by Janis Cooke Newman, Amy Rennert

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A fascinating and intimate novel of the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, narrated by the First Lady herself


Mary Todd Lincoln is one of history’s most misunderstood and enigmatic women. She was a political strategist, a supporter of emancipation, and a mother who survived the loss of three children and the assassination of her beloved husband. She also ran her family into debt, held seances in the White House, and was committed to an insane asylum—which is where Janis Cooke Newman’s debut novel begins. From her room in Bellevue Place, Mary chronicles her tempestuous childhood in a slaveholding Southern family and takes readers through the years after her husband’s death, revealing the ebbs and flows of her passion and depression, her poverty and ridicule, and her ultimate redemption.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156033473
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 10/01/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 640
Sales rank: 336,578
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.08(d)

About the Author

Janis Cooke Newman is the author of the memoir The Russian Word for Snow and most recently A Master Plan for Rescue. She lives in northern California.

Read an Excerpt


(May 20)

Mrs. Mary Lincoln admitted today — from Chicago — Age 56 — Widow of Ex-President Lincoln — declared insane by the Cook County Court May 19 — 1875.

— Patient Progress Reports for Bellevue Place Sanitarium

(May 24)

Mrs. Lincoln has seemed cheerful and is apparently contented — She took a long walk this morning — Sleeps well at night.

— Patient Progress Reports for Bellevue Place Sanitarium

I read today the account of my attempt at suicide. It was printed in the Chicago Inter Ocean — on the front page, where appear all the worst stories about me. This is not to say that Doctor Patterson allows the eighteen female lunatics under his care newspapers. Indeed, he believes all news of the outside world to be excessively agitating.

It is Doctor Patterson's opinion that the tumult of late-nineteenth-century life is responsible for diseases of the brain. He explained to me during our first interview that female nerves — which are smaller than those of men — are more likely to be drained of their vitality by the chaos of modern life.

"Newspapers would only serve to overstimulate your already deranged mind," he told me.

Our interview was conducted in Doctor Patterson's office, which is fitted up like a lady's boudoir, with velvet chaises and a great many needleworked pillows. A décor designed to make comfortable the doctor's patients, all of whom are possessed of those female nerves.

"I do not believe that my mind is deranged," I said to the doctor. "Addled from too much chloral hydrate and laudanum, perhaps. Unsettled by the ten-year anniversary of my husband's killing. But not deranged."

The doctor pulled at his coarsely curled hair, which he wears quite full in the back, as if to give the impression of a very large brain. "Your bladder is hysterical," he informed me.

"My bladder, I believe, was damaged by the birth of my last son."

"You are also possessed of an irritated spine."

"It is an arthritic condition which has come upon me since I passed fifty."

"And you have engaged in the religious excitement of séance."

"As has Queen Victoria and fully one-third of the gentlemen of my husband's cabinet."

I had perhaps sounded too definite in defense of my sanity, for Doctor Patterson raked at his unruly beard with impatience.

"How long shall I have to stay at Bellevue Place?" I asked, in a tone more meek.

Doctor Patterson relaxed back in his leather chair, the only masculine furniture in the room. "You should not dwell too much upon leaving," he told me.

"But seeing an end to my time here will make the days more tolerable."

I watched the doctor handle the paperweight he kept upon his desk, a dragonfly caught in amber — an object which feels cruel to me, put before ladies who have been committed here.

"You will remain at Bellevue Place," said Doctor Patterson, "until I — and your son — determine that your reason has been restored."

"And how shall you determine such a thing?"

The doctor rose and went to stand before a lace-curtained window which looked out upon the lawns surrounding the asylum. "Treatment at Bellevue Place," he explained, "is based upon the wholesome benefits of fresh air, moderate exercise, and the therapeutic effects of cooling baths, in addition to the essential practice — particularly for those of the female sex — of moral restraint." He turned to regard me with a stern expression. "I shall decide your sanity by your willingness to participate in these activities."

"I shall do whatever you require to prove my underangement," I told him.

In the three days since that interview, I have every morning gone for a drive in the asylum carriage — which unlocks only from the outside — through the unpretty town of Batavia. Batavia is a quarry town, and everything in it — its clapboard houses, horse carts, and citizens — appears dulled by a fine powdering of limestone. I have also allowed Mrs. Ruggles, the matron with the forearms of a man, to soak me three times a day in cold, salted water, and have engaged in countless games of croquet with my fellow madwomen, games which are frequently halted so that Mrs. Munger, the wife of a Chicago banker, can shout at her ball. I pursue no moral unrestraint, and at the close of each afternoon, I walk the long path that traverses the asylum grounds all the way to the unfinished greenhouse at the edge of the property, returning by way of Mrs. Patterson's kitchen garden in the event that lady should wish me to dig up some radishes for the good mental hygiene of it.

It is because of these walks that I have come to know Doctor Patterson's retarded daughter, Blanche, a twelve-year-old child with the facial features of an Asiatic. And it is because of Blanche that I learned of the story of my attempt at suicide.

Blanche is not an attractive child. Her face is too round and her eyes too lidded. Also, Mrs. Patterson keeps her weak-minded daughter's hair braided so tightly, the child's head appears too small for her chubby body. But Blanche possesses an affection which does not demand to be deserved, and seems incapable of judging anyone's actions; and over the days that I have been here, I have developed a fondness for her.

I visit with Blanche every afternoon, for she is a child of firm habits, and that is when she comes to sit upon the stone steps of the back porch with a pair of shears and her family's discarded newspapers. Newspapers which she snips into elaborately outfitted — though oddly shaped — silhouettes of ladies.

On this day — the day I read about myself in the Chicago Inter Ocean — I returned from my walk to find the girl sitting in her usual place upon the porch steps, a stack of newspapers at her side and her white lawn dress littered with snippets of black words.

"Abraham's Widow!" the child exclaimed upon seeing me. Someone — the girl's mother, I expect — must have explained to Blanche who and what I was, and this piece of information is all of the explanation which has fixed in her mind, for she uses it in place of my name.

"Good afternoon, Miss Blanche," I said in reply. I like to call her "Miss" in the Southern style for the way that it causes her to touch her tight plaits, as if they have miraculously turned into curls. I gathered my skirts and sat beside the child. "Let me see what you have done."

She handed me the newspaper she was cutting into a lady, and then rested her head upon my shoulder. At twelve, Blanche retains the warm, milky scent of a much younger child — a symptom, perhaps, of the undeveloped state of her mind. Whatever it is, I have found none of Doctor Patterson's treatments as soothing as his daughter's head upon my shoulder.

"You have made this lady very elegant," I told her. I held the paper to the sun to better see the silhouette, and also to read something of what that scoundrel Grant, who has astoundingly become president, might be up to. I have passed the whole of my life following politics and only find it agitating to my female nerves to be cut off from them.

The late-afternoon sun was low and shining into my eyes; and I nearly returned the paper to the frail-minded girl without reading any of it. But as I angled the page to set it down, I was stopped by what I saw there. For just above the place where Blanche had cut her lady's head was the headline, "Another Sad Chapter in the Life of the Demented Widow."

I gasped, a short intake of breath which made Blanche stare up at me with worry, as if she feared she had stabbed me with the scissors. But it was not Blanche's scissors which had so unsettled me; it was the knowledge that I am the country's only demented widow, and that the sad chapter reported in the newspaper could only be my own.

"Are you well, Abraham's Widow?" Blanche shouted into my ear. Almost all of the retarded girl's utterances are rendered in overemphatic tones.

"I think an insect must have flown too near to me," I told her. And though the child waited, I did not return the newspaper, for I knew that once I let her take possession of it, she would cut the story about me into a paper lady's bonnet.

"Would this lady not be prettier with a smaller hat?" I asked her.

"Yes, Abraham's Widow!" she exclaimed.

"Let me design one for you."

Carefully, I removed the shears from Blanche's awkward fingers, and while she watched closely, as if I were working magic, I cut a small flat-topped hat which took up very little of the page.

"Is that not more in fashion?" I said, putting the paper lady into Blanche's hand and tucking the rest of the page into my pocket.

At that moment, I saw Mrs. Patterson coming from the kitchen garden with a bunch of stunted-looking onions in her arms, and quickly worked the shears back into Blanche's fingers, for only the staff — and this retarded child — were allowed scissors. Then, I rose from the steps.

"You are going, Abraham's Widow?" asked Blanche.

"Yes," I said. I feared that if Mrs. Patterson encountered me, she was likely to ask me to return with her to the garden in order to enjoy the wholesomeness of weeding. "Cut a lady with a great long train," I told Blanche, "and show it to me tomorrow."

"I will!" she shouted.

I rested a hand upon her narrow head and then disappeared into the dank coolness of the limestone building.

I found myself in the corridor outside the asylum kitchen, where I could see the Negro cook pouring something pale and watery into a cauldron. Doctor Patterson believes in the benefits of a bland diet upon unquiet minds, and all the food we are served at Bellevue Place is tasteless and white and smells of steam. Although I was anxious to read the story about my suicide, I did not linger here to do it, for I believed Mrs. Patterson to be headed toward the kitchen with her onions — though not, I assumed, in order to add them to our lunatics' supper. I hurried toward the staircase at the end of the hallway and rushed up to my second-floor room.

I have been told by the doctor's wife that my room is one of the best of the asylum, in recognition of the position I once held. That may be so — I have not seen where the other inmates are kept. Still, the room makes me think too much of a second-class boardinghouse. The bureau is oak and was once decorated with acanthus leaves, which have long since fallen away, leaving behind their ghostly outlines. I have also a rocker which has been made to an odd geometry, and when I sit upon it, it makes me feel as if it wishes nothing more than to pitch me to the floor. The room possesses a table, covered with a cloth which has lost half its tassels, and a strange little desk decorated with the carved face of an angel at the joining of each of its legs. Only the mattress is new, for I had it brought here on my first day — less to keep myself from sleeping upon bedbugs, as to avoid placing my head where others have dreamt their mad dreams.

I have a view of the river from my one window, but there are bars over the glass.

Shutting the door behind me — although a desire for privacy is thought at Bellevue Place to demonstrate an unwillingness to participate in the institution's therapeutic activities — I dropped into the inhospitable rocker and took the newspaper clipping from my pocket.

"On the evening following her trial for insanity," I read between the cuts on the page, "Mrs. Lincoln, overcome by melancholy, eluded the Pinkerton guards stationed outside the door of her hotel room and escaped to the pharmacy of Squair & Company. Acting in appearance both anxious and uncoherent, Mrs. Lincoln demanded of the druggist a lethal mixture of laudanum and camphor. When Mr. Squair expressed concern over providing such a poisonous concoction, the despairing lady informed him that she intended to use the potion to bathe a neuralgic shoulder. Unable to dissuade Mrs. Lincoln from her request, the druggist retired to a back room, and after some short moments, during which the demented lady grew increasingly agitated, Mr. Squair returned with a bottle marked 'Laudanum — poison.' Grabbing the potion from the druggist's hand, Mrs. Lincoln rushed into the street; whereupon, she immediately poured the entire contents into her throat. Then, she returned to her hotel to await her death.

"The nation was only spared further sorrow by the fact that Mr. Squair had recognized the Widow of the Martyred President beneath her veil, and divining her purpose, substituted burnt sugar water for the laudanum."

No one would believe this of me, I told myself. No one would believe that a fifty-six-year-old lady who is slightly arthritic and plumper than she should be could escape two Pinkertons. No one who knows me could believe that after all which has happened in my life, I would choose to end my life over commitment to the madhouse.

But of course they will believe it. For now that I have been proven insane, anything might be believed of me.

It is a singular experience to be adjudged insane, to sit in a courtroom in muddied skirts while seventeen witnesses swear to your derangement. My skirts were muddied because the man who had come to bring me to the courthouse, Leonard Swett, would not allow me to change my dress.

"I am not to let you from my sight," he explained. He was standing in the doorway to my room at the Grand Pacific Hotel with two policemen behind him. "We want no possibility of escape."

"We are on the third floor of the hotel," I said. "Even as a young woman, I could not have managed it." Mr. Swett was a former colleague of Mr. Lincoln, and his resemblance to my husband had always made me feel warm toward him. I recalled then that Mr. Swett had lately acquired the title of "The Insanity Lawyer," and I made myself smile into his stern face to remind him that we knew each other, and that I was Mrs. Lincoln and not his latest lunatic.

But Mr. Swett only fixed me with a hard look from behind his small, pince-nez spectacles. "I shall give you the choice of traveling to the courthouse in my carriage," he said to me, "or in that of the officers."

"Where is Robert?" I asked him. "Where is my son?"

"Mr. Lincoln is waiting at the courthouse."

Robert is waiting there to defend me, I told myself. He will not let Mr. Swett commit me.

The courthouse was filled; overflowing with people who had known I was to be tried for insanity before I had. They crowded the benches and stood in the aisles, staring at me with eager expressions, in hopes, I supposed, that I would succumb to a fit of madness before their eyes.

But I barely saw these men and women who had come to witness a mad First Lady. I searched only for my eldest son, finding him at last at the front of the courtroom behind a mahogany desk, well dressed and handsome in dark brown. Robert has inherited none of the homeliness of his father. His nose is straight and aristocratic, and his mouth is well formed. The only features he shares with his father are a small indentation pressed into his chin, which I always wish to put my finger to, and eyes of an uncommonly pale shade of gray. Robert's left eye, however, does not sit entirely straight in its socket. As a child, he was made by doctors to look through keyholes to straighten that eye, and now that Robert is a man of thirty-one, it is a little less inclined — save when he is overcome by some emotion, when it cants violently toward his nose.

"Please," I begged Mr. Swett, "take me to my son."

"You must sit with your own lawyer," he instructed me.

"Is Robert not my lawyer?"

"Your lawyer is Mr. Arnold." And as if Mr. Swett had conjured him out of the air, Isaac Arnold, a man who had been a friend of Mr. Lincoln's and of mine during our time in Springfield, stood beside me.

"Perhaps you do not consider Robert experienced enough," I said to Mr. Swett. "But I believe in my son and would prefer to have him defend me."

Mr. Swett made an irritated exhalation. "It is Robert who has drawn up the application to try your sanity."

"Robert wishes to commit me to a madhouse?" The noise of the courtroom grew deafening, and I found I could draw no air into my lungs.

"Robert only wishes what would be to your benefit," said Mr. Swett. "And Mr. Arnold is here to ensure that afterward, no one can say that what is decided was not to your benefit." He gazed pointedly at Mr. Arnold, and though I wished to understand the meaning of that gaze, I could not, for the gaslight which reflected from the lenses of Mr. Swett's pince-nez spectacles turned his eyes to opaque disks.

Mr. Arnold, however, seemed in no doubt of what he was to do. He led me across the room, where he settled me behind my own mahogany table, in opposition to that of my son, and sat quietly as Mr. Swett proceeded to call sixteen witnesses to testify to my madness.

I was light-headed from my inability to breathe and brainnumbed from shock; and as the witnesses spoke about my insanity, I sometimes believed that this was no more than a dream induced by laudanum, hoped that it was. Nothing the witnesses said of me was untrue, and while all that I had done and thought had felt sound at the time, now that it was spoken aloud, it seemed the behavior of a madwoman.

"Mrs. Lincoln spent more than six hundred dollars on Belgian lace curtains," declared a clerk employed at Mattock's Department Store. "Though she told me that she does not own a home."


Excerpted from "Mary"
by .
Copyright © 2006 Janis Cooke Newman.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
May 20,
May 24,
June 5,
June 17,
June 27,
July 19,
July 28,
July 29,
August 7,
August 13,
August 17,
August 19,
September 6,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,

Customer Reviews

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Mary 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 47 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This came highly recommended to me by a bookstore employee and when I looked suprised and said it wasn't my thing, she promised me it would be great. It is!! This is my first historical novel and not only has it been a terrific read as a story, but it's an informative and fascinating historical perspective. The view the author has taken of Mary Todd Lincoln really makes her HUMAN instead of Lincoln's crazy wife. She is written with passion, human frailty, and perseverance. It's enjoyable all the way through.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up on a whim, and I am so glad I did! Having never read anything about Mary Lincoln, I was fascinated by this book!. The two perspectives in the book, retrospective of her early years and life with Abraham Lincoln, and her experience in the asylum were a fascinating contrast, and a great way to tell the story. There is much controversy surrounding Mary Todd Lincoln, and by reading the many reviews, there is much controversey over this book. It is fiction, but perhaps gives a glimps of what may have gone on in her mind. I couldn't put it down!
DarkHorseMPC More than 1 year ago
I've read a bio of Mary Todd before, and thought she was interesting, unusual and tragic. This book of historical fiction encompases all these attributes she possessed. A good deal of her unusualness (lunacy) is based on the fact that she did not behave with a conduct befitting of a woman at that time in history. Mary was a well educated, opinionated, hands on woman, who possessed a strong passion for life. This passion, according to this book, was the cause of most of her downfall. I absolutely enjoy this book. I am 3/4 through it, and can't wait to finish it. It is well written, and a very fast and enjoyable read.
JulyFly More than 1 year ago
I was surprised by Mary Lincoln's passionate nature as well as her idiosyncracies and indulgences. It's as if the author was present during President and Mrs. Lincoln's lifetime and witnessed their relationship, marriage and presidency personally. Mary and President Lincoln endured a great deal of misfortune and personal loss in a time of great upheaval in this country. President Lincoln suffered from severe depression throughout his life and the weight of the war ate at him causing him to lose his health. After reading this book, it gave me a three imensional view of what the North and South suffered during the Civil War. This is a book I highly recommend. I couldn't put it down and didn't want it to end. Very well written!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I absolutely adored this book! Could not put it down! I lent it out to everyone I know. I never really knew too much about Mary Todd Lincoln and although this is fiction a lot of the info about her is pretty accurate.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Could not put down. The author has fantastic writing abilities to hold the readers attention. If you like the Lincoln stories this is a must read! Enjoy!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the first book I've read on Mary Lincoln. Although I don't know how much of the information is factual, yet... I had a hard time putting this book down. I wasn't aware that in addition to losing her husband she also lost three sons. Who wouldn't be a little crazy. I think she did amazingly well considering her grief. The book really humanized a woman who shared her life with one of America's greatest hero's.
J-bookclubber More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this novel, but I had to make myself finish it. The sadness, loneliness and pain in Mary Todd Lincoln's life--when I already knew what would happen at Ford's Theater later in the book---made it hard to persevere. In many ways it seemed that modern theories of the "withholding mother," sexual repression, even retail therapy were being applied to explain her actions.
This novel reminded me of Megan Chance's novel, An Inconvenient Wife in which a woman is threatened with committal to an insane asylum if she won't behave properly. It can also be compared to O'Farrell's British novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. These upper class women did not fit the mold and suffered for it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I Loved the was the Author wrote. captivating! I don't remember ever reading a book that kept me interested all the way through. The subject was good but what a woman went through in that time period was unreal! They had know voice. I loved this book and very sad Ms.Newman has know other fiction out.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It was a great read. I knew little of Mary or Abe. The book made me a huge fan of Honest Abe, what a great guy. I also went in knowing that it was a novel...not always a true story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really loved this great book. I couldn't put it down! A must read if you are interested in the Lincoln family, death and mourning in the Victorian era, spiritualism, and the woman in Victorian society.
TheLostEntwife on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I admit to knowing very little about the Lincolns. I know what was taught in history, but very little of that centered around Mary Todd Lincoln. Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln is her fictional story, told through Mary¿s own eyes and centers prominently around her admittance into an insane asylum.I have to say, out of all the historical fiction books I¿ve read this year, this one was the most depressing. I found myself torn between admiration for Mrs. Lincoln and horror at the very actions which caused her son to commit her. There was no good or bad side with regard to their relationship and what I was left with, when all was said and done, was a feeling of pity for the entire family.The story flips back and forth between Mary¿s time in the asylum and her memories beginning with her childhood and leading up to the time after President Lincoln¿s assassination. The portrayal of ¿Honest Abe¿ was interesting and showed him as just a simple man, full of honor and influenced by his wife¿s strong will. It¿s no surprise to me at all that Mary may have been so involved in the politics of her husband, and despite it being something so frowned upon at the time, I found myself thinking of how different Mary Lincoln was from someone like Abigail Adams.I think this book will make a great discussion at our book club meeting and recommend it to anyone looking for a good discussion book. It¿s a hefty one, however, so make sure you allow for plenty of time for reading and digesting it¿s contents. And, if you are anything like me, you might want some chocolate nearby as I found myself having to constantly ¿de-stress¿.
bertonek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Entertaining, but be careful what you take as fact.
bratlaw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story was written as if Mary was writing her memoirs. It told about her young life in a well to-do family, falling in love with a penniless attorney. Her marriage, birth of her sons and their deaths, being First Lady, the war, the assignation of President Lincoln, and finally the betrayal of her only surviving son, who had her committed to a insane asylum. Looking at her life as a outsider, I could see perfectly clear, why she was the way she was. The struggles she had being a lady people expected in those times, her grief over her sons and husbands death, and her drug addiction. She fought to be declared sane, so she could leave the home and live her life in peace, which she did for the last few years of her life, dying at 63. The author did a magnificent job portraying Mary Todd Lincoln as intelligent and unconventional. As the quote from USA Today says "You feel a compulsion to urge others to read it", I also encourage others to read it.
countrylife on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Teenage angst applied to Mary Todd Lincoln and wrapped up in flowery phrasings. Though Mrs. Lincoln¿s eccentricities are well known, the author writes ludicrous twistings of reasonings behind her actions. She places her characters in pubescent-daydream style contrived situations. Views of the President throughout his wife¿s story are painted only in the light of middle school 'social studies', or as an object of sexual fantasies. Masquerading as an intellectual¿s historical novel, just because of its title character, it¿s nothing more than just another bodice-ripper. ¿For if Mr. Wood had wished to take me here in Willard¿s tearoom, I would have lifted my skirts to render it easier.¿Gag a maggot!
Rarcar1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. I knew very little about Mary Todd Lincoln before reading this. I enjoyed how the author started each chapter with passages of Mary's medical records from her stay at Bellevue. I can't wait to see what else this author is working on.
KathyWoodall on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm not sure how much of the facts that are stated in the book are true and which were added just to make the story more interesting but I truly enjoyed this book. I knew very little about Mary Lincoln except for the fact she loved to spend money and that she went crazy and had to be committed to an insane asylum. This books adds things that really lets the reader appreciate who Mary Lincoln was and how much she worked to get her husband elected president. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical novels set during the civil war time period.
blooee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had never read much about Mary Todd and found this book quite informative, although a bit "novelish." Again, lots of history read in an entertaining way.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although I read little historical fiction, this intrigued me as I have always found Mary Todd Lincoln to be a fascinating person. I enjoyed the book very much, and am now reading The Lincoln's by Epstein. Newman's events and characters were accurate. A good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Arizona1 More than 1 year ago
Excellent book. Hard to put down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago