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The Dark Days of Abraham Lincoln’s Widow, as Revealed by Her Own Letters Hardcover – February 10, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


“The tale of Mary Lincoln's mental derangement, her incarceration in a mental hospital, her release four months later, and her subsequent estrangement from her only surviving son forms one of the saddest chapters in the Lincoln family saga. When Jason Emerson wrote his revelatory study The Madness of Mary Lincoln (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007), he utilized valuable new letters he had discovered. In the present volume, he makes available the text of those documents and the dramatic story of their recovery from historical oblivion. Emerson deserves the thanks of all Lincolnians.” 
—Michael Burlingame, author of Abraham Lincoln: A Life 

“Jason Emerson is a rising star in Lincoln studies, and this volume is further evidence that those of us who never tire of learning about the life and times of Abraham Lincoln are in his debt. This carefully crafted volume illuminates dark corners of Mary Lincoln's life and enhances our understanding of the First Lady after that night at Ford’s Theatre. —Michael S. Green, author of Lincoln and the Election of 1860

"Not only has Jason Emerson uncovered letters by Mary Lincoln, he has uncovered an entire manuscript by James and Myra Bradwell's granddaughter, who tried to use her privileged position to sell the story to the less-discriminating press of her day. It is good to have the Pritchard manuscript in print at last, after eighty hidden years-to have both its insights and its embarrassing sororal prejudices. Emerson, by unearthing a new landmark in the historical treatment of the tragic Mary Lincoln, helps to reconfigure how we view the tragic ex-First Lady." - James M. Cornelius, curator of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum 

"With this edited volume, Jason Emerson makes an original and valuable contribution to our scholarly understanding of Mary Todd Lincoln's later years. It succeeds and builds on the intriguing and fruitful detective work that the editor achieved in The Madness of Mary Lincoln, which provided the most important and original insights into her later years that have been produced in at least the preceding generation. The result is a long-missing, yet vital puzzle piece that has long been missing that helps to complete our understanding of Mary Lincoln's commitment proceedings and her eventual release and final difficult years." -Kenneth Winkle, Thomas C. Sorenson Professor of American History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


"The Dark Days of Abraham Lincoln's Widow: As Revealed by Her Own Letters. By Myra Helmer Pritchard. Edited by Jason Emerson. (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, c. 2011. Pp. xviii, 186. $19.95, ISBN 978-0-8093-3012-6.) Myra Helmer Pritchard lays bare the hid­den story of Mary Todd Lincoln's brief confinement in an insane asylum through a series of letters between Lincoln and Pritchard's grandparents, James B. and Myra Bradwell. Held from publication by Robert Todd Lincoln's fam­ily, the 1927 manuscript depicts Abraham Lincoln's oldest son, Robert, as a selfish, conniving caretaker who wished to rid himself of his troublesome mother. Meanwhile, Mary Lincoln appears as an embattled woman neglected by the nation after her husband's death and unjustifiably sent by her son to an insane asylum in 1875. Only the BradwelIs remained true friends in her great­est time of need. As editor of Pritchard's account, Jason Emerson explains that the narrative acts much like a "defense brief against the notion of Mary Lincoln's insanity," as Pritchard attempts to vindicate her grandparents' role in Lincoln's release (p. xvi). Emerson's excellent recto notes counter Pritchard's rather biased tale, allowing the reader to quickly ascertain the inaccuracies and exaggerations of her chronicle. Reading these notes in conjunction with the reprinted letters, a more accurate account of Mary Lincoln's insanity emerges. Rather than an unjustly imprisoned former First Lady, one finds a woman over­whelmed by grief and neuroses, grappling with the shadows enveloping her mind. Robert Lincoln, the Bradwells, and Mary's sister Elizabeth Edwards struggled to find an adequate solution to Mary's mental instability, reassur­ing her that she was not insane but hesitating to press for her release from the asylum. Thus, despite Pritchard's careful shaping of the historical record, Emerson reveals through Mary Lincoln's few friends and relatives the sad truth of her insanity." --SARAH BISCHOFF, Rice University

(Sarah Bischoff The Journal of Southern History 2011-11-01)


In his The Madness of Mary Lincoln (2007), Emerson drew on much of the evidence he has compiled, edited, and annotated in this volume. This companion to that monograph contains both thevoice of Mary herself as well as an account of the (largely success­ful) contemporary efforts to silence her. Those wishing to retrace Emerson's detective work will find this illuminating.

(Patrick A. Lewis The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 2011-01-01)

About the Author

Jason Emerson, the author of The Madness of Mary Lincoln, is an independent historian and freelance writer whose articles have appeared in American Heritage, American History, and Civil War Times magazines, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Lincoln Herald, and Lincoln Forum Bulletin. He is writing a biography of Robert T. Lincoln, to be published by Southern Illinois University Press.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press; 1st Edition edition (February 10, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809330121
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809330126
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,976,611 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Contained within this slim volume, there are in fact two different books. On the left hand there is the first, which bears the title The Dark Days of Abraham Lincoln's Widow, as Revealed by Her Own Letters, and was written by Myra Helmer Pritchard, and completed in 1927, when the Lincoln family decided it should not be published, ever. However, it was rediscovered by Jason Emerson in recent years, and his annotations and added background information fill the right hand pages. What he wrote serves both to set the stage for Pritchard's less academically rigorous work, and in many ways is a counterpoint, contradicting her assertions with disagreeing facts. I was told in college courses that history is often a conversation or debate between scholars on the same subject, but it had never been so clearly laid out in one volume for me to observe as such before this. Pritchard would say things like, "my grandparents worked tirelessly to secure her release," and Emerson would have a footnote saying, "they were generally viewed as interfering busybodies for their newspaper articles on the subject."

At any rate, I found both portions interesting to read, though I think the title could have been something like The Depression and Insanity Trials of Mary Lincoln, as Revealed by Family Friends. I also wonder if either contribution was without bias. Pritchard, as a granddaughter of key players in this sequence of events, the Bradwells, could only take their perspective on the mental state of Mary Lincoln, while Emerson has also written a biography on Robert T. Lincoln, the son who was seen as an enemy by the Bradwell family. His notations have nothing negative about Robert T. Lincoln, though his "Victorian sensibilities" are often mentioned.
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I am an avid reader of books about Abraham Lincoln and those close to him. I have been intrigued by Mary Lincoln but always felt that she was getting a bad rap. She was initially presented to the world through the lens of men who did not like her -- to put it mildly -- (Hay and Nicolay, Herndon). So I have read more about her from friendlier sources. When I discovered that this book included her letters to friends penned while she was incarcerated as insane after her son brought her to trial, I jumped at the chance to hear her voice at one of the most trying times in a tragic life. These letters were initially slated to be published in 1927 by the granddaughter of the woman to whom many of them were written, after she and Robert Lincoln passed away. At that time Robert Lincoln's widow paid over $20,000 to keep the letters suppressed. They were rediscovered in 2005 and finally published. The editor offered corrections and contradictory positions to some of the statements, but I liked that Kindle put those editorial comments at the end. So I could read a book that was biased in favor of Mary Lincoln for a change.

Connie Neal, author of many books found at [...]
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I had always been under the impression that Mary Todd Lincoln was a bitter, bossy, extremely hard to get along with woman. But after reading this book, I have a much better understanding of her true personality. She grew up under a very stern, strict step-mother and seems Mary wasn't given much free time to just be a young girl. Gaining her freedom by living with her older sister first, getting married, becoming First Lady and trying to keep up with the expectations of that rank and status, applied far more pressure than any one woman should have to endure. In the midst of this, two sons became gravely ill with one dying at such a young age. She barely has time to grief under the watchful eyes of the nation, when her husband is assassinated, and she loses another son before his adulthood. After reading this book, I now see that Mary Todd Lincoln had a strong will which was nearly shattered by the deep depression that crept over her and which she could do nothing to stop it. No wonder her son, Robert, was so worried about her. This strange personality that had taken hold of her was perhaps the only way her mind knew to protect itself from more depression. One can certainly sympathize with all she and her son had to go through during the years after Abraham's death and the country's civil war. The letters written by Mary are quite revealing as to the depression she was undergoing. I can honestly say that now I have a greater admiration for this strong-willed woman who was pressed from all sides but never fully broken. What courage she and her son shared in the midst of such family tragedies.
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I enjoyed the book, it has actual letters to the family & has facts that have been proven . I enjoyed it and it changed my perceptions of MTL. I had always believed she was grief stricken her illness stemmed from that. I now believe I like her less...interesting book
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