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Book Reviews

The Madness of Mary Lincoln

December 3, 2020

Jason Emerson. The Madness of Mary Lincoln. 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 The other seven letters are found only in the unpublished Pritchard manuscript….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.