Was Mary Todd Lincoln a beribboned shrew and a spendthrift lunatic who made Abraham Lincoln’s life “a living hell” or was she a strong-willed, bereaved woman who in the space of a few years had seen the death of three of her four sons and the assassination of her beloved husband?
Over the past 131 years, Mary Lincoln’s “insanity” has been studied closely and written about exhaustively in scholarly articles and books. Her case has been examined by feminists and viewed from legal and medical angles. It has been scrutinized through psychological lenses that speculate on Robert Lincoln’s motives for having his mother legally committed as insane in 1875 to the Bellevue Sanitorium in Batavia, Ill.
A new look at Mary has emerged in the form of a musical called “Asylum — the Strange Case of Mary Lincoln.” Written by June Bingham, with music and lyrics by Carmel Owen, this touching and historically scrupulous treatment, recently performed to rave reviews at the York Theatre in New York City, shows through song and dialogue that the 16th first lady may have had her eccentricities, but she was, in essence, a complex, passionate, modern woman who was the driving force behind her husband’s soaring political career.
From the time she was committed against her will in May 1875 until her spectacular liberation three months later on Aug. 24 (when the Chicago Times declared in a headline, “Mary Lincoln. Her Physicians Pronounce Her Entirely Sane”) Mary lived in one room in what was a brooding pile of stones, a prisonlike structure with a Charles Addams facade, the Bellevue Sanatorium.
At her trial on May 19, 1875 — she was given one hour’s notice that the trial was taking place — testimony was given by a host of people: hotel staff, shop clerks and four doctors who had never examined her. A jury declared her insane. Her son, Robert, was made her guardian, responsible for her estate, including her financial assets, which, according to standards of that time, were a comfortable accumulation of bonds and other property.
What motivated Robert Lincoln to have his mother humiliated and committed? He claimed to be genuinely concerned for her safety and well-being, alarmed at her behavior and statements. She had told Robert that someone was trying to poison her, that a spirit was removing bones from her face.
Referring to her well-known spending sprees, which were seen as another sign of derangement, her son asserted that “on the subject of money, my mother is not mentally responsible.” Robert hired Pinkerton detectives to follow her. Feeling responsible for his mother’s well-being, he said, he decided that she needed institutionalized care, which could be arranged only by undertaking insanity proceedings against her in court.
Or was Robert driven by darker motives? His mother claimed he was interested in her wealth and possessions. She was heir to one-third of President Lincoln’s estate, a comfortable nest egg at the time. Roberts’ own financial needs and desires far exceeded his earning power. His alcoholic wife made extravagant demands on his purse, and his strong ambitions for political power and recognition needed to be bankrolled.
Then there was the Republican Party. By 1872, splits were developing within the party’s ranks over issues tied to Reconstruction and the continuing military occupation of the South. Mary Lincoln had a long-established reputation as an “unruly woman” who meddled in politics.
She had intervened before in matters of state and had been lectured by Secretary of War Edward Stanton after she had orchestrated a series of anonymous letters attempting to influence sub- Cabinet- level appointments.
The last thing politically ambitious Robert and the Republican Party wanted was a loose-tongued Mary Lincoln. They needed to find a way to silence her. Mary Lincoln was an early version of the outspoken politician’s wife — one thinks of Martha Mitchell’s late-night phone calls to the media during the Watergate crisis — whose tell-all articles in the newspapers could ruin a politician’s career.
In her own defense, Mary said that though she may have been confused, overmedicated and grief-stricken; “a wounded spirit was not a ruined mind.” As for her shopping madness — ordering wallpaper for the White House from Paris during the height of the Civil War — Mary maintained that the White House was an embarrassment to the nation, a building without plumbing that had been responsible for the death of her son Willie from typhoid fever.
She said her shopping was an attempt to transform the “shabby mansion” of the Buchanan years into a fitting symbol of the Union’s power at a time when it was being challenged by the Confederacy. Again, the standards of the time speak out about sex roles.
When Jackie Kennedy spent freely to beautify the White House, she was complimented, not condemned. People laughed at Imelda Marcos for having a thousand pairs of shoes, but she was never taken to court or committed.
Mary’s rescue from the confines of the Bellevue asylum by the legal team of James and Myra Bradwell is the stuff of stage dramas. (An honors student, Myra was denied a license to practice law because she was a married woman.)
Myra Bradwell’s clandestine visits to Mary in Bellevue resulted in press coverage and a second trial in which Mary was declared “restored to reason” and fully capable of managing her own assets. Mary’s clearheadedness in initiating the visits and devising the plan for her own release belies her supposed insanity.
Today, Mary Todd Lincoln remains more of an enigma than a reality even as new evidence emerges in the form of a trove of letters long thought to have been destroyed. Nevertheless, her strength and intelligence cannot be denied. If her meddling in politics raised eyebrows and caused her rebukes, we must fast-forward a century and more and look at the likes of Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose “outspoken” nature has earned her praise, a Senate seat and very possibly in the near future a presidential nomination.
Mary left the United States after her release from the asylum. Based in Pau, France, she lived and traveled in Europe for four years. The considerable body of correspondence from her during this European period shows her to have been fully lucid, greatly interested in her surroundings, eager to explore and describe the new cultures she encountered — a far cry from the insane woman she was painted to be in May 1875.
Always ranking near the bottom of the first-lady polls — even below Frances Harding, it seems — Mary Lincoln deserves better. She had a passionate heart and a good mind, troubled as they may have been at times.
As for her son, Robert, it may be sad justice that he also was institutionalized, for depression, in 1922. Mary had said in a letter to Myra Bradwell that Lincoln “always said this one [Robert] was so different from the rest of us.” Dysfunctional families and the relationship between mothers and sons have always been a part of human history, and they continue to be to this day.
What became of the Bellevue Sanitorium? Recently, it was turned into condominiums.
Sam Oglesby is a writer based in New York. His email is: email@example.com.