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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
The date was set for May 19, 1875, and the place was the Cook County Court in Chicago. When the day dawned Mrs. Lincoln knew nothing of the impending trial. To this unsuspecting woman someone had to break the news that people thought she was crazy; and someone had to get her to court. The one who undertook this painful duty was Leonard Swett, a good friend of Robert’s father, who had been associated with him on the judicial circuit, a man of strength combined with fine feeling. He was also Mrs. Lincoln’s friend; she liked and trusted him, and counted on his sympathetic understanding, as her letters to him show. He had been one of those who urged Robert to call for the trial, feeling it was necessary for Mrs. Lincoln’s own protection. The trial was set for two o’clock; at one Leonard Swett went to Mrs. Lincoln’s hotel.
The new light on what happened that afternoon of May 19 is contained in Leonard Swett’s account written to Judge David Davis five days later. The letter is written with a lawyer’s precision of detail and with great restraint, yet one catches in the lines Swett’s agony at what he had to do to the cherished and beloved wife of Abraham Lincoln, his revered friend. He said the matter of taking Mrs. Lincoln into custody “presented more real terrors than anything I have ever undertaken. To have advanced on a battery instead would, it seems to me, have been a real relief.”
When he entered her room, he said, Mrs. Lincoln “seemed cheerful and glad to see me.” Swett was a tall man with a figure not unlike that of President Lincoln; she doubtless lifted to him trusting blue eyes warm with welcome. He asked her to sit down and said: “I have got some bad news for you.” She seemed startled, as well she might; probably her first thought was that something was wrong with Robert but she sat down as he requested. Swett then told her that her friends had come to the conclusion that the troubles she had been called upon to pass through had been too much and had produced “mental disease.”
“You mean to say I am crazy, then, do you?”
“Yes,” said Swett, “I regret to say that is what your friends all think.”
“I am obliged to you,” she answered, “but I am abundantly able to take care of myself, and I don’t need any aid from any such friends. Where is my son Robert?” she continued. “I want him to come here.” It was probably the last time she ever turned to Robert with trust. Swett told her she would see him in court.
“The court,” she said, “what court do you mean; who says I am insane?”
“Judge Davis said so,” replied Swett, “and your cousin John T. Stewart [Stuart]; Robert says so; and as I do not want to throw the responsibility of this upon others, I say so.”
Swett then pulled from his pocket letters from several physicians giving their opinions that she was insane. She very naturally answered: “I haven’t seen those physicians, they do not come to see me, they know nothing about me, what does this mean?”
Swett explained that Robert had filed an affidavit in the county court that she was believed to be insane, whereupon a writ had been issued that gave the sheriff authority to arrest and take her to court. Two officers, continued Swett, were downstairs ready to seize her by force, handcuffing her if necessary, and take her to court. To prevent this he was asking her to go quietly with him.
Mrs. Lincoln refused and protested about this monstrous plot against her. She denounced Robert bitterly and reproached Swett: “And you my husband’s friend, you would take me and lock me up in an asylum, would you!” Swett’s account continued: “And then she threw up her hands, and the tears streaming down her cheeks, prayed to the Lord and called upon her husband to release her and drive me away.”
Finally the trapped creature asked him to leave while she changed her dress. He refused and she asked him why. He answered: “Because if I do, Mrs. Lincoln, I am afraid you will jump out of the window.” At last she stepped into a closet and made the change. As they started he said: “Will you take my arm, Mrs. Lincoln?” She answered with a flash of spirit: “No; I thank you I can walk yet.”
When he opened the door of the courtroom and she saw the forbidding interior and only men about, she shrank back. Swett coaxed her to enter by saying Robert was inside. When her son came to her she received him kindly and he sat down beside her. Her counsel, Isaac N. Arnold, who had been a good friend of her husband, sat on her other side. A reporter noted how modest and “gentle looking” she was as she sat silently through the three-hour ordeal. She heard various doctors say that she was insane, various laymen recount her eccentric sayings and actions.
What the ordeal was doing to Robert was apparent when he was called to the witness stand. An observer noted that his face was pale, his eyes red with weeping “and his whole manner was such as to affect all present.” His mother looked at him with sympathetic eyes. He had been her beloved son and now he was so evidently suffering deeply.