipated, and who shared part of his findings with Emerson, it is now apparent that poor Mrs. Lincoln not only suffered long before her White House years but that depression, suicide, and incarceration for mental illness affected other members of her Todd family. Even one of her sister''s, Elizabeth Edwards, acknowledged similar problems with at least one other Todd relative.
Dr. James S. Brust, a psychiatrist who has studied Mary''s case and whose report is published in this fascinating volume, says even today if Mary was alive, she would require psychiatric hospitalization. Mary exhibited all the symptoms of manic depressive illness: depression, delusions of persecution, poverty and various sleep disorders, hallucinations, inflated self -- esteem, sharp mood swings, extravagant spending or monomania, threats of physical violence against others and attempts at suicide.
This excellent and thorough work should go a long way to resurrecting the reputation of her son Robert whose name has been much abused in recent decades by amateur playwrights taking their cues from biographers with their own agenda seeking to make Mary a feminist at her son''s and even at the President''s expense. Mary Todd Lincoln was not one though she imagined all sorts of things occasionally, though the term itself was largely unknown.
When the President wrote that he could hardly be a supporter of the white anti Catholic, anti foreign Know-Nothing movement since he was not a supporter of black slavery, Mary was supporting the Know-Nothing candidate for President. In politics, in temperament, in her own flawed emotional make-up Mary Todd Lincoln was no Eleanor Roosevelt or even an Edith Bolling Wilson in what that early 20th century First Lady called her "stewardship" when her husband was struck down by a stroke shortly after World War I.
Emerson adds to his impressive work by not only publishing the lost letters of Mary and related others, but actual photographs of some of Mary''s letters too. The author rightly spends a good deal of time describing the Victorian concept of manhood as to how and why Robert acted on his sick mother''s behalf by having her placed in an asylum after a trial that was legal by the standards of the day and considered then a major reforming breakthrough.
Robert was a Victorian to the core, soldiering on with an almost crushing sense of duty and responsibility even against his own sensitive and reclusive personality. Indeed, a more modern sense of openness by today''s standards would have helped his reputation and other matters in this sad affair. When he returned his mother''s estate to her he had actually increased its value and did not claim a commission for which he was legally entitled.
Mrs. Lincoln must be given credit in the White House years for at least trying to fulfill her duties as she saw them such as making unannounced visits to hospitals for the sick and wounded soldiers when her temperament could not really handle death and dying. Mrs. Franklin Pierce, for example, when she entered the White House, in effect went upstairs and never came down until her husband''s term was over, so opposed was she to his being President. Actually both women suffered horrendous personal tragedies but Mary at least tried to overcome this at times. In the end one must feel compassion for Mary Todd Lincoln - and exasperation.
Ironically, the two people who remained wounded throughout history that should be helped by this revelatory book are mother and son: sick Mary and abused Robert. Presidential HistorianA. Lincoln Institute and The Woodrow Wilson House

— Steven Lee Carson

JAMA
In The Madness of Mary Lincoln, Jason Emerson has created a detailed and compelling argument to convince the reader that the widow of Abraham Lincoln was mentally ill for years after 1864 and that her son, Robert, behaved in the noblest traditions of the post-Civil War United States. The sanity of Mary Lincoln and the conduct of her sole surviving son have been discussed and debated with varying degrees of seriousness since Lincoln''s assassination. In various newspapers both lurid and serious and in historical texts and essays the argument has been parsed, pursued, and dissected. What distinguishes this effort from other recent serious works is that the author had access to a treasure of personal correspondence that was presumed either lost or destroyed. The story of how Emerson was given access to these documents by the family of Robert Lincoln''s attorney is one of several sidebars within this book that makes it all the more interesting. As a reader without a special curiosity for these arguments or for this era of US history, I found this book precise, detailed, well annotated, and quite convincing. As a physician and psychiatrist, I was more interested in the idea of diagnostic certainty regarding these historical personages and the state of medical-legal processes of the day.

With some appropriate caveats, Emerson offers credible behavioral evidence, arrived at with the assistance of modern professional medical opinions, that Mary Lincoln likely had a chronic mental illness. When narrowly focused on this topic, as in "Mrs. Lincoln Admitted Today" (chapter 5), Emerson is detailed and convincing. In other instances, I found myself groaning at the imprecise use of terms such as "money mania" (p 23) or "materialist mania" (p 45).

The book includes some discussion of the laws and processes of what today would be called "involuntary commitment," and it is fascinating. The laws in 19th-century United States were obviously far from enlightened; however, in Illinois, the commitment laws began a convoluted path through the relatively forward-thinking but conflicting ideals of autonomy, privacy, and protection for impaired individuals. In 1823, Illinois passed the first in a series of laws regarding the care and commitment of its citizens with the "Act regulating the estates of Idiots, Lunatics, and persons distracted." This law required a jury trial to prove insanity and allowed conservatorship but did not establish a system of care. Following the work of Dorothea Dix in 1841 to improve care for the mentally ill, the state began to create mental hospitals. In the tradition of 2 steps forward, 1 step back, Illinois passed a law in 1851 that gave husbands the right to have their wives face commitment for publicly disagreeing with them (the law also gave parents or guardians that right where children were concerned). This lasted until the early 1860s with the outrageous 3-year incarceration at a state hospital of Elizabeth Packard, wife of a Calvinist minister, who dared to disagree publicly with her husband. Following her release, her husband tried to keep her locked up in her home until she could be committed to an asylum in Massachusetts, where his efforts were legal. She survived this ordeal by not pursuing her husband, who had taken custody of their children in an effort to lure her to that less enlightened state. Thereafter, she became a tireless advocate for reform of the commitment laws, working with Myra Bradwell. One would think this just crusade would have earned her high praise. Instead, the editor of the American Journal of Insanity labeled her a "talkative and crazy woman" and her efforts "a pestilent commotion stimulated by an offence against female vanity."

The most engaging aspects of this book are the glimpses of US society that created and nurtured the familial conflicts so prominent in the Lincoln family. Robert Lincoln''s life would have been much calmer, enriching, and enjoyable if he would have simply turned his back on his mother''s difficulties in the face of her unrelenting insults and outrages against him. He could not do that, as he was bound by the contemporary obligations of a son to act honorably even when it cost him so dearly.
One other small issue related to backward-looking medical diagnoses deserved more discussion. In Mary Lincoln''s later life, she sustained falls and fractures along with adult-onset diabetes, resulting in debilitating peripheral neuropathies. The author, in the Epilogue, refers to a 1999 article by Norbert Hirschhorn and Robert G. Feldman in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences that states that Mrs Lincoln had tabes dorsalis. These authors, according to Emerson, stated that her tabes dorsalis was "more probably" caused by "prolonged and untreated diabetes" than syphilis. This statement begged for more discussion but was left standing perhaps due to the lingering whispers of 19th-century politeness.

In any case, The Madness of Mary Lincoln will be greatly appreciated by history buffs and serious historians for its thoughtful and detailed look at some of the great personages of the Civil War era. Others will enjoy the glimpses of the past that foster appreciation of how US society arrived at its current condition.

— Mark H. Fleisher, MD

H-Net Reviews
A Dutiful Son and a Disturbed Mother: New Perspectives on Robert and Mary Todd Lincoln Upon Mary Todd Lincoln''s death in July 1882, the editor of the Springfield Monitor (Illinois) began the former First Lady''s obituary with a simple but powerful statement: "Mary Lincoln was no ordinary woman." She was "princely in her nature" and worthy of the position she held in the White House, but the editor was quick to note the perceived effect of Abraham Lincoln''s assassination on her eccentricities. Since that fateful day, "her history has been well known to this country."[1]
While a general history of her activities may have been known to her contemporaries, the scarcity of materials related to her later life has vexed historians for years, especially in regard to what former National Park Service ranger Jason Emerson refers to as her "Institutionalization Episode" (p. 63). In the first published compilation of Mary''s letters by Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner in 1972, the author of the introduction, Fawn M. Brodie, bemoaned that "there has never been a good clinical study of Mary Lincoln" because the only record of her insanity trial was the court report. She predicted, though, that the letters found in the Turners'' edited volume "will surely stimulate a new and more subtle book-length study."[2] Indeed, she was correct. Historians Mark Neely Jr. and R. Gerald McMurty answered the call in 1986 with a study of Mary''s insanity trial. It was a timely work based on recently discovered manuscripts found in Robert Todd Lincoln''s file room in his Manchester, Vermont, home.[3] In 1987, Mary Jean Baker also used these papers to analyze Mary''s condition in her biography of the First Lady.
In spite of these important books, Lincoln scholars continued to bitterly debate the source of her incarceration since the former First Lady''s voice remained largely unheard as a result of her eldest son''s meticulous quest to destroy or hide his family''s private papers. Due to the historical vacuum, historians wondered if her admittance to the asylum was the product of a caring son or if Mary was the victim of her son''s male chauvinistic behavior. These debates have plagued Lincoln scholars until 2005 when Emerson tracked down manuscripts owned by the family of Robert''s lawyer, Frederic N. Towers. His son, Frederic C. Towers, had recently found them in a steamer trunk in his basement. This landmark discovery shed new light on Mary''s insanity, incarceration, her release, and her son''s seemingly dishonest intentions. The unpublished letters of Mary and legal documents pertaining to the acquisition of these letters appear in appendices at the end of the monograph.
The Madness of Mary Lincoln begins with an important evaluation of Mary''s personality as a young woman, her relationship with Abraham Lincoln, and the tragedy she faced as a mother and wife. Emerson argues that Mary, as a child and young woman, exhibited the characteristics of a dual personality because of her erratic changes in emotion. He cites several of Mary''s contemporaries who commented on her behavior, including her cousin Elizabeth Edwards, Lincoln''s presidential secretary William O. Stoddard, and William H. Herndon. One, however, might question the use of Herndon''s opinions given his and Mary''s mutual hatred of each other. By focusing on these early episodes in Mary''s life, Emerson revives the argument first posed by Mary''s first biographer, W. A. Evans, in 1928 that Mary''s "emotionalism ... shaped her personality ... and formed the background for her later hysteria and self-indulgence following the deaths of her husband and children" (p. 10). Emerson also contends that the marriage of Abraham and Mary was not an easy one, but Abraham played a critical role in their relationship as a "restraining influence" (p. 11). Not only did Abraham tolerate her behavior, but his moderating personality tempered her childlike actions when she became too volatile. Emerson maintains that when coupled with her "emotionalism," her son Willie''s death and her husband''s assassination acted as catalysts for her rapidly degrading mental state.
With the death of the sixteenth president, Robert became the head of the Lincoln family, and in this role, he took primary responsibility for his mother''s physical and mental well-being. He did so, Emerson argues, because he was not only devoted to his family, but he was also the "quintessential Victorian-era gentleman" (p. 21). "Duty" and "honor" formed Robert''s worldview, which also informed his notions of privacy and commanded his actions as the head of the family (p. 21). It is of little surprise, then, that Robert became increasingly protective of his family and acutely aware of the seriousness of his mother''s mental health. In 1867, Robert started to notice that his mother was spending exorbitant sums of money on clothing. Not only was Mary spending money, but she also tried to sell her clothing under a pseudonym to her husband''s old political friends because she believed she was poor. The "Old Clothes Scandal of 1867" became a fiasco for Robert and caused him to suspect that she was "''mentally irresponsible''" (p. 28). By 1875, after several incidents, Robert was firmly convinced that his mother''s mind had finally broken. He subsequently consulted physicians and such close family friends as U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Davis and lawyer Leonard Swett on the appropriate course for his mother. They concluded she was insane and that she needed medical care in an institution. Under Illinois law, however, this could only be done through a trial.
Based on the information Emerson gleaned from the "Lost Insanity Files," he takes this opportunity to revise the historical narrative regarding Mary''s trial. Unlike previous historians who have criticized Robert for railroading his mother in her insanity trial to acquire her money, Emerson portrays Robert as a dutiful and caring son who only wanted the best for his mother. He hired a Pinkerton detective to guard her and ensure her physical well-being. Additionally, he consulted a total of six physicians to accurately gauge his mother''s mental health, all of whom concluded that Mary ought to be committed to a facility for her own personal safety. Emerson also contends that an evaluation of the legal system in which Mary was tried is important to understanding the case as a whole. As early as 1823, Illinois law provided anyone accused of insanity the right to a trial by jury. The law was changed in 1851 and allowed husbands to institutionalize their wives or children without a trial. This sexist legal system was challenged in 1860, and all accused insane were subsequently given the right to a trial by jury. Under this system, Mary''s case was heard before a jury of eighteen witnesses, including Mary''s son. In a rare display of emotion, Robert cried several times during his testimony and found it very hard to state that his mother was mentally ill. Physicians and others who had direct contact with Mary also testified that she was insane. Based on this testimony, the jury concluded the same and sentenced the former First Lady to institutionalization. Robert was appointed her conservator and managed her finances and property.
Emerson continues to challenge prevailing theories of Mary''s "Institutionalization Episode" and the source of her release. Prior to her trip to Bellevue Sanitarium, Mary attempted to commit suicide by obtaining a lethal concoction of medicine, but she was continually foiled by a diligent pharmacist. Emerson maintains that Mary''s suicide attempt only demonstrates that she was disturbed, not that she sought to escape the perceived bonds placed on her life by her son. He also disagrees with Baker that her suicide attempt was a "false story planted" by Robert in the newspapers to justify his actions (p. 70). Emerson supports his claim by citing five separate newspapers that carried the story. Emerson also argues that Mary''s tenure at Bellevue was not as harsh as the contemporary press or other biographers have portrayed. She had a private suite on the second floor with a bathroom. Her door was locked at night, and her windows had a wire mesh in place to prevent her from committing suicide. Her son visited his mother every week. Mary seemed quite happy from the accounts provided by Robert and the Bellevue Sanitarium staff, but she increasingly longed for contact with the outside world, specifically with Myra Bradwell, one of her Chicago friends. It has been believed by historians that Bradwell planned Mary''s release from Bellevue, and based on information found in the lost letters of Mary, she secretly was the architect of her release, which occurred in September 1875. On June 15, 1876, Mary''s property was restored to her, and she left for Europe once again.
The concluding chapters of The Madness of Mary Lincoln analyze Mary''s life while she was in Europe from 1876 to her death in 1882. These chapters are informative and intriguing as they outline Mary''s activities that have remained unknown to historians because of the dearth of materials. Additionally, Emerson also includes a very good chapter outlining the odyssey of papers related to Mary''s trial and institutionalization. These papers appear in an appendix at the end of the monograph.
Not only does Emerson clarify many facets of the trial and the institutionalization of Mary, but he also rescues Robert from historical victimization and obscurity in the Lincoln literature. Emerson successfully captures Robert''s character and worldview, and even though Robert''s actions may appear cold to the modern observer, his familial devotion to his mother was unfailing; his estrangement from his mother caused him much anguish. In a letter that Emerson does not cite, on July 30, 1882, Robert wrote Lucretia Garfield, wife of martyred President James A. Garfield, "I have great satisfaction that a year ago I broke down the personal barrier which her disturbed mind had caused her to raise between us. At last in the end the estrangement had ceased."[4] Clearly, Robert treasured the last year that he shared with his mother.
Emerson''s intrepid study of this critical period in Mary''s life will be a lasting contribution to the scholarship on the Lincoln family. It will surely stimulate new studies on her life and the Lincoln family, and as scholars, we must be thankful for the discovery of these letters.

— Matthew C. Sherman

Civil War Book Review
The Tormented First Lady The story behind The Madness of Mary Lincoln is, perhaps, as intriguing as the historical work itself. In March 2005, Jason Emerson was working on his upcoming biography on Robert Lincoln, when the discovery of two letters penned by Robert's attorney, Frederic N. Towers, led him on a search for the legal papers relating to the insanity trial of Mary Todd Lincoln. These papers were known to have existed but had never been found, and many a frustrated Lincoln historian had come to the conclusion that Robert Lincoln-who had "previously admitted attempting to destroy all of his mother's correspondence from the insanity period"-had disposed of them himself (2).
Jason Emerson remained undeterred by this probability. What turned up months later in the Towers family home was an old steamer trunk containing the business, legal, and family papers of Robert Lincoln, including twenty-five letters relating to Mary Todd Lincoln's insanity episode. After some deliberation, the children of Frederic Towers agreed to allow Emerson to use the material to reexamine the complex story surrounding Mary Lincoln's insanity trial.
Drawing upon these newly discovered letters, together with other correspondence, medical papers, legal documents and newspaper accounts, Emerson argues that the vivacious and charming, yet volatile and emotional Mary Lincoln did not suffer from one highly publicized "insanity episode," but rather exhibited manifestations of bipolar disorder in early life. Prone to fits of temper, Mary's highly strung nature was in some ways ameliorated by her husband, who acted as "the buffer between her and the rest of society" (11). Still, her behavior was erratic at best, and outbursts of jealousy, anger, and nervousness were only exacerbated by the Lincoln family's removal to the White House. Unable to win over Washington society, the First Lady embarked on lavish spending sprees, extravagant domestic refurbishments, and ostentatious parties in an attempt to demonstrate her worth. Her activities earned her only the scorn of the northern press and its people. The death of Willie Lincoln in 1862 pushed an already overwrought Mary to the brink. Inconsolable over the loss of her son, Emerson argues that Mary Lincoln's emotional state deteriorated, finally giving way with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
Using the recently discovered correspondence and legal material, Emerson carefully pieces together a new interpretation of this turbulent episode in Lincoln history. Robert Lincoln looms large in the story, as Emerson seeks to rescue him from the vindictive, mercenary role in the saga that played itself out in the courts and the press in the 1870s. A Harvard law graduate, prevented from joining the Union army until early 1865 because his mother strictly forbade it, Emerson argues that Robert Lincoln was "the quintessential Victorian-era gentleman, who believed in and felicitously followed the manly tenets of duty and honor" (21). Robert's sense of duty underpinned his increasingly difficult relationship with his mother. By the late 1860s, a grief-stricken Mary Lincoln embarked on hefty bouts of spending, followed by paranoid episodes where she obsessed about her lack of material wealth. Further, bad press seemed to dog her. Mary's famous Old Clothes Scandal of 1867-where she convinced herself she was destitute and sought to offload a bevy of White House gowns and jewelry in New York under a pseudonym-was followed by her very public and unpopular campaign to obtain a pension from the United States Government. While Robert attempted to protect his mother from negative press and hurtful allegations, he was all too aware of Mary's deteriorating physical and emotional state.
Things went from bad to worse with Tad Lincoln's sudden death from pleurisy in 1871. Unable to bear yet another loss, Mary allowed grief to overwhelm her, turning to Spiritualism as her only form of comfort. Deeply distrustful of the Spiritualist movement, Robert watched helplessly as his mother suffered from anxiety, excessive spending, hallucinations and obsessive episodes where she was convinced that she, or Robert, were going to die. At his wit's end, Robert sought the advice of several leading Illinois doctors and family friends, who concluded that hospitalization was Mary Lincoln's only hope for recovery. Emerson argues that Robert instigated his mother's committal in May 1875 not out of malice-as many historians have argued-but in a desperate attempt to protect Mary from herself. In so doing, he contends, Robert also fulfilled his duty of care to his family and upheld his reputation as a gentleman amongst his peers.
Mary Todd Lincoln was committed to Bellevue Place Sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois, in May 1875. She initially responded positively to the prescription of "rest, diet, baths, fresh air, occupation, diversion [and] change of scene" (71) offered by Dr. Richard J. Patterson and his staff at the facility. A brief visit by a reporter from the Chicago Post and Mail, however, stirred up Mary's discontent, and fuelled her desire to return to her life in Chicago. Using the newly discovered correspondence-primary between Mary Lincoln and her close friends, Myra and James Bradwell-Emerson argues that "it was Mary herself," not Myra Bradwell, "who created and directed her plot for freedom (77). Frequent appeals to her powerful friends, including the Bradwells, Chicago attorney John Franklin Farnsworth, and newspaper editor Wilber F. Storey, provided Mary with the legal prowess and media sympathy to secure her freedom. Once Mary had the ball rolling, there was little Robert could do to stop her. With the press espousing her recovery, and public sympathy at an all time high, Mary left Bellevue in September 1875, and secured her rights to control her property in June 1876.
The bond between Mary and Robert, however, was irrevocably harmed. In 1876 Mary boarded a steamer bound for Europe, declaring that it was necessary to "place an ocean" (122) between herself and her son. Reconciliation between the pair would not occur for several years thereafter. Emerson concludes that while historians have often placed themselves as "defenders of Mary" or "defenders of Robert", a greater understanding of the insanity period reveals the individual and social undercurrents that shaped the episode and its aftermath. "We cannot blame Mary for her irrationalities," Emerson notes, "nor can we blame Robert for dealing with his mother in a way he deemed most necessary and proper" (155).
The Madness of Mary Lincoln is a well written and intriguing work. Emerson's appendices are a wonderful addition to his study, containing transcriptions of the twenty-five previously unpublished Mary Todd Lincoln letters, the legal documents pertaining to the sale and destruction of the correspondence, and a short essay on the psychiatric illness of Mary Lincoln by Dr. James S. Brust. In all, Jason Emerson should be congratulated for both his detective work and his historical analysis which have culminated in a groundbreaking study on the life of this complex and troubled woman.
Giselle Roberts is a Research Associate in American History at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. She is the author of The Confederate Belle (University of Missouri Press, 2003) and the editor of The Correspondence of Sarah Morgan and Francis Warrington Dawson (University of Georgia Press and the Southern Texts Society, 2004).

— Giselle Roberts

Choice August 2008
Basing his work on recently discovered letters of Mary Todd Lincoln, independent historian Emerson reconstructs the events surrounding her infamous insanity case in 1875. This new evidence, along with the author''s examination of other contemporary and scholarly accounts, provides a comprehensive, sympathetic retelling of Mary Lincoln''s life in the years following her husband''s assassination. Emerson weaves together the social, legal, and psychological factors that shaped Lincoln''s lifelong struggle with mental illness as well as how those around her perceived her erratic behavior. In particular, he persuasively argues that Robert Lincoln''s decision to commit his mother to an asylum was motivated by deep affection and concern, not the self-serving impulses to which other observers and scholars have alluded. Finally, Emerson''s fascinating account of how Lincoln''s "insanity" letters were originally lost and then rediscovered offers a useful reminder that what is known about the past can depend as much on sheer luck as on careful detective work. Emerson''s concise, engrossing book will be of interest to students and scholars. Summing Up: Recommended.

— M. Puskar-Pasewicz

Front Porch Fredericksburg
It''s the stuff Hollywood movies are made of: The already mentally unbalanced wife of a president goes mad after his assassination. Her son, fearful that she has become not only incompetent but a danger to herself, has her publicly tried for insanity and committed to an asylum. There, through the connivance of a pair of mysteriously motivated conspirators, she engineers her release and flees to Europe. Finally, she dies in obscurity, nearly forgotten by an embarrassed American public, while her son lives the rest of his life labeled as a son who had his mother committed in order to get his hands on her fortune.

If only it were Hollywood, but the story of Mary Todd Lincoln and Robert Todd Lincoln is all of this and more. Or at least it is more now that author Jason Emerson has shed astonishing new light on a chapter of American history long thought closed. By dint of extraordinary scholarship and sheer luck, Emerson discovered that the entire story of Mary Lincoln''s madness was not all that it had long been assumed to be. In 2005 he had discovered twenty-five letters pertaining to Mary''s trial and commitment in a long-forgotten trunk that had once belonged to Robert Lincoln''s attorney. More than twenty of these had been written by Mary, half from the asylum in which she had been committed. These letters, and other discoveries made by Emerson, reveal a story far more remarkable than what had been recorded by history. And in the process, revealing Robert to be not a heartless villain but the most devoted son any mother might wish for. Few reading this could have or would have endured what he had been forced to go through... yet, ironically, much of the adverse public opinion was the fault of Robert and his own family.

Jason Emerson has put all of this into a book that is not only one of the most original---and important---studies of American history to be published this year, but a book that is as compelling to read as any great psychological mystery or thriller. The book---written in an easy, conversational style that belies its meticulous research---is almost impossible to put down. It''s too bad summer is nearly over: I would recommend this book as a vacation companion over any current best-seller.

— Ron Miller

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809330102
  • Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2012
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 641,333
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Jason Emerson is an independent historian who lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He has worked as a U.S. National Park Service historical interpreter at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Gettysburg National Military Park, and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and also as a professional journalist and freelance writer. His articles have appeared in American Heritage, American History, and Civil War Times magazines, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Lincoln Herald, Lincoln Forum Bulletin and online at the History News Network (hnn.us). He currently is preparing a biography of Robert T. Lincoln, to be published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2011.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations     ix
Acknowledgments     xi
Introduction     1
Much like an April Day     6
A Most Painful Time of Anxiety     20
No Right to Remain upon Earth     33
Of Unsound Mind     44
Mrs. Lincoln Admitted Today     62
It Does Not Appear That God Is Good     77
No More Insane than I Am     94
A Deeply Wronged Woman     109
Resignation Will Never Come     124
To Be Destroyed Immediately     140
Epilogue     151
Unpublished Mary Todd Lincoln Letters     159
Legal Documents Pertaining to the Sale and Destruction of the Mary Lincoln Insanity Letters     179
The Psychiatric Illness of Mary Lincoln   James S. Brust, M.D.     185
Notes     191
Bibliography     243
Index     251
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    Posted March 4, 2009

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