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Mary Todd Lincoln’s Lost Letters

By Jason Emerson
8/23/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

Just found, 25 notes cast new light on the manic-depressed first lady.

On July 2, 1863, while a ferocious battle raged between Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and George Meade’s Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, Mary Lincoln, the president’s wife, was in a carriage accident. It was a minor event, given only one-paragraph briefs in the Washington newspapers, but it seemed to have a major impact on the deteriorating mental health of the maligned first lady that would land her, by the hand of her son, in an insane asylum in 1875.

President Lincoln arrived at the War Department telegraph office early that morning to monitor the battle in Pennsylvania. Mary rode alone the three miles from the presidential summer retreat on the outskirts of Washington to the White House. During the drive down Rock Creek Road, near Mount Pleasant Hospital, the driver’s seat of the presidential carriage became detached, throwing the driver to the ground. The frightened horses began to run, and Mary leaped from the carriage to save herself. The papers reported that she was stunned, bruised and battered, but her injuries, which were immediately administered to by surgeons at the nearby hospital, did not appear serious. She did suffer a bleeding wound on the back of her head, apparently caused by a sharp stone, which doctors stitched up.

As was common then, Mary’s wound became infected, and it was three weeks before she was up and about. Afterward the first lady, a victim of severe migraine headaches her entire adult life, had them with greater frequency. Robert Lincoln later told his aunt that his mother never fully recovered from her head injury.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s mental health had been fodder for conjecture, bias, innuendo and ridicule even before she stepped on the national stage with the election of her husband as president in 1860. But it was her White House years, marked by extravagant parties, costly redecorating and relentless spending sprees—all amid a national crisis—that shaped a negative image of her. Her later “insanity trial” sealed her place in history.

But exactly how insane was Mary Todd Lincoln?

We could ask a psychiatrist for a diagnosis, albeit from the distance of 130 years. Using the American Psychiatric Association’s multiaxial diagnostic system, a therapist most likely could study her personality factors, her medical symptoms and her psychosocial and environmental stressors, then make an assessment of her overall level of functioning. “Were she alive today, Mary Lincoln would still require psychiatric hospitalization in the face of the symptoms she suffered in 1875, and her family would confront the same dilemma if she declined it,” says Dr. James S. Brust, a psychiatrist who has studied the case.

Or we might ask Mary herself, through newly discovered correspondence with her friend Myra Bradwell—letters that historians have been seeking for 80 years. Traced by this author to a trunk in the attic of Robert Lincoln’s attorney, the letters provide insights into Mary’s condition before, during and after her commitment to the insane asylum. They shed light on the actions she took to secure her freedom from the sanitarium, on the opinions of her family and friends about her hospitalization, on her friendship with and dependence on Myra Bradwell, on the estrangement between Mary and her son Robert and on her life in Europe after institutionalization. From the multiplicity of psychotic episodes, it becomes clear that her commitment did not result simply from one incident but rather from the numerous episodes she suffered throughout her life. The letters demonstrate that Mary Lincoln fostered her own early release from the insane asylum, and that her time there actually helped alleviate some of her symptoms.

Throughout her life, Mary Todd Lincoln showed signs of what later would be termed manic-depressive illness and now is known as bipolar disorder—symptoms of depression, delusions of persecution, poverty and various somatic ailments, hallucinations, inflated self-esteem, decreased or interrupted sleep, mood swings, monomania (extravagant spending), threats of physical violence against others and attempts at suicide. Even as a child, a cousin of Mary’s observed that she was “very highly strung…having an emotional temperament much like an April day, sunning all over with laughter one moment, the next crying as though her heart would break.” As a young woman in Springfield, it was known that Mary was “either in the garret or the cellar.” When she was living in the White House, presidential secretary William O. Stoddard wrote, “It was not easy, at first, to understand why a lady who could be one day so kindly, so considerate, so generous, so thoughtful and so hopeful, could, upon another day, appear so unreasonable, so irritable, so despondent, so even niggardly, and so prone to see the dark, the wrong side of men and women and events.”

Emotions shaped Mary’s personality and formed the background for her later self-indulgence following the deaths of her husband and two children, says psychologist and biographer W.A. Evans. “No other [trait] was more potent in changing [her personality] from the grade termed ‘abnormal’ to that termed ‘pathologic,’ and in changing her mentality from balanced to unbalanced.”

Mary was much criticized for her abnormal behavior in Washington. Besides her lavish spending habits, she was disparaged for her “inordinate greed, coupled with an utter lack of sense of propriety,” which manifested itself in an easy willingness to accept gifts for her influence with the president and through her susceptibility to flattery. Psychiatrist James A. Brussel called this Mary’s narcissistic lavishness, noting, “She thrived on adulation, required attention, reveled in adornment, and was sensitive to snubs.” She was from Kentucky, so Northerners considered her a Rebel; Southerners considered her a traitor; and she was therefore derided by the presses of both sections of the country.

No public condemnation, however, ever undid Mary emotionally as much as the death of her 11-year-old son Willie in 1862. Both parents felt the loss deeply, but as Elizabeth Keckly, Mary’s seamstress and dear friend, wrote: “Mrs. Lincoln’s grief was inconsolable. In one of her paroxysms of grief the President kindly bent over his wife, took her by the arm, and gently led her to a window. With a stately, solemn gesture, he pointed to the lunatic asylum. ‘Mother, do you see that large white building on the hill yonder? Try and control your grief, or it will drive you mad, and we may have to send you there.’”

Keckly’s reminiscence is not the only reported instance of Abraham Lincoln commenting on his wife’s mental state. William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, wrote in 1882 that “Mr. Lincoln held his wife partly insane for years, and this shows his toleration of her nature—his great forbearance of her outlandish acts, otherwise not understood by the great world.” William P. Wood, superintendent of the Old Capitol Prison, said in 1887 that Lincoln confided in him during the war that his wife’s caprices “are the result of partial insanity.” Emily Todd Helm, Mary’s half-sister, recorded in her diary a now-famous episode in which Mary came into her room at night, smiling and with eyes full of tears, to tell her that Willie visited her at night to comfort her in her sorrow: “‘He lives Emily!’ she said with a thrill in her voice I can never forget. ‘He comes to me every night, and stands at the foot of my bed with the same sweet, adorable smile he always had’…Sister Mary’s eyes were wide and shining and I had the feeling of awe as if I were in the presence of the supernatural. It is unnatural and abnormal, it frightens me.”

The vision could have been a dream, a product of Mary’s subconscious mind or, more likely, a hallucination. It could have been a psychotic symptom. In either case, it shows Mary’s complex defenses against the burden of an overwhelming loss—to which soon would be added the assassination of her husband on April 14, 1865.

Many people believed that the assassination did more than anything to unhinge Mary’s already fragile mind. Her son Robert later wrote, “The shocking circumstances of my father’s death completely deranged her.” For the next 10 years, Mary’s behavior did nothing to alter Robert’s opinion. In 1867 the family suffered the humiliation of the Old Clothes Scandal after Mary tried to sell some of her old White House gowns and jewelry in New York City under a pseudonym, only to be found out and criticized by the press. Then, in July 1871, the youngest Lincoln son, Tad, died from pleurisy. For Mary, it was another blow, beating her down after she had finally begun to recover from the traumatic loss of her husband. It once again confirmed her statement that “Ill luck presided at my birth—certainly within the last few years it has been a faithful attendant.”

The four years from Tad’s death in July 1871 to her insanity trial in May 1875 were her darkest. She became a homeless wanderer, roaming North America, looking for physical healing at health spas and resorts, seeking sympathy from family and friends but never finding or accepting relief or solace. She clung tenaciously to Robert and delved deeper into spiritualism and séances, seeking comfort from people who claimed to bridge the living and spiritual worlds.

By 1873, she had begun seeing Dr. Willis Danforth, one of Chicago’s leading physicians, for fever and nervous derangement. It is known from Mary’s letters and Danforth’s trial testimony that her symptoms included severe headaches, joint and muscle pains, incontinence, swelling and insomnia. Her mental symptoms worsened to include anxiety, melancholia, persecution complexes and hallucinations. Mary told Danforth that an Indian spirit was removing and replacing her scalp, taking bones out of her face and pulling wires out of her eyes; that someone was taking steel springs from her head and would not let her rest. The major deterioration of her mental health came in March 1875, when she suddenly became convinced that Robert was deathly ill, and she would not be persuaded otherwise. She returned to Chicago to find Robert perfectly healthy.

Over the next two months, her behavior became so erratic that Robert turned to three of his father’s old friends and seven medical experts for advice. They all agreed that Mary needed institutionalization. After a three-hour trial in the Cook County court, during which 18 witnesses, including a grief-stricken Robert, testified to her derangement, she was declared insane and sent for at least one year of treatment to Bellevue Place Sanitarium in Batavia, Ill., 35 miles west of Chicago.

Mary’s stay at Bellevue Place—a private asylum for “a select class of lady patients of quiet unexceptionable habits”—was formally documented by the sanitarium staff in what has become known as the “Patient Progress Reports for Bellevue Place.” The reports reveal her condition. “Mrs. Lincoln admitted today,” reads the first entry, dated May 20, 1875. “Case is one of mental impairment which probably dates back to the murder of President Lincoln—More pronounced since the death of her son, but especially aggravated during the last 2 months.”

The Bellevue logbook shows that for the first two months of her stay, Mary was quiet and solitary, a bit erratic with her desires and at times depressed. The superintendent, Dr. Richard J. Patterson, felt she was improving. Robert visited his mother every week, and said he found her cordial. “While she will not in words admit that she is not sane,” Robert wrote to a friend, “still her entire acquiescence in absolutely everything, while it arises in part from the plain enfeebled condition of her mind, makes me think that she is aware of the necessity of what has been done.”

The situation, however, was about to change from a lamentable family affair to a painful public controversy.

Myra and James Bradwell were attorneys, abolitionists, feminists and old friends of Mary Lincoln. Historians have believed that Myra Bradwell—an eager agitator for female rights—fomented and directed a plot to secure her friend’s early release from the sanitarium. What is now known, however, due to the discovery of Mary’s lost letters, is that Myra Bradwell was a willing and able accomplice, but it was Mary herself who created and directed the plot for freedom.

It began with a letter from Mary to the Bradwells asking them to visit Bellevue and to induce others of her powerful friends to do the same. After their visit, during which they remonstrated with Dr. Patterson about Mary’s lack of freedom, the Bradwells wrote letters to Mary’s sister, Elizabeth Edwards, and her cousin, John Todd Stuart. Those letters—among the cache of newly discovered materials— suggest that either Mary greatly exaggerated her suffering to the Bradwells or the Bradwells wrote with hyperbole. Most likely it was a little of both. James Bradwell told Stuart that Mary “feels lonesome and that the restraint of the place is unendurable.” Myra Bradwell told Edwards that Mary “feels her incarceration most terribly and desires to get out from behind the grates and bars.” Though untrue, this is a charge both Bradwells would later make to newspapers as well. The Bradwells suggested their correspondents visit Mary at the sanitarium and that Mary accompany her sister back to Springfield for a short visit. “I cannot feel that it is necessary to keep her thus restrained,” Myra Bradwell wrote.

Elizabeth Edwards’ reply to Myra Bradwell, also found amid the lost letters, shows she felt the same—Mary was not sane, but it was improper to place her in a sanitarium. “Had I been consulted, I would have remonstrated earnestly against the step taken,” Edwards wrote. She thought her sister simply needed a personal attendant. “The judgment of others must now, I presume, be silently acquiesced in, for a time, in the hope, that ere long, her physical and mental condition will be improved by rest and medical treatment.” Edwards, recovering from a recent surgical operation, could not visit Mary herself but felt it would do her sister good to visit friends.

Mary kept in close contact with Myra Bradwell, pouring out her sorrows and frustrations, continually requesting help. She was trying to amass an army of supporters. On August 2 alone, Mary asked Myra to contact six people. She also lamented: “It does not appear that God is good, to have placed me here. I endeavor to read my Bible and offer up my petitions three times a day. But my afflicted heart fails me and my voice often falters in prayer. I have worshipped my son and no unpleasant word ever passed between us, yet I cannot understand why I should have been brought out here.” The letter also shows that Mary’s mania for clothing had not abated. She asked Myra Bradwell on her next visit to bring samples of black alpaca, “a best quality without luster and without cotton,” as well as samples of heavier black woolen goods. She entreated Myra to keep the request a secret.

The Bradwells undertook a massive publicity campaign on Mary’s behalf, giving interviews and planting articles in Chicago newspapers, all claiming that Mary was sane, imprisoned against her will and kept in inhumane conditions. One of the newly discovered letters shows that Mary herself started this publicity campaign by inviting an editor from the sensational Chicago Times to Bellevue. Her two-hour interview with reporter Franc B. Wilkie was printed on August 24 under the headline “MRS. LINCOLN. Her Physicians Pronounce Her Entirely Sane.” It stated she was afraid that her time at Bellevue would actually make her insane. It also attributed her pretrial behavior to fever and a shattered nervous system.

Dr. Patterson and Robert Lincoln were furious. Their indignation was magnified by the fact that the reporter had visited on a Saturday, when the doctor was away.

Over the next two weeks, a flurry of activity occurred, with letters and visits between all the principals: Robert Lincoln, Mary Lincoln, Myra Bradwell, James Bradwell, Dr. Patterson and Elizabeth Edwards. By mid-August, stories about Mary’s incarceration were in the newspapers almost every day. Robert Lincoln and Dr. Patterson forbid the Bradwells to make any more visits, but the damage had been done. In early September, Robert allowed his mother to leave Bellevue and live with her sister in Springfield.

For the next eight months, Mary lived with Elizabeth under Robert’s conservatorship of her money and property. Her anger at him for having her committed was further fueled by this indignity.

On June 15, 1876, the verdict of a second trial in county court declared Mary Lincoln “restored to reason” and capable of governing her property. Four days later she wrote to Robert, denouncing his “wicked conduct” against her and demanding the return of all her property. “Send me all I have written for, you have tried your game of robbery long enough,” she wrote. This attests to Mary’s belief that Robert had put her in Bellevue to steal her money and property. However, under Robert’s stewardship, her money actually increased its value by more than $4,000, and he asked for no compensation.

One of the more interesting letters Mary wrote Myra Bradwell was dated June 18, 1876, the day before she sent a final condemnation letter to Robert. She decried him as a thief who, desiring her money, “brought false charges against me” and committed “imprecations against you all,” and she encouraged the Bradwells and the Chicago Times’ Franc Wilkie to write articles denouncing Robert. “Have justice rendered me,” she wrote. “I have been a deeply wronged woman, by one, for whom I would have poured out my life’s blood.”

A few months later, after severing contact with Robert, Mary left for Europe. She claimed she could not bear the soothing manner of people who would never stop thinking of her as a lunatic. Ten of the lost letters date from 1876-78 and provide insight into Mary’s European years, including a long letter during her trip to Sorrento, Italy, about which nothing had previously been known. The letters are calm, rational and cogent. Mary offers an explanation for her peaceful mood in a December 1876 letter: “I am allowed tranquility here and am not harassed by a demon.” The demon, presumably, is Robert.

Mary’s post-Bellevue letters also attest to her love for the Bradwells. In later years, she wrote, “When all others, among them my husband’s supposed friends, failed me in the most bitter hours of my life, these loyal hearts, Myra and James Bradwell, came to my assistance and rescued me under great difficulty from confinement in an insane asylum.”

In October 1880, Mary returned from Europe in declining health and went to Springfield to live with her sister. She spent more of her time in her room, sitting in the dark with a single candle, packing and unpacking her 64 trunks of clothing. The next year, not long after Robert had been appointed President James A. Garfield’s secretary of war, she and her only living son reconciled. On July 15, 1882, at the age of 64, Mary Lincoln died in her sister’s home, most likely of complications from diabetes.

 

Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here

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