Mary Todd Lincoln Insanity Trial: 1875

views updated May 18 2018

Mary Todd Lincoln Insanity Trial: 1875

Defendant: Mary Todd Lincoln
Petitioner: Robert Todd Lincoln
Relief Sought: Declaration that Mary Todd Lincoln was insane and the appointment of a conservator to handle her estate
Chief Defense Lawyers: Isaac Newton Arnold
Chief Attorney for Petitioner: Benjamin F. Ayers; Leonard T. Swett handled all of the pretrial preparation
Judge: Marion R. M. Wallace
Place: Chicago, Illinois
Date of Trial: May 19, 1875
Verdict: Mary Todd Lincoln was adjudged insane (Robert Todd Lincoln was appointed the conservator of her estate a month later)

SIGNIFICANCE: In a bizarre trial, the former first lady of the United States was found insane by a jury and committed.

While vacationing in Florida on March 12, 1875, Abraham Lincoln's widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, was suddenly overwhelmed with the belief that her sole surviving child, Robert, was dying. That night, she sent a telegram to Robert's law partner, Edward Isham:

My Belief is my son is ill telegraph me at once without a moments delayon Receipt of this I start for Chicago when your message is received.

Despite assurances that her son was fine, Mary Lincoln boarded a train the next day to take her back to Robert in Chicago. While these events may have only been the actions of an overly concerned mother, they marked a turning point in Mary Lincoln's life. She had long been a burden and an embarrassment to her son, but now he started to question her sanity. In May, Robert Todd Lincoln went to court to commit his mother to an asylum.

A Long Line of Tragedies

Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln were married in 1842. Wedded for 22 years before the president's assassination, they had four sons. Tragically, three of their sons died young. Mary Lincoln was particularly affected when her third child, 12-year-old William ("Willie"), died in 1862 from typhoid fever. She was never the same again. For months, the mere mention of Willie's name would cause a sudden and violent outburst of tears and she never reentered the room where he died. Once in love with the receptions regularly held at the Executive Mansion, the first lady did not resume any social activities at the White House for over a year, and she wore black mourning clothes the rest of her life. Convinced that her son's death was a punishment from God for her being "so wrapped up in the world," Mary Lincoln consulted mediums who had messages from her dead son, held seances in the Red Room of the White House, and once told her sister that Willie visited her at night. Furthermore, Mary's spending, which constantly swung from miserly to lavish ever since her husband was sworn into office, became even more irrational.

Abraham Lincoln's murder in 1865 plunged Mary further into grief. Her share in the president's estate, combined with an annual pension granted by Congress, made the former first lady rich, but she had an increasingly great fear of poverty. She begged for money from her husband's friends and, in 1867, went to New York City under an alias to sell her old clothes. Mary Lincoln also continued to meet with spiritualists. Finally, she developed such an obsession for privacy that when she went to Florida in November 1874 for an extended visit, she pulled down all the shades in her suite, kept her boardinghouse room dark, and, believing that gaslight was a tool of the devil, used only candles to brighten her quarters.

When Mary Lincoln met her son in Chicago on March 15, 1875, she claimed that someone on the train had tried to poison her. That night, she restlessly wandered about in her nightdress until Robert had her sleep in his room. Soon thereafter, Robert hired Pinkerton detectives to follow his mother. The agents saw the former first lady leave her hotel suite once or twice every day on spending sprees that included $450 for three watches and $600 for lace curtains. Mary told the hotel manager that someone was speaking to her through the walls of her room, and she insisted that part of Chicago was afire. Robert also found out that, since 1873, his mother had been under a doctor's care for "nervous derangement and fever in her head." According to the physician, Mary Lincoln believed that somebody was removing wires from her eyes. She also supposedly attributed her headaches to an Indian spirit who occasionally lifted her scalp and replaced it. Finally, the doctor said that, in March 1874, the former first lady reported that her late husband had told her that she was going to die the following September (when she would reach the same age that President Lincoln was when he was shot).

Robert Lincoln Begins Insanity Proceedings

In April 1875, Robert Lincoln began to consult with physicians and lawyers. The attorney he hired was Leonard Swett, an old friend of his father's, a noted trial advocate, and an expert on the insanity defense. Swett, in turn, called upon a number of doctors who were distinguished in the field of mental health. They all met on May 16. Based only upon the statements of Mary's physician and those of Robert Lincoln, the doctors unanimously concluded that the former first lady was insane and needed to be institutionalized.

During the next two days, Robert learned from Swett that his mother was talking about leaving Chicago. On May 18, Lincoln's detectives observed his mother with $56,000 in government securities sewn into the pockets of her petticoat. Swett urged immediate action and Robert agreed. Papers were drawn up, witnesses were gathered, and on May 19 Swett and two uniformed officers arrived at Mary Lincoln's room with a writ for her arrest.

Unaware that her son had signed a petition to have her declared insane, Mary Lincoln objected to being taken into custody. After an hour of attempted persuasion, Swett pointed to the policemen and warned that:

unless she yielded to me I either had to seize her forcibly myself or turn her over to the officers, who might handcuff her if necessary and certainly would take her to court.

Mary Lincoln was put into a carriage and taken directly to the Cook County Courthouse in Chicago where, through a side door, she was immediately escorted into a courtroom where her son, a judge, a jury, and 17 witnesses waited.

A Civil Jury Hears the Case

Under Illinois law in 1875, the former first lady was entitled to a civil hearing where she could hear the charges, have an attorney, and defend herself before a jury. Indeed, Illinois offered at that time more legal protection to alleged lunatics than any other state. Most required only a document signed by two physicians, a formal request from a member of the defendant's family, and a court-issued certificate of lunacy before a person was involuntarily committed. In some jurisdictions, women and children had even less protection than that. Today, most states still do not allow for either a jury or for the accused to have a lawyer.

For three hours, 12 witnesses, including Robert, testified to the former first lady's bizarre actions and statements. Five doctors, none of whom ever examined Mary Lincoln, told the jury that based entirely upon statements made to them by Robert before the trial, the defendant was insane. Furthermore, the former first lady's lawyer was ex-congressman Arnold, an old friend of the Lincoln family who had been selected to act as Mary's attorney by Swett. At the beginning of the proceeding, Arnold had second thoughts about his role and was angrily told by Swett:

That means you will put into her head, that she can get some mischievous lawyer to make us trouble; go and defend her, and do your duty.

Arnold stayed on, but he did not cross-examine the witnesses nor call any (including Mary Lincoln) to testify on his client's behalf. As a result, it took only minutes for the jury to find Mary Lincoln insane. The former first lady was indefinitely committed to a private sanitarium known as the Bellevue Place in Batavia, Illinois, and, one month later, Robert was appointed the conservator of her estate.

Mary Lincoln was a model patient at Bellevue and, thus, was never subjected to any physical restraints or drugs. Still, the institution's superintendent reported that he could give "no encouragement that Mrs. Lincoln would ever be well." With her mail censored, the former first lady sought help by smuggling letters out to various influential figures. One of those letters went to Myra Bradwell, one of the first female lawyers in the United States and the wife of a local judge. The Bradwells knew Mrs. Lincoln since they were neighbors in 1867, and they believed that while Mary was eccentric and did not follow the dictates of the male-dominated Victorian society, she was not insane.

Myra Bradwell came up with a plan whereby the former first lady could leave Bellevue and live with Mary's sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth Todd Edwards and Ninian Edwards. Without first consulting Robert Lincoln, the Edwardses agreed. Robert was furious and took steps to prevent his mother's release, but when Judge Bradwell threatened to sue the sanitarium, Mary was released into her relatives' custody.

Another Jury Decides Differently

Mary Lincoln, however, had to wait for the restoration of her money and property. Robert Lincoln still believed that his mother was insane and even tried to have her returned to Bellevue, but this time the Bradwells and Edwardses would be in court to testify on Mary's behalf so he did not pursue this option for very long. However, while Mary no longer needed institutionalization, she would never, in her son's opinion, be able to handle her own financial affairs. Over time, an informal agreement was reached whereby an informal conservatorship or trust would be established for the rest of Mary Lincoln's life with someone other than Robert acting as the conservator or trustee.

On June 15, 1876, Ninian Edwards submitted on Mary Lincoln's behalf a petition to the Cook County Court to terminate Robert's conservatorship over her estate. Robert had already agreed not to oppose the move. After the petition was read and a jury was selected, Edwards was sworn in, and he testified that the former first lady "is a proper person to take charge of her own affairs." To the surprise of everyone, the jury quickly decided "the said Mary Lincoln is restored to reason and is capable to manage and control her estate."

Nobody expected Mary to be declared sane. Robert Lincoln blamed Edwards for describing his mother as a fit person without qualifying it with a statement that she was not rational when handling her financial affairs. Defending himself against Robert's charge, Edwards (himself a lawyer) blamed the jury, saying that they "were not called upon to try the question of her sanity" and, thus, decided a legal question that was not before them. In reality, both neglected to take a close look at the law. The governing statute provided "for the restoration of property when the insane person is restored to reason." In essence, the conservatorship could not be terminated without Mary first being judged legally sane.

Much to the former first lady's delight, the headlines on June 16 read: "A HAPPY DENOUEMENT: MRS. ABRAHAM LINCOLN RESTORED TO HER REASON AND FREEDOM." A few months later, Mary Todd Lincoln left the United States and resided in France until 1880, when she returned to the Edwards residence. She died at their home two years later. To his dying day, Robert remained convinced that his mother was incorrigibly insane.

Mark Thorburn

Suggestions for Further Reading

Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1987.

Croy, Homer. The Trial of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1962.

Neely, Jr., Mark E., and R. Gerald McMurtry. The Insanity Files: The Case of Mary Todd Lincoln. Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

Rhodes, James A., and Dean Jauchius. The Trial of MAary Todd Lincoln. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959.

Lincoln, Mary Todd (1818-1882)

views updated May 23 2018

Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882)


First lady

Kentucky Childhood. Mary Todd was born into a prominent Lexington, Kentucky, family on 13 December 1818. Although her family owned three female slaves, her father, Robert, a staunch Whig, disapproved of slavery. When Todd was six years old her mother died; shortly thereafter her father married Betsey Humphreys, with whom he would have eight more children. Todd was an intelligent, self-willed child who often came into conflict with her stepmother, and she later recalled her childhood as lonely and unhappy. Since Betsey insisted on sending Todd away to the Shelby Female Academy, the difficult relationship with her stepmother may have resulted in Todds excellent education; but her father had always believed that a solid education would make women more desirable as marriage partners. Later, Todd attended Mme. Mentelles academy, where she learned to speak fluent French.

Springfield Belle. In the summer of 1837 Todd traveled to Springfield, Illinois, to visit her sister Elizabeth Edwards, who had married the son of a former Illinois governor. Todd may have met Abraham Lincoln at this time; in any case, she certainly knew him when she returned two years later to live with the Edwardses. Todd became the belle of Springfield society, and she attracted many suitors. A friend described her as having clear blue eyes, long lashes, light brown hair with a glint of bronze and a lovely complexion. Todd always considered herself too plump, but some of her youthful admirers thought her figure beautiful. She was a brilliant conversationalist, with a sparkling wit and a talent for mimicry; she was also highly sensitive to criticism. When William H. Herndon, Lincolns law partner, compared her waltzing to the gliding of a snake she conceived a dislike for him that would last for the rest of her life. Perhaps as a result of this animosity, Herndon would depict Mary in an ungracious and highly critical way in the 1889 biography of Lincoln that he coauthored with Jesse W. Weik; this portrayal has contributed to the negative myths surrounding her.

Courtship and Marriage. In late 1839 Todds friendship with Lincoln became romantic. Because of Todds temper and Lincolns awkwardness, the courtship did not go smoothly. Although the story of the bride deserted at the altar is almost certainly false, there was a break in their engagement around January 1841. As a result, Lincoln became deeply depressed. Toward the end of 1842 a series of satiric letters about a political rival of Lincolns, the state auditor James Shields, published in a local newspaper, brought Todd and Lincoln back together. Lincoln wrote some of these letters under a female synonym, and Todd contributed one or two. (Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel, but the two agreed to part without exchanging shots.) On 4 November 1842 Lincoln and Todd were married; they had arranged the wedding hastily, giving some of their relatives barely a weeks notice. Four sons were born to the couple while Lincoln was expanding his law practice: Robert Todd on 1 August 1843, Edward Baker on 10 March 1846, William Wallace (Willie) on 21 December 1850, and Thomas (Tad) on 4 April 1853. Ony Robert would survive to adulthood. The unhappiness of the Lincolns marriage has probably been exaggerated. Mary later recalled the years in Springfield as the happiest of her life, and one of her sisters commented that Mary and Abraham knew each other perfectly. They did not lead an unhappy life at all. She was devoted to him and his children and he was certainly all to her a husband could have been.

White House Hostess. After Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election in 1860, the family moved into the White House. At this time Mary began to acquire a reputation as a spendthrift. With great taste and skill, but no sense of economy, she chose wallpaper, carpets, furnishings, china, and lace curtains for the White House. Everything, she declared, had become shabby, and the presidents residence ought to reflect his high office. In less than a year she overspent the administrations budget of $20,000 for redecoration, which was supposed to last until 1864. At the same time she built a striking wardrobe, ordering sixteen dresses in the first year from her seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley.

Civil War. Mary was in a difficult position during the Civil War, with four brothers and three halfbrothers serving in the Confederate forces. Charges that she was disloyal to the Union, however, were untrue. She was deeply committed to her husbands cause and party, and although she was not an abolitionist, she was firmly against the extension of slavery. She frequently visited military hospitals, bringing wounded soldiers fruit and other comforts. People who met her at society affairs were forced to reconsider their prejudices against this frontier lady: they found her to be kind, gracious, charming, and a lively conversationalist. When her son Willie died on 20 February 1862, however, Mary grieved to such an extent that some historians have said that she became permanently disabled. For the rest of her life she would exhibit irrational outbursts of temper and jealousy. Her husbands assassination on 14 April 1865 left her barely able to function.

After the War. After recovering from the shock of the assassination Mary moved to Chicago, where she learned that Herndon had been publicly claiming that her husband had never loved her but had mourned an early sweetheart, Ann Rutledge, all his life. The public humiliation, together with her other grief, caused Mary to suffer a further emotional breakdown. Although she had an adequate income, she became convinced that she was financially ruined; nevertheless, she continued to spend extravagantly. During the late 1860s, partly to escape public criticism of an attempt to sell her clothes and jewels under an assumed name, she left for Germany; later she moved to England, where she placed her youngest son in school. She eventually returned to Chicago. In 1870 Congress voted to give her an annual pension. During the following years her son Robert became worried that his mother would spend all of her money and become a financial burden to him, and in 1875 he sought to have her declared insane. Although the court could find nothing more serious than extravagant shopping and a belief in her own poverty, she was placed in a private sanatorium in Batavia, Illinois. After four monthswith the assistance of Myra Bradwell, the first woman to practice law in the United Statesshe was released in the care of her sister, Mrs. Edwards. A second trial found her competent, and she returned to Europe for a few years. There she indulged her passion for spiritualism, with which she had become fascinated during the late 1850s. During her final years she was ill, partially blind, and crippled by a back injury. She died on 16 July 1882 and was buried beside her husband in Springfield.


Jean H. Baker, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (New York: Norton, 1987).

Lincoln, Mary Todd

views updated Jun 11 2018


(b. December 13, 1818; d. July 16, 1882) Responsible for major renovations of the White House as First Lady during the Civil War, 1861–1865.

Mary Todd was a proud member of a wealthy Kentucky family whose members on both her paternal and maternal sides had fought in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Intelligent and charming, though quick-tempered, she attended school for twelve years in Lexington before moving to Springfield, Illinois, to live with her married sister Elizabeth Todd Edwards in 1837. There she met Abraham Lincoln, who was at the time an aspiring Whig politician and ambitious lawyer.

In November 1842 Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln married, and by 1853 they were the parents of four sons, three of whom would predecease their mother. During her years as a married woman and mother in Springfield, Mary Lincoln enthusiastically supported her husband's political career, especially in the 1850s, when Lincoln lost two elections to the United States Senate.

Unlike many women of her generation, she studied politics and served as her husband's counselor and occasional clerk. For example, in 1850 she spent a good part of her summer writing patronage letters for Lincoln, who wanted to be appointed Commissioner of Land. Mary Lincoln also assisted her husband by graciously entertaining prominent Illinois politicians, and she was especially well known for her strawberry parties, to which she invited the elite of Springfield. She made sure that the enlarged Lincoln home was a suitable expression of Lincoln's growing importance. By 1860, when Lincoln heard in the Springfield telegraph office that he had been elected president, he hurried home to tell his wife and principal supporter that "we" are elected.

In the White House, the energetic Mary Lincoln began another campaign. She was convinced that the President's Mansion was not just a place where the Lincoln family, consisting of Robert (a Harvard student during most of the war), Willie, and Tad, lived with their parents. Rather, during the devastating war that began six weeks after the Lincolns moved in, she felt the White House must display the power and authority of the government. Accordingly, Mary Lincoln began her renovations of what had been a shabby interior, filled with broken furniture and soiled upholstery. With the good taste that marked her style in clothes, she purchased wallpaper in Paris, rugs in Philadelphia, crystal, and a new set of state china in New York. But she overspent the allotted budget and thus embarrassed her husband and his Republican administration.

As had been the case in Springfield, Mary Lincoln used her entertainments (the receptions, dinners, and evening parties) as important events where politicians and diplomats could exchange important wartime information unofficially. Mary Lincoln also participated in the traditional obligations of Union women who served as nurses for the wounded. Her visits to hospitals in Washington included spending time with soldiers, writing their letters home to their mothers, and carrying food and flowers to cheer them. Sometimes the president went with her; sometimes she and the boys went alone. Mary Lincoln was also one of the few women in Washington to raise money for the so-called "contraband," or former Virginia slaves, who concentrated in the Capitol as the Army of the Potomac moved into northern Virginia.

This First Lady's experience was intimately involved with the Civil War, as she and her husband followed the four-year pendulum of Union victories and defeats. The death of Mary Lincoln's son Willie in the White House in 1862 from typhoid fever, followed by her husband's assassination in April 1865 (as the Civil War was ending) made Mary a part of the tragedies that other Americans experienced.

After her husband's assassination and after finding it financially impossible to keep a house in Chicago, Mary Lincoln had no permanent residence. She and Thomas (Tad), the youngest of the four Lincoln sons, traveled to Europe, returning in 1871. That same year Tad died, and Mary Lincoln was bereft. Her aberrant behavior (she had become a spiritualist, and shopped far too often) led her son Robert to place her in an insane asylum. But she was not insane, and after incarceration for three months, she was released. Worried that her son would continue to threaten her freedom, she moved to Pau, France. There she lived independently until health problems made it impossible to live alone. She died in 1882 in her sister's home in Springfield.


Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1987.

Turner, Justin, and Turner, Linda Levitt. Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters. New York: Knopf, 1972.

Jean Harvey Baker

See also:Lincoln, Abraham.

About this article

Mary Todd Lincoln

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic