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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 the Chicago Evening Post and Mail correspondent visited Mary Lincoln at Bellevue in July 1875, as mentioned above, Mary Lincoln asked the reporter about her friends in Chicago and “alluded to her attachment to Judge Bradwell’s family.” What has gone unrecorded in the insanity story is that after reading the Post and Mail story, Myra Bradwell journeyed to Bellevue to visit her friend “to satisfy myself in regard to Mrs. Lincoln’s insanity.” Dr. Patterson refused to let her either visit Mary Lincoln or leave her a note, she reported to the Bloomington (Indiana) Courier . Patterson’s treatment of Myra led her to exclaim about her friend, “Then she is a prisoner, is she not?”
It was after the press interview that Mrs. Lincoln is supposed to have secretly mailed letters to several people seeking help in her release. One of the newly discovered letters shows that in fact she sent only one, to her attorney, James Bradwell. “May I request you to come out here just so soon as you receive this note. Please bring out your dear wife, Mr. Wm. Sturgess and any other friend,” she wrote. “Also bring Mr. W. F. Storey with you. I am sure you will not disappoint me. Drive up to the house. Also telegraph to Genl. Farnsworth to meet you here.”
Mary’s request for w. f. storey is another interesting revelation from this letter. The editor of the Chicago Times , Storey had been an antiwar Copperhead during the Civil War and afterward was an outspoken reporter and critic of Chicago society. His motto was: “To print the news and raise hell.” Storey did not visit Bellevue but sent a reporter, Franc B. Wilkie, who wrote the August 24 Times story about Mary’s sanity that caused such a public controversy. This letter shows the story was Mary’s idea, not the Bradwells’, as has long been supposed.
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After their visit, and at Mary’s behest, the Bradwells wrote to both Mary’s sister Elizabeth and her cousin John Todd Stuart, seeking their aid in her release. James Bradwell told Stuart that Mary “feels lonesome and that the restraint of the place is unendurable.” Myra Bradwell told Elizabeth Edwards that Mary “feels her incarceration most terribly and desires to get out from behind the grates and bars.” This last is a charge Myra Bradwell would later make to newspapers as well. Both Bradwells suggested Mary visit the Edwards home in Springfield. “I cannot feel that it is necessary to keep her thus restrained,” Myra Bradwell wrote in her July 30 letter. “Perhaps I do not look at the matter rightly, but let this be my excuse—I love her most tenderly and feel sorry to see one heart ache added to her already overburdened soul.”
Mrs. Edwards’s reply to Myra Bradwell, found amid the “lost” letters, shows something never before seen: her honest opinion regarding her sister’s incarceration. Her 200-word letter agreed with Myra Bradwell’s assessment that Mary never should have been put in Bellevue but instead have had a “protector” and “companionship.” Elizabeth Edwards wrote, “Had I been consulted, I would have remonstrated earnestly against the step taken.” She later apologized to Robert for the contents of this letter, because it stoked Myra Bradwell’s resolve.
there are five “lost” letters from mary lincoln to the Bradwells during August 1875. In them, she repeatedly requests they communicate with more of her old friends and seek their help. She also gives vent to her sorrows and frustrations with such statements as “It does not appear that God is good, to have placed me here” and “I am sleeping very finely and as I am perfectly sane, I do not desire to become insane.” In her importunings for help she wrote, “God will not fail to reward you if you do not fail to visit the widow of Abraham Lincoln in her solitude.”
One of Mary’s original symptoms was her obsession with clothing and personal goods, a mania that is evident in some of these August letters. In one, Mary asks Mrs. Bradwell to bring her samples of black alpaca and heavier black woolen goods. In her next letter, she urges Mrs. Bradwell to “say nothing” to anyone about her request for materials. In two subsequent letters Mary asks her friend to bring two trunks full of clothing and a forgotten key to a third trunk. While such requests sound innocuous, to Robert and Dr. Patterson they were evidence of Mary’s continuing troubles.
But Robert’s chagrin at his mother’s clothing mania was not the cause of their ultimate estrangement, which lasted five years. In fact the new letters suggest that it was not the incarceration that caused the family split but rather the influence of the Bradwells. Both the Bellevue patient logs and Robert’s own letters attest that at first Mary Lincoln was very cordial to him during his weekly visits, but the Bradwells seemed to have planted seeds of resentment. Myra’s letters and newspaper interviews make no secret that she considered Mary a prisoner. It is no great leap to suggest that Myra berated Robert and his motives in his mother’s presence and, whether implicitly or directly, encouraged Mary to do the same.