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When Mary Lincoln Was Adjudged Insane
New light on the tragic case of a President’s widow who saw her own son as a hated enemy
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
It is generally known that Mrs. Abraham Lincoln was adjudged insane in later life. The circumstances of her sanity trial, however, are not so familiar and certain details have been lacking. A new document has now come to light which brings the tragic event into focus as vividly as if it were done in technicolor.
Ten years after the assassination of her husband, Mrs. Lincoln was in a shattered, unbalanced condition which nowadays would demand psychiatric treatment. The strain of being First Lady through the Civil War years—vicious public calumnies, the loss of two little sons, the murder of her husband as he sat by her side, and finally the death of still a third son—had transformed a naturally buoyant woman into a pitiful, frightened creature who walked the floor at night with bright lights burning because of imagined dangers, and entered a public dining room to look fearfully around and whisper: “I am afraid; I am afraid.”
She was definitely irrational on the subject of money and believed herself in great poverty, while at the same time indulging in senseless and extravagant buying. Her one remaining son, Robert Todd Lincoln, nearly 32 and a rising lawyer in Chicago with a wife and two children, was doing his conscientious best to look after his mother. The climax of Mrs. Lincoln’s irrationality came in 1875.
In March of that year she was in Florida. In the treacherous mental world which she now inhabited, Robert was the one person she could turn to with confidence, her one protector. One does not know what touched off her sudden apprehension that something was amiss with him—it could have been a bad dream, a delayed letter or a bit of twisted information—but on March 12 she sent the following telegram to Robert’s physician: “My belief is my son is ill; telegraph. I start for Chicago to-morrow.”
The physician soon got in touch with Robert and found him in good health. Robert at once telegraphed his mother saying he was well and suggesting that she remain in Florida. She evidently did not receive it before she sent a second telegram, this time directly to him: “My dearly beloved son, Robert T. Lincoln—Rouse yourself and live for your mother; you are all I have; from this hour all f have is yours. I pray every night that you may be spared to your mother.”
She arrived in Chicago March 15 and went to the Grand Pacific Hotel. She was in a highly disturbed, nervous condition and would not go to Robert’s home as he begged her to do. He necessarily took a room adjoining hers in the hotel and stayed there to look after her. During the following nights his sleep was frequently broken by her tapping at his door and rousing him to tell of her fears. She thought people were trying to injure her and told wild tales of attempts to rob and poison her.
Robert did everything in his power to meet the situation. He employed a woman at the hotel to stay with her as much as possible and to sleep in her room at night. On April 1 she went into the hall not fully dressed and entered the elevator and when he led her back to her room, she screamed: “You are going to murder me.” He could not persuade her to go to his home; she had had a misunderstanding with his wife, probably another figment of her feverish, distorted thinking, for all the evidence indicates that Mary Harlan Lincoln was most affectionate and considerate toward her mother-in-law.
During the day Mrs. Lincoln went on shopping expeditions, buying watches, perfumery, trunks, lace curtains, jewelry, and other items for which she had no need. Toward the last of April she showed Robert securities valued at $57,000 which she was carrying in a pocket on her person. This was dangerous and Robert, without her knowledge, employed a man to follow and watch over her when she left the hotel.
The impossible situation continued for two months. Robert was apprehensive that his mother might be victimized, or robbed, or might irresponsibly dissipate the bulk of her estate. Also she plainly needed rest, protection, and medical care. But as he was to testify on the witness stand, she had never heeded his advice and would not heed it now. The only way he could put her in a sanitarium and get control of her property was by a legal judgment of insanity.
He asked the advice of his mother’s cousin, John Todd Stuart, and of Judge David Davis, administrator of Abraham Lincoln’s estate, and both agreed that a call for a sanity trial was the only course he could take. He sought the opinion of six physicians of high standing, describing her actions, and after consultation they informed him that by further delay he was making himself “morally responsible for some very probable tragedy, which might occur at any moment.”
It was a fearful decision for a son to make. He knew it would be a terrible blow to his mother, who had always been so tender and affectionate to him. (He probably did not foresee that she would attribute his action to a base motive.) He also knew how much of the publicity he so feared and abhorred would attend the holding of the trial. But he had exhausted his resources and himself and saw no other course to take. With great reluctance he did his painful duty as he saw it and asked for a sanity hearing.