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MARY TODD LINCOLN'S CONFINEMENT IN AN ASYLUM
"We, the undersigned jurors in the case of Mary Todd Lincoln, having heard the evidence in the case, are satisfied that said Mary Todd Lincoln is insane, and is a fit person to be sent to a state hospital for the insane..." (jury verdict after 10 minutes of deliberation, May 19, 1875).
It's hard to think of another couple in American history in which the husband was so glorified and the wife so vilified. In May of 1875, the former First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, went to trial on the charge of insanity. Judge Marion R. M. Wallace presided. Mary’s son, Robert, testified against her at the trial. (For information on Robert's life, CLICK HERE.) The jury found her deranged and recommended that she be placed in an asylum. Mary was committed to Bellevue Place, a private sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois. The building still stands today.

Bellevue Place (pictured above to the right) is now converted to rental units; Mary's quarters were on the second floor at the front; a reproduction of Mary's bedroom is in Batavia's Depot Museum.

Mary Todd Lincoln spent approximately four months in the asylum. Some problems continued after her release. What led to the events at the trial? The list below is an attempt to explain at least some of the things that possibly contributed to Mary's mental instability and eventual institutionalization.

In 1862 Mary's favorite son, Willie, died in the White House. This led to a tormented period of mourning. According to Elizabeth Keckley, Mary's seamstress, her grief was so overbearing that Mr. Lincoln warned she would have to be sent to an asylum if she couldn't control it.

On July 2, 1863, Mary was involved in a carriage accident just outside Washington, D.C. She was thrown to the ground and hit her head hard on a rock. Although Mr. Lincoln seemed to minimize the incident, Robert Lincoln felt his mother never totally recovered from it.

As First Lady, Mary had displayed some irrationality concerning money. Because her husband was president, merchants seemed willing to give her an almost limitless credit. This led to extravagance.

Mary was sitting adjacent to her husband when he was assassinated at Ford's Theatre. She was holding Abraham's hand when John Wilkes Booth’s bullet struck the back of his head. Her grief was so profound she didn't leave the White House for over five weeks. Finally, on May 22, 1865, dressed in black, she boarded a private railroad car and traveled to Chicago.

Mary was very concerned about the huge plunge in her standard of living after leaving the White House. She found it nearly unbearable. She was overcome by fears of poverty. Abraham had died intestate, and David Davis was appointed administrator of the estate. During the 31 months of his administration, he sent Mary only $130 a month from the estate. (In November 1867 Mary inherited $36,000 when the estate's assets were distributed.)

Allegations by William H. Herndon, Abraham Lincoln's law partner, that Ann Rutledge was the martyred president's true love greatly unnerved the widow. Mary was convinced she was Abraham's one and only love. Professional historians are divided on the question of whether or not Abraham had a love affair with Ann Rutledge.

In 1867 Mary attempted to sell her old clothes through dealers in New York. The clothing didn't sell well. The incident was a major embarrassment and humiliation to Robert. To some in the press, her eccentricity bordered on lunacy.

Library of Congress Sketch of the Clothing Sale

In the 1870's Mary's irrational feelings and behaviors increased in severity. She was extremely fearful of being alone, carried very large sums of money on her person, had an unreasonable fear of fire, and worried about Robert's health without cause. Increasingly she relied on sedatives and spiritualists, and she attended seances. Insomnia was an increasing problem.

At her trial a series of witnesses, including hotel employees, salesclerks, and doctors testified about a series of bizarre behaviors attributed to Mary. These included such things as "hearing voices" and paying maids to spend nights in her room (due to her fear of being alone). In all 17 people testified at her trial. Five of these witnesses were doctors. Based on circumstantial evidence (Robert T. Lincoln had written those that didn't know Mary personally about Mary's bizarre behavior), all of the doctors testified that she was fit for an asylum. One of the doctors, Dr. Willis Danforth, had seen Mary on several occasions. His testimony was particularly damaging to Mary. He testified that in 1874 he had been called to Robert Lincoln's house and that he observed Mary's "nervous derangement." Danforth testified that Mary was "possessed with the idea that some Indian spirit was working in her head and taking wires out of her eyes, particularly the left one." Danforth went on and testified that Mary had a delusion about being poisoned. "She said she drank two cups of coffee and believed by this means she received an overdose and vomited it up." According to Danforth, she believed she would die on September 6, 1874, and that her son, Robert, would follow her sometime during the 10th anniversary of her husband's assassination.

Next several employees of the hotel (the Grand Pacific) in which Mary lived testified to Mary's bizarre behavior. A housekeeper testified that Mary's behavior was nervous and excitable and unlike that of the other hotel guests. She testified that Mary was terrified of being alone and sometimes paid the upstairs maids to spend the night with her. A cleaning woman testified that Mary sometimes heard voices through the walls from a certain place in her room. She added that Mary felt someone was watching her through a tiny window in her washroom. Once, half-dressed, she entered an elevator thinking it was a washroom. One day Mary told the Grand Pacific's manager that the South Side of Chicago was on fire. To avoid being burned, Mary had her luggage sent to Milwaukee.

Finally, several sales clerks testified to Mary's extravagance and multiple purchases. It was stated that Mary bought three different watches for Robert, several sets of lace curtains that remained unopened in her hotel room, and several sets of gloves and handkerchiefs. The clerk testified that Mary tried to "beat down" the $30 price he was charging for gloves and handkerchiefs and he concluded that she was "crazy."

The last witness to testify was Robert Todd Lincoln. Robert said, "I have no doubt my mother is insane. She has long been a source of great anxiety to me. She has no home and no reason to make these purchases."

In summarizing the case, the lawyers said that Mary Lincoln's uncontrollable grief after Abraham's assassination, her old clothes sale in New York, her mania for buying things she could not use, and her peculiar delusions all demonstrated she was insane.

For more details of Mary's trial please see pp. 318-326 of Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography by Jean H. Baker. Book length treatment of Mary's saga can be found in The Insanity File: The Case of Mary Todd Lincoln by Mark E. Neely, Jr. and R. Gerald McMurtry.

It's possible Mary tried to commit suicide the day after the jury verdict. For a discussion of this possibility please see pages 67-70 of The Madness of Mary Lincoln by Jason Emerson (Carbondale, Illinois, Southern Illinois University Press, 2007). Also, see Dr. Norbert Hirschhorn's article entitled "Mary Lincoln's 'Suicide Attempt': A Physician Reconsiders the Evidence" in the Lincoln Herald 104, no.3 (Fall 2003): 94-98.

Some people feel Mary's real problem was a personality disorder called Borderline Personality Disorder. It should be kept in mind that there is no universally accepted definition of insanity. Courts may have one definition, physicians another, and the general public yet another. Virtually all books and authors differ markedly on Mary's condition. It is difficult to give a 100% certain diagnosis of her condition. In The Madness of Mary Lincoln, author Jason Emerson diagnoses Mary's illness as bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness.

Mary suffered from a variety of ailments. Her earliest and most common complaint was headaches. At times her headaches were so severe as to be disabling. In later life she also developed a persistent cough, and she herself felt she had "weak lungs." Additionally she suffered from hypothyroidism (myxoedema), periodic hallucinations, arthritis, boils, and diabetes. Some of these conditions may have contributed in part to her outbursts and erratic behavior patterns. Somehow people tend to forget that she also lost three beloved sons at an early age, and that she was holding hands with Abraham when she felt the jerk in his body as Booth's bullet traveled over seven inches into his brain. They also forget that Mary was an extremely loving wife and mother, an excellent conversationalist, a prolific writer (most of her letters can be read in Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters by Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner), and very humanitarian. For example, as First Lady, she made many visits to wounded soldiers and strongly supported anti-slavery groups. Mary provided support for the Contraband Relief Association which helped blacks who came to the North during the Civil War.

Mary was released from Bellevue on September 10, 1875. She traveled to Springfield to live with Elizabeth Edwards, her sister. On June 15, 1876, a second jury concluded that Mrs. Lincoln was "restored to reason and capable to manage and control her estate." Robert was removed as her conservator. To the end, Mary never forgave him, although Robert visited her in May of 1881 (which possibly led to a partial reconciliation).
*Batavia is about 40 miles west of Chicago. Bellevue Place was a private sanitarium established by Dr. Richard J. Patterson. It was for female patients only, and it had about 20 patients at the time Mary was there. It catered to women who were in society's "upper crust" and only moderately ill. While there, Mary occupied two rooms in the private part of the residence and was thus separated from the other patients. She ate meals at her own private table. Robert, living in Chicago at the time, visited his mother weekly during her convalescence at Bellevue.

Thank you to Scott Menary for the updated information on Bellevue.


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