Mrs. Lincoln’s Lunacy

What Was Wrong with the President’s Widow?

She was said to be the most prominent female occupant of the White House since Dolley Madison. Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of our sixteenth president, has been described in many other ways, including homely, self-absorbed, petulant, dour, fastidious, imprudent, demanding, snobbish, and eccentric. On the more positive side, she was said to be well educated, intelligent, shrewd, and eloquent, devoted to her husband and children, affectionate, witty, gregarious, debonair, cultured, frank, sympathetic, and the belle of the ball.

All of those descriptions are, of course, subjective and relative. There is one label given to her that is more objective and, in fact, legal. She was judged insane, or to use a synonym of the times, a lunatic. That was the verdict handed down by an all-male jury in an 1875 trial in a Cook County, Illinois, courthouse. The legal action had been brought by Robert Lincoln, the only surviving son of the Lincolns, primarily out of concern that his mother would impoverish herself with her undisciplined shopping habits. There apparently was also concern that his mother, who had taken an interest in spiritualism, would be duped into giving away her money to unscrupulous mediums. Whether he was also concerned about his inheritance being depleted is speculative.

“We the undersigned jurors in the case of Mary Lincoln are satisfied that Mary Lincoln is insane and is a fit person to be in a state hospital for the insane—that her age is 56—that the disease is of unknown duration—that the cause is unknown—that she is not subject to epilepsy—that she does not manifest homicidal or suicidal tendencies and that she is not a pauper.” So read the declaration of the jury after the jury members heard from five doctors selected by Robert Lincoln, none of whom had examined Mary Lincoln.

Mary was then confined to the Bellevue Place Sanatorium in Batavia, outside Chicago, also referred to as the lunatic asylum. There, Dr. Robert Patterson, the head of the sanatorium, examined her and diagnosed a “hysterical bladder” and a “nervous debility,” both resulting from excessive grief on her brain force, dating back to the murder of her husband and more recently to the death of her son Tad. Perhaps at the prompting of Robert Lincoln, Patterson later added that Mrs. Lincoln also suffered from the religious excitement of spiritualism, sometimes referred to as “theomania,” an affliction suffered by as many as 25 percent of the female patients. Patterson quoted the neurologist Dr. William Hammond: “the false sensuous impressions [conjured up by mediums] force too much blood to the brain and eventually predispose séance seekers to lunacy.” Some years earlier, Patterson had written that spiritualists teach that man by some mysterious, unintelligible process can discover truth. “This error so arouses the passions,” he continued, “as to bring on the derangement.”

Born in Lexington, Kentucky, on December 13, 1818, Mary Ann Todd grew up in a large, wealthy, slave-owning family. She was well educated for young women of that era, including a finishing school in which she studied literature, French, dance, drama, music, and social graces, before moving to Springfield, Illinois, to live with an older sister, Elizabeth Todd Edwards. It was in Springfield that she met the future president, then a budding lawyer and fledging legislator. Though her sister Elizabeth tried to discourage Mary from her courtship with Abraham, feeling he lacked in education, social status, and social graces, Mary and Abraham were married on November 4, 1842.

Robert Todd Lincoln was born the following August, followed by Edward (Eddie), in 1846, William (Willie) in 1850, and Thomas (Tad) in 1853. But only Robert survived his mother—Eddie dying of tuberculosis in 1850, Willie of typhoid fever in 1862, while Lincoln was president, and Tad in 1871 of pneumonia, pleurisy, or tuberculosis, or a combination of the three.

Although Mary was from a slave state and had several half-brothers who served in the Confederate Army, she was opposed to slavery and supported the abolitionist movement. It was said, however, that her more relaxed “western” ways—Kentucky being considered a western state at the time—often clashed with Washington protocols, branding her a pretentious “outsider” among the establishment there.

Not long after moving into the White House, Mary undertook the refurbishing of the presidential mansion, making several trips to New York to purchase furniture, draperies,  wallpaper, carpeting, china, and other items, significantly exceeding the amount budgeted for such restoration. There seemed to be no question that previous occupants of the White House had failed to properly maintain it, leaving it in much need of repair and renovations, but Mary Lincoln was nevertheless attacked by the press for her spendthrift habits. She was also criticized for spending too much money on her wardrobe, which she justified as necessary for a First Lady.

While many historians have focused more on what they see as Mary Lincoln’s objectionable characteristics—her excessive spending, her mood swings, her outspokenness—a thorough reading of recorded history suggests much exaggeration of the negative and understatement of the positive. Writing in 1887, John Nicolay, who served as secretary to President Lincoln, said that accounts of her bizarre behavior were overstated. “I was in the official family of Mr. Lincoln during his entire term, and never saw anything to justify such statements as have been made about Mrs. Lincoln at that time,” he said. “That she was eccentric there is no doubt, but [that] she went to the extremes reported I do not believe…She had her likes and dislikes. For instance, she never liked Secretary Seward…I don’t think she liked me, but I never knew her to so far forget herself as to make a fuss about it. At the Executive Mansion she would receive [at evening affairs] fifteen and twenty ladies and gentlemen without any exhibitions of undue nervousness or excitement. She was a woman of great frankness and would speak her mind out.”

Mary’s softer side was seen in her many visits to hospitals around Washington to console wounded soldiers, giving them fruit and flowers and writing letters for them to send to their loved ones. She also accompanied the president on visits to the battlefield.

In her 1987 biography of Mrs. Lincoln, Professor Jean H. Baker views the First Lady as a woman ahead of her time, an independent thinker and early feminist. “Denigrating Mary Lincoln enhanced her husband’s growing reputation as a man of tolerance and forbearance,” Baker offers. “For those who wanted to get to know Lincoln as a person, the fiction that he lived with a shrew of hellish temperament whom he did not love embellished his equanimity as something learned daily from a domestic existence with an impossible wife.”

According to Baker’s research, the story that Abraham Lincoln loved only one woman in his life, Ann Rutledge, is a myth created by William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and early biographer. Apparently, Mary disliked Herndon, said to be an alcoholic, from the beginning, never inviting him to dinner; and Herndon, in a speech given in 1866, got his revenge in exaggerating Lincoln’s relationship with Rutledge and implying that Lincoln never really loved Mary. Herndon’s story was picked up by the Chicago Tribune and spread like wildfire, embedding itself in the collective memory of the American public and becoming modern-day fact. When Mary heard the story, she was left to wonder if she was in fact Lincoln’s misfortune, no doubt adding to her grief and despair.

Mary Lincoln’s story makes one wonder how much of recorded history we can actually accept as factual, how much of it has been distorted by biographers and other authors based on their acceptance of hearsay and rumor, their biases, their faulty research, their misinterpretations of what others have said or written, their choices of verbiage, and their needs for sensationalism that will appeal to publishers and readers. This especially applies to what has been recorded about Mary and Abraham’s association with spiritualism. It seems clear that Mary, raised a Presbyterian, began consulting mediums shortly after the death of son Willie in 1862 and that mediums were often called to the White House in the days following. The extent to which the President sat with mediums is the subject of much controversy. Some sources have him attending one or more séances at the home of Cranston and Margaret Laurie, whose daughter Belle Miller was a medium, and also attending one or more séances, either in the Laurie home or in the White House, with Nettie Colburn Maynard, a young trance medium.

In his popular 1995 book, Lincoln, David Herbert Donald, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, makes only one reference to the subject, stating that there may have been as many as eight séances in the White House following Willie Lincoln’s death and that the President attended only one and was not convinced. Donald does not cite his source for this information. Many other biographers of Lincoln give only passing notice to the subject, mentioning Mary’s transgression in this respect and suggesting that the President was much too intelligent and honorable a man to have had anything to do with such “occult” humbug. Then, as now, the scientific fundamentalists lined up on one side, convinced that Darwinism had put an end to religion’s superstitions and spiritualism’s folly, while the religious fundamentalists lined up on the other side, claiming that spiritualism is demonic and nothing more than a foolish cult involving crystal-gazing charlatans.

And yet, some very distinguished men had investigated spiritualism and attested to the genuineness of various mediums. Beginning in 1851, Judge John Edmonds, who served as Chief Justice of the New York State Supreme Court, conducted a 23-month investigation of mediums, claiming he witnessed several hundred manifestations in various forms, collecting some 1,600 pages of notes. “I was all this time an unbeliever, and tried the patience of believers sorely by my skepticism, my captiousness, and my obdurate refusal to yield to belief,” Edmonds wrote, but, while recognizing that there were charlatans posing as mediums, he finally concluded that much of what he had witnessed was beyond trickery of any kind and that many of the evidential messages he received were beyond research. Moreover, his daughter Laura developed into a medium. Edmonds wrote that although she knew only English and a smattering of French in her awakened state, she spoke Spanish, French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Latin, Hungarian, and Indian dialects fluently when entranced, or rather the spirits spoke the languages using her voice mechanism.

Like Edmonds, Robert Hare, a professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and a world-renowned inventor, set out to debunk mediumship in 1853, but after studying 22 mediums and receiving veridical information from deceased relatives —some of the information unknown to him but later confirmed as true—he came to the same conclusion as Edmonds. In fact, Hare discovered he had mediumistic abilities. And, in 1865, Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator with Charles Darwin of the natural selection theory of evolution, began his investigation of mediums, eventually agreeing with both Edmonds and Hare.

If there were in fact spirits communicating with President Lincoln, they may have been active a decade earlier when Harriet Beecher Stowe penned the popular 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book said to have been very influential in the abolitionist movement. Implying the automatic writing form of mediumship, Stowe claimed that the book was written through her, “I am only holding the pen.”

One Internet source on Mary Lincoln states that her grief and desire to communicate with Willie after his death “made her vulnerable to phony mediums and spiritualists.” How the author of the article knew that those mediums seen by Mary Lincoln were all “phony” is not explained, the reader left to infer that all mediums are charlatans while ignoring the abundance of psychical research by reputable scientists and scholars attesting to the genuineness of mediumship that followed the formation of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882. As Professor William James of Harvard said, it took only one “white crow”—that being medium Leonora Piper of Boston—to convince him that not all crows are black.

After the assassination of her husband, and again after the death of son Tad, Mary continued to sit with mediums as a way to assuage her grief and despair. At the same time, she found an escape in shopping, no longer concerning herself with an extravagant wardrobe but often purchasing things she could not use. It is easy to forget, however, that those who lost loved ones in those days did not have all the coping methods that grieving people have today. They couldn’t escape into a movie or television program, turn on soothing music, or communicate with sympathetic friends by phone or email. They sat in dark rooms with little more than memories to placate the grieving mind. While some men might have dealt with such grief by wandering down to the local saloon, women had no such option.

After Tad’s passing, Mary lived in a downtown Chicago hotel for $45 a week, including meals. With no family to care for and no domestic duties, she likely had little to occupy herself with beyond browsing in nearby shops. Being gregarious, she probably got to know some of the merchants fairly well and felt obligated to make purchases now and then, even if she had no need for the items at that time. Indications were that she was living within her annual income of $8,000, a significant sum at the time.

Mary did not even know about the insanity charges until the morning of her trial when she was escorted from her Chicago apartment by two of Robert Lincoln’s friends to the courthouse, where she found that her own defense attorney was appointed by Robert. During a three-hour trial, 17 witnesses, gathered by Robert, testified as to her unsoundness of mind, the focus being on her unwise spending. Her lawyer offered no defense.

With the help of friends, especially one Myra Bradwell, who had a law degree but was not allowed to practice law because of her gender, and her husband, Judge James B. Bradwell, both spiritualists, Mary Lincoln was released from the asylum after just three months and three weeks of incarceration. While Robert Lincoln fought the release, Dr. Patterson apparently wanted to avoid bad publicity and declared Mary Lincoln “competent” enough to be released. She spent the next year living with her sister in Springfield. After a yearlong battle to recover her assets from Robert, she moved to southern France to live alone for several years, but health problems caused her to return to Springfield to again live with her sister. She died of a stroke at age 64, shortly after reconciling with Robert.

Perhaps Baker summed up the story of Mary Lincoln best when she wrote that, “In the rigid Victorian codes of female respectability, eccentricity was easily transformed into lunacy.”

By Michael Tymn