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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
When Myra Pritchard died in February 1947, her sister-in-law, Margreta Pritchard, burned the 1928 manuscript, as Myra had requested. But she didn’t destroy the copies of the letters. She approached Oliver R. Barrett, a prominent Chicago attorney and one of the foremost Lincoln collectors in America at the time, to ask his advice on whether or not they should be published. Barrett felt it would not be “exactly morally right” to reveal letters that Robert Lincoln had so aggressively sought to keep private during his life and which his family had taken the time and expense to purchase. He urged her to destroy them, and eventually she did. But she kept all the personal and legal documentation concerning the provenance, sale, and destruction of the letters, which her relatives still possess.
For her part, Mary Harlan Lincoln left the letters and Pritchard materials with her attorney, Frederic Towers. Upon his retirement, he placed them, along with countless other Lincoln-family documents, in a steamer trunk and stored them all in his attic. This author found them there, last summer, after a five-month search.
Nervous, emotional, and high-strung, Mary Lincoln suffered a life full of tragedy and disappointment. While there is disagreement over exactly when her mental troubles began in earnest, her only surviving son, Robert, said that her husband’s assassination, along with a head injury she received in an 1863 carriage accident, were the two main causes.
The known and accepted facts of the insanity episode are that it started in March 1875, when, during a visit to Jacksonville, Florida, Mary became unshakably convinced that Robert was deathly ill. She traveled to Chicago to find him in fine health. On her arrival, she told her son that someone had tried to poison her on the train and that a “wandering Jew” had taken her pocketbook but would return it later. During her stay in Chicago, Mary spent money lavishly on useless items, and walked around the city with $56,000 in government bonds sewn into her petticoats.
Dr. Willis Danforth, Mary’s physician, had been treating the widow for more than a year for fever and nervous derangement. As Danforth later testified at the insanity trial, the widow claimed then that an Indian spirit was removing bones from her face and pulling wires out of her eyes. She told Danforth that she heard raps on the table revealing the time of her death, and she would sit and ask questions and repeat the table’s answers.
Robert, fearing for her safety, hired Pinkerton detectives to follow and watch over her. He consulted with personal and family friends as well as several doctors about her condition. As he later wrote to one of his mother’s friends, “Six physicians in council informed me that by longer delay I was making myself morally responsible for some very probable tragedy, which might occur at any moment.” On the basis of the doctors’ advice, Robert took steps to place her in specialized care. Under Illinois state law, the only way he could do this was to initiate insanity proceedings against her in county court.
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On May 19, 1875, after three hours of testimony from physicians, hotel personnel, shopkeepers, and Robert himself, a jury declared her insane. Robert testified that he had “no doubt” about this. “She has been of unsound mind since the death of father; has been irresponsible for the past ten years.” She was taken to a private sanitarium called Bellevue Place in Batavia, and Robert was made conservator of her estate.
Although he spoke of the assassination, Robert Lincoln—and others—always believed the root of Mary’s mania was money: her indefatigable need to spend it and her paranoid conviction that she had none. “The simple truth, which I cannot tell anyone not personally interested, is that my mother is on one subject not mentally responsible,” Robert wrote to his future wife, Mary Harlan, in 1867. “You could hardly believe it possible, but my mother protests to me that she is in actual want and nothing I can do or say will convince her to the contrary.” In fact, Abraham Lincoln’s estate was more than $83,000 upon his death, one-third of which was Mary’s. Moreover, she received $22,000 in late 1865 as the remainder of her husband’s presidential salary, and Congress voted her a $3,000 annual pension in 1870. Robert told Mary Harlan in 1867 that there was nothing he could do. “I have taken the advice of one or two of my friends in whom I trust most and they tell me I can do nothing. It is terribly irksome to sit still under all that has happened and say nothing, but it has to be done. The greatest misery of all is the fear of what may happen in the future.” Just eight years later he was forced to act.