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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
Robert gave a full account of what had happened since she had telegraphed in March thinking he was ill. When he told of the nights at the hotel when she would tap at his door to wake him and tell him her pitiful fears, he broke down and wept. To shed tears in public is an ordeal for any man but to Robert, supersensitive to the public gaze, that of being on the witness stand was torture. The scene was so touching that some of those in the audience wiped their eyes in sympathy.
He was asked if he thought it safe to allow his mother to remain unrestrained. He answered: “She has long been a source of much anxiety to me,” and again he wept. He said she had always been “exceedingly kind” to him. In his opinion she had been of “unsound mind” since the death of his father, had been “irresponsible” for the past ten years. She was “unmanageable” and would never heed his advice. He told of her unreasonable purchases, “for her trunks are filled with dresses and valuables of which she makes no use. She wears no jewelry and dresses in deep black.”
The jury returned a verdict of insanity. Robert then went to his mother and took her hand tenderly. She looked at him sadly and reproachfully and exclaimed: “O Robert, to think that my son would ever have done this.” He turned his face away that she might not see the pain in it
Before she left the courtroom Swett asked her for the securities she was carrying on her person. He told her he could get an order of court or have the sheriff take them forcibly but he hoped she would not impose that necessity upon him. He asked her if she would not give the bonds properly to Robert and she said no, that Robert never could have anything that belonged to her. Swett then asked if she would give them to Arnold who was standing by. She said she could not, as they were in her underclothing and “you would not be indelicate to me in the presence of those people.”
She implored Swett to take her to her room. Accompanied by Arnold, they left the courtroom through the tunnel. As soon as they arrived at her room Swett urged her to give him the bonds, until she was forced to yield.
She rose and with tears streaming down her face said: “And you are not satisfied with locking me up in an insane asylum, but now you are going to rob me of all I have on earth; my husband is dead, and my children are dead and these bonds I have saved for my necessities in my old age; now you are going to rob me of them.” Completely defeated and physically exhausted “she yielded as to force,” and gave Arnold $56,000 in government bonds. She had evidently cashed one bond since she had shown them to Robert.
Swett summed up the pathetic situation in the last paragraph of his letter to Judge Davis: “From the beginning to the end of this ordeal, which was painful beyond parallel, she conducted herself like a lady in every regard. She believed she was sane. She believed that I, who ought to be her friend, was conspiring with Robert and you, to lock her up and rob her of her money.”
Swett had indeed looked into her tortured mind. Mrs. Lincoln sincerely believed that Robert, her only remaining son, was an unscrupulous and callous man who had deliberately trumped up the terrible charge of insanity in order to get rid of her and obtain her money. As the numbness of shock wore off and the full conviction of this untrue and unjust theory took possession of her, she felt death was the only way out.
She managed to elude those who were watching over her at the hotel and went to several drugstores asking for camphor and laudanum, ostensibly as an application to an aching shoulder. The clerks were cautious and finally one of them, being forewarned, gave her the prescription without the laudanum in it, and she drank it believing it would end her life. This woman in whom affection was predominant, had had the greatest of sorrows before but never treachery from one she loved; it was her first attempt at self-destruction.
Robert was sent for immediately and stayed with her during her few remaining hours in Chicago. He did not know the motive she attributed to him; for with the belief that he had become an enemy she began to conceal her thoughts from him. The day after the trial she was taken to Bellevue Place, a private sanitarium at Batavia, Illinois, and put under the care of Dr. R. J. Patterson. Robert was appointed conservator of her estate.
Detailed accounts of the proceedings at the trial, including mention of Mrs. Lincoln’s gentle behavior and her remark: “O Robert, to think that my son would ever have done this,” were telegraphed to newspapers over the nation. People began to ask questions: what had this hardhearted man done to this gentle, harmless, and bereaved mother? Robert was sharply criticized. A devoted friend of Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. J. H. Orne, wrote him in distress, asking about his mother whom she greatly loved. Robert’s letter in reply showed such consideration and conscientiousness that Mrs. Orne was completely satisfied that he had done the best he could.