- 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
Mary’s changing attitude is shown when she wrote the Bradwells in early August: “… if I have used excited words in reference to my son, may God forgive me, and may you both forget it.” Yet a week later a coolness was evident: “I rather think he would prefer my remaining here in his heart,” almost as if echoing some similar sentiment of Myra Bradwell’s. The mother-son relationship soured from there, with Mary constantly flinging accusations that Robert was hoarding her possessions.
On June 15, 1876, the verdict of a second trial in county court declared Mary Lincoln “restored to reason” and capable of governing her property. Four days later she wrote to Robert what has become one of the most famous insanity letters, denouncing his “wicked conduct” against her and demanding the return of all her property in his possession. “Send me all that I have written for, you have tried your game of robbery long enough,” she said. This statement certainly attests to Mary’s belief that her son put her in Bellevue in order to steal her money, a charge later repeated by historians. In fact, Robert’s stewardship of his mother’s holdings resulted in more than $4,000 in interest, and he accepted no compensation for his conservatorship, although he could have.
This letter has long fueled speculation that Mary’s lost insanity letters may be replete with denunciations of Robert, vindictive revelations of his secrets, and perhaps even evidence that the entire trial and insanity episode was, as one book claimed, a “kangaroo court” full of “brazen injustice,” and a “high-handed denial of her civil rights.”
There has long been speculation that Mary’s lost insanity letters may be full of denunciations of Robert.
The letters do contain many venomous statements about Robert. The most interesting, and most powerful, was written to Myra Bradwell on June 18, 1876, the day before Mary’s final letter to Robert. Its 700 words are vicious and splenetic. She decries Robert as a thief who, desiring her money, “brought false charges against me.” She states that because of his conduct, he will not be allowed to approach his father in heaven and that “this one as my beloved husband always said was so different from the rest of us.” She then tells Myra Bradwell that Robert committed great “imprecations against you all” and encourages the Bradwells and Franc Wilkie of the Chicago Times to write articles denouncing his actions: “have justice rendered me … I have been a deeply wronged woman, by one, for whom I would have poured out my life’s blood.” The letter also contains the surprising revelation that Mary’s hair had turned white during the course of the insanity episode, a bleaching that she blamed on Robert.
A few months after regaining her property, and having severed all contact with Robert, Mary went into self-exile in Europe. She claimed she could not bear the soothing manner of people who would never stop thinking her a lunatic. She spent the next four years traveling the Continent while based in Pau, France. There are approximately 100 known letters from this period of her life, the majority being to her banker and containing only financial matters. Very little is known about her time abroad. Ten of the “lost” letters, however, date from 1876 to 1878 and offer significant insight into Mary’s European years.
The most striking aspect of all 10 letters is that they are calm, rational, and cogent, full of descriptions of her travels and inquiries about friends and events at home. She offered an explanation for her peace in a December 1876 letter: “I am allowed tranquility here and am not harassed by a demon.” The demon, of course, was Robert; the harassment would be his criticism of her spending habits.
In these later letters she is no longer questioning the justice of God; now she is trusting in Him for healing and peace, as well as for vengeance against her enemies. She occasionally rails against her son and mentions her husband, often in terms of apotheosis, “my darling husband, who worshipped me so greatly, that often he said, that I was his weakness.” She mentions her physical health: boils under her left arm and pain over her entire body. The spa waters of Vichy “did me no good.”
Perhaps the most intriguing letter of all is from Sorrento, Italy, in April 1878. In it, she calls April her “season of sadness” and feels the sadness more keenly because she is returning to spots she first saw in the 1860s, in the midst of her bereavement. “It is only by a strong effort of will that I revisit these places,” she wrote. “My beloved husband and myself for hours would sit down and anticipate the pleasant time, we would have in quietly visiting places and halting in such spots as this, when his official labors were ended. God works in such a mysterious way and we are left to bow to His will. But to some of us, resignation will never come. But perhaps for the tears shed here, compensation will succeed the grief of the present time.”
The post-Bellevue letters also clearly show Mary’s close friendship with Myra Bradwell. They contain statements attesting to her love for Myra and constant desire to see her and hear from her. Mary was forever grateful for the friendship of the Bradwells. In later years she wrote, “When all others, among them my husband’s supposed friends, failed me in the most bitter hours of my life, these loyal hearts, Myra and James Bradwell, came to my assistance and rescued me under great difficulty from confinement in an insane asylum.”