- From the Publisher
- A Cup Half-Empty
- Who Were the Lincoln Life Guards?
- Kepi Controversy
- Primary Source Material: Manuscripts
- Overlooked Evidence: Lincoln in Pioneer Chicago
- “THE UNION Is DISSOLVED” The Charleston Mercury Broadside: Points of Authenticity and Variations
- Lincoln Letter Fraud on Ebay
- What He Really Thought of Lincoln: The Discovery of an Unpublished Letter by William F. Herndon
- The Sanitary Fair’s Gifts to President Lincoln
- Behind the Scenes At Federal Hall
- In The Marketplace
- LINCOLNPHILE (book reviews)
- The Annotated Lincoln
- Lincoln’s Campaign Biographies
- Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History
- “Lincoln” Hits the Screens
- We Have The War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861
- Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts and Context in the Civil War
- President James Buchanan and the Crisis of National Leadership
- Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln
- Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated With Our Greatest President.
- Abraham Lincoln: The Image of His Greatness.
- Letters to the Editor
- The Obvious Lincoln
- DeWitt Deaccession Debate
- Fake Lincoln Endorsement
- Historical inaccuracies found in CDV
- More on the Lincoln Avengers
- Cartoon Artist Identified
- Kepi Commentary
- An Item in Search of a Story
- Show & Tell
- Replicas For Sale
- Dueling Blogs
- Lincoln Artwork or Just Artwork?
- Devil with a Blue Dress On
- Breyer Model Horses
- Kudos on the new site!
- This daguerreotype looks like Lincoln, but is it Lincoln?
- What Is Lincoln’s Embalmer Worth?
- New Lincoln Stuff on the Market
- Rail Splinters
- Suspect Lincoln
- A Note from the Great Beyond
- ‘A. Lincoln’ Money Pit
- Added Cachet Value
- A Constant Flow of Fakes
- Problematic Copy Images
- Fraudulent Tintype
- If Only It Were Real!
- Rip-Off Ribbons
- Bogus Ballot
- “Ay, tear her tattered ensign down”
- Legit and Illegitimate Theater: The Ford’s Theatre Ticket
- Implausible Provenance
- Twice As [Not] Nice
- These Have Age, But Not Enough
- The Real and the Unreal
- Great Finds!
The Madness of Mary Lincoln.
by Jason Emerson (Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, IL, 2007, 255p.) $29.95.
Jason Emerson is a freelance writer and independent historian who has worked as an historical interpreter at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, the Gettysburg National Military Park and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. He has written articles that have been published in over a dozen journals, including “The Rail Splitter.” While preparing for his first book, a biography of Robert Todd Lincoln, he discovered copies of the missing Mary Todd Lincoln “insanity letters” (see cover story in our Spring 2007 issue for details and background information). His focus then shifted to writing a book about Mary’s post-assassination years, with an emphasis on her brief, but controversial stay in a sanitarium for the insane.
The original letters, along with the typewritten draft of a magazine article by their then owner Myra Pritchard, were sold to Mary Harlan Lincoln and destroyed. A duplicate set were destroyed by Margreta Pritchard in 1951 on the advice of noted Lincoln collector Oliver Barrett. Fortunately, a third set were retained in the files of Robert Todd Lincoln’s lawyer, Frederick Towers. Jason’s remarkable discovery also unearthed Mary Todd Lincoln’s lost will from 1878.
“Of the twenty-five letters, there are photographs of seven of Mary’s handwritten originals, in whole or in part; copies of eight in Myra Blackwell’s handwriting, written on ‘Chicago Legal News’ letterhead, dating to sometime in or prior to 1894, when she died; and copies of three in Myra Pritchard’s handwriting, dating probably to 1928. The other seven letters are found only in the unpublished Pritchard manuscript…. The lost letters offer numerous insights into Mary’s mental and physical condition before, during, and after the 1875 insanity episode; on the actions she took to secure her freedom from the sanitarium; on the opinions of her family and friends of her incarceration; on her friendship with and dependence on the family of Myra Blackwell; on the estrangement between Mary and her son Robert as a result of the insanity episode; and on her life in Europe after her release from the sanitarium.”
The book covers the period from Lincoln’s assassination through Mary’s death in 1882. On the night of the assassination, at the Peterson House, Mary shrieked to one acquaintance: “Why didn’t he shoot me?” (My thought, exactly!) If John Wilkes Booth had been present, he might have said: “Sorry … I only had one bullet!” OK, enough humor, now for more book review.
The point here is that Mary Todd Lincoln has a bad rap which was not helped by the insanity episode of 1875. Robert Todd Lincoln, likewise, is defined to a greater degree by the decision he took to have her committed. The discovery of these suppressed letters has given Mr. Emerson the opportunity to complete the picture and give a objective account of the events, seen in the context of the times. This takes into consideration contemporary legal practice, popular opinion, Victorian rules of conduct, family history (the Todd family had many instances of mental illness and suicide), the state of medical science and practice, and the thoughts of the principals themselves, as expressed in confidential letters. In this effort, he succeeds admirably. The various schools of thought on a particular subject are presented (both pro and con), referenced to contemporary newspaper articles and letters, and a conclusion drawn where the evidence seems conclusive. In some areas, such as Mary Todd’s state of mind and her medical condition, such precision is impossible. In such a case, the various possibilities are discussed in an open-ended manner. In many cases, Mary’s behavior was not constant and may have been affected by her physical ailments. She also had the ability to mask her emotions in an effort to effect a particular, desired result.
The book is arranged in ten “easy-to-read” chapters, interspersed with some illustrations of the principals, an epilogue containing conclusions by the author, and appendices with transcripts of the lost letters and legal documents related to their purchase and destruction.
We quote part of the epilogue as an example of the author’s exemplary lack of bias. “To declare Robert an honorable, loving son is not to attack or demean Mary Lincoln. This is one of the primary roadblocks to a true understanding of the insanity event that has been a part of the popular thinking for decades; to defend either Robert or Mary does not make it a requirement to defile the other. Mary Lincoln deserves understanding for her horribly traumatic life and her psychiatric illness. She deserves empathy, and not a little pity, for the trials she endured, which began with the death of her mother and ended only in her own death. Mental illness is not something actively sought, and we cannot blame Mary for her irrationalities; nor can we blame Robert for dealing with his mother in a way he deemed most necessary and proper. The student of history must not make conclusions outside of historical context. This is the principal mistake made in regard to Robert Lincoln. His personality, his motivations, have never been considered in their proper Victorian attire, but when they are, and when he is given a fair standard to measure against, there can be no doubt that Robert Lincoln was an honorable man who loved his mother. Likewise, when examining the evidence, there can be no doubt that Mary Lincoln suffered from serious mental illness. Her family, friends, and doctors treated her with love and respect, but they were firm in their commitment to the alleviation of her troubles.”
In that vein, the last appendix to the book contains an article titled “The Psychiatric Illness of Mary Lincoln” by Dr. Jame: S. Brust, a currently-licensed psychiatrist. Like the author, he suggests some possibilities, including bipolar disorder, diabetes tabes dorsalis, and syphilis (which we find especially intriguing! as it ties-in with the assertion of Daniel Epstein, author of the Lincoln book reviewed on these pages, that Lincoln had syphilis or at least thought he did). These remain speculations, but speculation based on known facts.
We enjoyed this book. It was focused on a fairly brief historical period, based on primary source material, and was concise and impartial. The style of writing is straightforward and uncomplicated. It is certainly an auspicious start for a new historian.
NOW AVAILABLE FROM THE RAIL SPLITTER PRESS:
Book Review Archive
- Act of Justice: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Law of War.
- The Dark Intrigue: The True Story of a Civil War Conspiracy.
- President Lincoln: the Duty of a Statesman.
- Lincoln’s Men: The President and His Private Secretaries.
- The Lincoln’s: Portrait of a Marriage.
- The Madness of Mary Lincoln.
- Lincoln the Inventor.
- Lincoln and New York.
Rail Splinters Archive
- Stereo view photographs of Abraham Lincoln statue damaged in 1906 San Francisco earthquake
- Lincoln in Film
- John Wilkes Booth? Probably not.
- Answer to the question “Whatever became of the Gillett collection?”
- What happened to the Gillette Collection?
- This Train is Bound for Glory
- Lincoln Ballots 1834-1864
- Lincoln Museum in Boise
- Lincoln at the Abolition Ball
- Where East Meets West
- A Prince of a Guy
- In Memoriam: C. Peter Scanlan
- Portrait of Lincoln Legal Associate Unearthed
- Thomas T. Eckert Archive: Telegraphic History of the Civil War
- Beethoven’s medium channels news of Lincoln’s Death by composing “The Funeral March”
- Where is Mary Todd Lincoln’s 1861 Inaugural Ball dress?
- The Meatball does The Sauceman (and The Rail Splitter) proud
- Lincoln “apparently not” a sexist
- Campaign woodcuts in illustrated magazines, symbolism or adornment?
- 1890 Wide-Awake Reunion program
- Baltimore Coin & Currency Convention Highlights
Past Print Issues