- 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
bellevue place was a private asylum for “a select class of lady patients of quiet unexceptionable habits.” Dr. Richard J. Patterson, who lived in the main house there with his family, used the most modern “moral” treatment of “rest, diet, baths, fresh air, occupation, diversion, change of scene, no more medicine than … absolutely necessary, and the least restraint possible.” In this place Mary Lincoln lived near the Patterson family in a two-room suite, and as Robert later explained to critics, “There is nothing about his house to indicate an asylum except that outside of the windows there is a white wire netting such as you may see often to keep children from falling out of the window.” Even that wire netting was removed at Robert’s request. Mary lived apart from the other patients, had a private bath, kept her own room key, and had the freedom to go for a walk or take a carriage ride whenever she chose.
Robert Lincoln always believed the root of Mary’s mania was money : her need to spend it and her conviction she had none.
The Bellevue patient logbook shows that for the first two months of her stay, Mary Lincoln was quiet and solitary, a bit erratic with her desires, and at times depressed. Dr. Patterson thought she was improving. Robert Lincoln visited his mother every week, and he found her most cordial. “While she will not in words admit that she is not sane, still her entire acquiescence in absolutely everything … makes me think that she is aware of the necessity of what has been done,” Robert wrote to John Hay, his father’s secretary. The situation changed from a lamentable family affair to a painful public controversy upon the entrance of Myra and James Bradwell.
James B. Bradwell, a Chicago attorney who had represented Mary Lincoln in the past, was, in 1875, a member of the state legislature. His wife, Myra Colby Bradwell, was an abolitionist, a feminist, and the founder and editor of the Chicago Legal News , although she could not practice law herself. She had passed the Illinois bar exam with high honors in 1869 but had been denied a license to practice because she was a married woman. Both the Illinois Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the denial.
The currently known and accepted narrative of events is that after a visit from a Chicago newspaper reporter in early July of 1875, Mary Lincoln began the orchestration of her plot for freedom. While mailing a letter to her sister, done at Robert’s suggestion, Mary apparently smuggled letters to many other people, seeking help in her release. On the very next day Gen. John Franklin Farnsworth, a Republican politician, came to visit, as did the Bradwells. They told Dr. Patterson they had been asked to help secure Mrs. Lincoln’s freedom, saying she should be let free and kept under the care of “some tender and sympathetic friend,” while Robert continued to control her money.
Mary’s sister, Elizabeth Edwards, meanwhile responded to Mary’s letter with an invitation to come visit her in Springfield. There followed a flurry of letters and meetings between Robert Lincoln, Elizabeth Edwards, and Myra Bradwell. Robert did not want his mother to leave Bellevue; he believed that left to her own, she would endanger herself and her property, for which he was responsible. Elizabeth Edwards had proposed only a short stay, assuming Mary would be in the care and company of a professional nurse and would return to Bellevue for continued treatment. When she realized that Mary, urged by Myra Bradwell, intended the “visit” to be permanent, in place of Bellevue, she withdrew her invitation, citing ill-health.
For her part, Myra Bradwell wrote and visited both Elizabeth Edwards and Robert Lincoln, urging Mary’s freedom. She persuaded Mrs. Edwards to change her mind and care for Mary. Myra and her husband also undertook a vigorous public relations campaign. They fed stories about Mary’s unjust treatment to the papers, they gave interviews, and they even brought a reporter from the Chicago Times to Bellevue. The paper’s August 24 story was headlined: “mrs. lincoln. Her Physicians Pronounce Her Entirely Sane.”
Robert Lincoln considered the Bradwells meddlers in affairs that were none of their business. “What trouble Mrs. Bradwell may give me with her interference I cannot foretell,” he wrote his aunt in early August 1875. He also said that Dr. Patterson had “expressed a fear that Mrs. Bradwell’s visits and manner of late would tend to undo the good that has been accomplished.” Finally, he asked Myra not to visit his mother so often. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune , a pro-Republican (which is to say, pro-Robert) newspaper, insisted the scandal over Mary’s incarceration had been “set afloat by over-officious and intermeddling mischief-makers, who interfered in a matter which did not concern them, for purposes of sensation.” Whether for sensation or out of friendship, the Bradwells succeeded in pressuring Robert to agree to Mary’s release. She moved into the Edwards home in September 1875.
The “lost” insanity letters collection contains 11 letters from Mary’s time at Bellevue. Most were written by her, but some are from Myra and James Bradwell, Elizabeth Edwards, and Dr. Patterson. They show Mary questioning her religious faith, illuminate her continuing mania about money and clothing, and, perhaps most interesting, reveal the Bradwells to have been more instrumental than previously known both in securing her release and in causing her resentment of Robert.