Mary Lincolns Insanity: The Discovery of Her Lost Letters


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It has been a long time since I really read a historical non-fiction book with a somewhat critical eye. Some people feel like Robert had a sane woman committed just so he could save the embarrassment she was causing to the Lincoln family. Emerson has a differing opinion, and claims that Robert was just doing his duty to his mother by protecting her.


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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. It is not unknown the struggles that the Lincoln family endured. Not only did Mary Lincoln have to bury 3 of her 4 children, but she was also right beside her husband when he was shot.

Everyone does handle grief differently, but any way you look at it, the losses Mary had to deal with were substantial. In the span of ten years, the former First Lady had gone from the White House, to a boarding house, to living as a homeless wanderer, and now, to an insane asylum. I personally feel as if Abraham kept Mary somewhat sane while he was alive. He was really her crutch that kept her from spiraling out of control. Based on the evidence from his research, Mr. Emerson puts forward Bipolar Disorder as a potential diagnosis from which Mary Lincoln suffered.

Overall, I felt like this was a well-written, well-researched book. She was ambitious and intelligent, not afraid to express herself poignantly and eloquently. She lost her temper in public, and suffered from bouts of emotional instability and episodes of odd behavior that frightened and concerned those in her circle. In her later years, she frequently appeared mad and was eventually declared legally so. Her behavior was confusing even to herself, leaving her admirers puzzled and her detractors gleeful.

As a result, she only grew more infamous in her later years, and even after her death, she remains a polarizing figure. Was Mary mad? Her son, Robert, seems to have thought so, and several historians have agreed with him. The controversy over Mrs. Much of the Lincoln scholarship from the earliest days until the present has sought to place Mary in a negative space, apart from the venerated view of her husband. Furthermore, as a man living in the nineteenth century, he knew well what society expected of women.

While living in Springfield, the two often expressed their mutual dislike for each other, and Mary was famously said to have never invited him to dinner. She disapproved of his drinking habits and his lower social standing and did not consider him a sufficiently prominent partner for her husband. Herndon scorned her aristocratic upbringing and position in Springfield society, a group which had rejected him.

He worked on a book about Lincoln with Jesse Weik, a lawyer, journalist, and Lincoln aficionado from Greencastle, Indiana. Lincoln married Mary Todd to save his honor, and in doing so he sacrificed his domestic peace … he knew he did not love her, but had promised to marry her! By that means her ambition would be satisfied. Herndon judged Mary as his own contemporary, holding views of women that coincided with the prevailing attitudes of the nineteenth century. Michael Burlingame and C.

The Insanity Retrial of Mary Todd Lincoln

Tripp proposes that Lincoln was homosexual, thus repudiating the idea that Mary Todd Lincoln was an important partner. She shared neither his emotional nor sexual life and was therefore inconsequential to his greatness. Many of her contemporaries certainly thought that she was mentally ill. Both Tripp and Burlingame discuss, albeit in different ways, the alleged madness of Mary Lincoln as evidence that she failed as a member of the cult of True Womanhood.

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Burlingame speculates that she probably suffered from manic depression and possibly borderline personality disorder. Tripp, though, states that she was not insane whatsoever—rather, she was spiteful and cunning, almost evil. Some modern biographers, however, have taken a different view. Baker argues that they complemented each other and that their relationship represented the changing nature of marriage in the nineteenth century.

The idea of romantic love, individualism, and other post-Enlightenment ideals recharacterizes the Lincoln marriage as a relationship of mutuality. I reexamine a number of letters and accounts in order to provide a more specific interpretation of Mary Todd Lincoln: I argue that while she demonstrated devotion to her family, she also undoubtedly troubled contemporary expectations of women. Her challenge to the ideals of True Womanhood can also illuminate the outcome of her trial, presenting a different line of thinking regarding her confinement. Simply put, her behavior was so over-the-top that the men in her life agreed that she must have been mad.

I argue, rather, that her behavior and the expectations surrounding feminine norms precipitated her trial. Her letters and a reevaluation of her historic context provide a valuable way to reassess how Mary navigated the world of True Womanhood. Women learned fine sewing, dancing, singing, drawing, parlor French, and religious instruction. Her father, Robert, subscribed to the philosophies of the English theorist Mary Wollestonecraft who argued for the right of women to have a formal education. Accordingly, he sent Mary first to the Shelby Female Academy beginning at age nine in Though she learned the traditional female arts, she also learned geography, history, poetry, and other subjects.

By all accounts, she embraced schooling and was known for her quick mind. Her unhappy home life may have had something to do with her scholastic zeal. Her mother, Eliza, died when Mary was five. Her father had remarried Elizabeth Humphreys Todd, known as Betsey, when Mary was eight and the two never got along. Their stormy clashes and the stress of combining siblings and half-siblings into one large Todd family may literally have driven Mary out of the house and into her books. She often ran as fast as she could to school at an early hour of the morning, leading the Lexington night watchman to joke that she must have been eloping.

Other family members in their memories of her recalled her poring over her books by candlelight, and classmates described her as having a retentive memory that put her far ahead of the other students. While her curriculum did not offer her the chance to learn Latin, Greek, or much mathematics, she learned French Madame Mentelle and her husband were refugees of the French Revolution and gained a lifelong interest in reading and writing.

Her classmates and family remembered her as being the star actress in a number of school plays.


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Robert Todd was president of the Lexington branch of the Bank of Kentucky and counted the statesman Henry Clay among his closest friends. He and Betsey Todd entertained Clay and other prominent senators, governors, and party officials from all over the country at their home on Main Street. They often allowed their older children, including Mary, to listen in on the political talk in the parlor. But her academic success and intellectual curiosity would also make Mary a target in the coming years of her life. Mary understood this but seemed not to care overly much that she was in error.

After her marriage to Abraham Lincoln and the arrival of their sons, she threw herself into the role of wife and mother. This was a necessity in some ways—Lincoln was often gone for weeks at a time, riding the circuit for his position as an attorney. When she and Lincoln were apart, she wrote him of the humorous doings of their children. When young Eddy died at the age of three in February of after a fifty-two day battle with diphtheria, Mary wept for days.

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She took joy in her young sons, and the historical record shows that she was a caring and involved mother. She threw them birthday parties complete with elaborate invitations, allowed them to have a veritable menagerie of goats and ponies and even a turkey when they moved into the White House.

Though later historians have faulted her for her poor household management and accused her of being an unfit mother, her letters show a different story. Later, when some members of the press criticized her, others approvingly highlighted her role as a mother. Whether Mary met the prevailing expectations of ladyhood in terms of her relationship with her husband and her management of their life in the White House is far less clear. There exist many anecdotes that illustrate the Lincoln marriage as undoubtedly based on mutual admiration and respect, and we have several letters from the time period that showcase their love.

In Springfield, they were part of the popular set, giving large parties where Mary could show off her pretty home and her finely honed social skills. Later at the White House, determined to have the society ladies of Washington approve of her, she organized beautiful receptions, replete with wonderful dancing and extravagant dishes. Drawing upon her upbringing and vivacious, intelligent personality, Mary Lincoln tied her own ambitions to those of her husband.

She was reported to have thrown books at him, and once, a log.

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Acts of Remembrance: Mary Todd Lincoln and Her Husband's Memory

While at the White House, their marriage suffered a number of crises including the death of their son Willie in After his death, Mary grew so despondent that Lincoln reportedly took her to stand at a window and pointed to the sanitarium in the distance, telling her he would send her there if she did not get better. As the War seemed to drag on endlessly, Mary also had to endure the sectional break-up of the Todd family.

Perhaps the most troubling aspects were her jealousy and public rages. And it shed light on one of the biggest controversies surrounding the Lincoln family: Did Robert Todd Lincoln do the right thing when he had his mother committed to an insane asylum? Even before her husband ran for president, Mary Todd Lincoln suffered from migraine headaches, depression, eccentricity and angry outbursts. She also liked to spend money, and psychiatrists today think she may have had bipolar disorder.

Mary Todd Lincoln during the White House years. Robert, her eldest, was the only one of her four sons to outlive her.

Review: The Madness of Mary Lincoln by Jason Emerson – Tales of a Book Addict

As a widow, Mary often fell into severe depression. She seemed delusional at times, and she spent money extravagantly while badgering people for more.


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Robert, though rigid and disagreeable, agonized over what to do with his eccentric mother. Finally he had her declared insane and committed to the Bellevue Place sanitarium in Batavia, Ill. Mary managed to engineer her release, smearing her son in the process.

Mary Lincolns Insanity: The Discovery of Her Lost Letters
Mary Lincolns Insanity: The Discovery of Her Lost Letters
Mary Lincolns Insanity: The Discovery of Her Lost Letters
Mary Lincolns Insanity: The Discovery of Her Lost Letters
Mary Lincolns Insanity: The Discovery of Her Lost Letters
Mary Lincolns Insanity: The Discovery of Her Lost Letters
Mary Lincolns Insanity: The Discovery of Her Lost Letters
Mary Lincolns Insanity: The Discovery of Her Lost Letters
Mary Lincolns Insanity: The Discovery of Her Lost Letters

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