- Historic Sites
The Madness Of Mary Lincoln
Her son had her committed. She said it was so he could get his hands on her money. Now, 130 years after this bitter and controversial drama, a trove of letters—long believed destroyed—sheds new light on it.
June/July 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 3
This letter, along with 24 others, completely unknown and unpublished, was recently discovered in a steamer trunk owned by the children of Robert Todd Lincoln’s attorney. They are known as the “lost” insanity letters of Mary Lincoln, and their discovery will forever rewrite this famous—and infamous—chapter in the Lincoln-family history.
The newly discovered letters document a long and intimate correspondence between Mary Lincoln and Myra and James Bradwell, Mary’s legal advisers and the people most responsible for getting her out of the sanitarium. The letters were known to have existed. It was assumed Robert Lincoln burned them; he had admitted attempting to destroy all of his mother’s correspondence from the insanity period.
Many historians have tried and failed to find the letters. The biographer W. A. Evans wrote in 1932, “It is to be regretted that we have nothing of the Bradwell correspondence except the tradition.” In 1953 the most respected Mary Lincoln biographer of all, Ruth Painter Randall, dismissed them in a single sentence: “Her letters to the Bradwells have vanished.” The compilers of Mary’s life and letters, Justin G. and Linda Levitt Turner, wrote in 1972, “None of Mrs. Lincoln’s letters to the Bradwells remains, and there is reason to believe Robert had theirs to her destroyed, so damning were they to him.”
“It does not appear that God is good, to have placed me here.’
Prior to the finding of these letters, only 11 Mary Lincoln letters were known to exist for the period from 1874 to 1875. This cache adds 8 more, but it also includes letters from 1872 to 1873 and 1876 to 1878. This is important because, as the Turners wrote, “Letters written by Mary Lincoln in the period between 1871 and 1876 are today the rarest of items,” while nearly all extant letters from 1877 until her death in 1882 were solely about financial matters.
the lost letters offer many new insights into mary’s mental and physical condition before, during, and after the 1875 insanity episode; what she did to secure her freedom from the sanitarium; the opinions of her family and friends on her incarceration; the estrangement between Mary and her son Robert as a result of the insanity episode; and her life in Europe afterward, about which very little is known.
In addition to the letters, the steamer trunk contained a 111page unpublished manuscript about the insanity case, “The Dark Days of Abraham Lincoln’s Widow, as Revealed by Her Own Letters,” written in the late 1920s by a descendant of Myra and James Bradwell. It is because of this manuscript that the lost letters were hidden from history.
Myra Pritchard found herself facing a lawsuit if she did not agree to turn over the letters to the Lincoln family.
In October 1927, a little more than a year after the death of Robert Lincoln, his wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln, received an unexpected visitor to her home in Manchester, Vermont. Myra Pritchard, the granddaughter of James and Myra Bradwell, called as a courtesy to inform Mrs. Lincoln she was about to publish a book on Mary Todd Lincoln. Pritchard’s personal papers (which this author found still in her family’s possession) show that Myra’s mother, Bessie Bradwell Helmer, gave 37 letters by or about Mary Lincoln to her daughter with the stipulation that they be published, but not until both Bessie Helmer and Robert Lincoln had died. “My mother was most anxious that these letters be published,” Pritchard wrote, “because she felt that Mrs. Abraham Lincoln had been maligned and that these letters would explain much of the real Mrs. Lincoln to the world and place her in a more favorable light.”
Mary Harlan Lincoln not only agreed to have her attorneys meet with Mrs. Pritchard in Washington, D.C., and inspect the manuscript but also suggested that she might be able to add information from her own files. This offer, later events made clear, was intended as a delaying action. Far from helping Myra Pritchard, Mary Harlan Lincoln thwarted her.
After examining the manuscript, and knowing full well that throughout his entire life Robert Lincoln had sought to suppress or discourage publication of his mother’s letters, Mary’s attorneys, Frederic Towers and Norman Frost, told Pritchard that three letters quoted in the manuscript were “objectionable” to Mrs. Lincoln. Myra Pritchard was unwilling to omit them but found herself threatened with a lawsuit if she did not (similar cases had established that the writer of a letter—and his or her heirs—not the recipient, was the actual owner). Her only recourse, she realized, was to accept an offer made by Towers and Frost: sell the letters and the manuscript to the Lincoln family for $22,500. The contract stated that all materials and copies in Myra Pritchard’s possession be handed over, that no other copies exist, and that she turn over any subsequently obtained letters.
As unhappy as Myra Pritchard was about the sale, she upheld her agreement of silence. But her silence was not a complete acquiescence, for she had secretly kept typewritten copies of all the Mary Lincoln letters along with her book manuscript.