“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
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 Journal of American Culture
"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."
(Steven Lee Carson Lincoln Herald
"...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 JAMA
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."
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." 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. 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." 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 H-Net Reviews
"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 Civil War Book Review
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 Choice August 2008
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 American Spectator
About 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.