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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 son explained that the regrettable “public proceedings in court” had been necessary, because such procedure was the only legal method by which he could commit his mother to a sanitarium. He thought she was “as happily situated as is possible under the circumstances.” He gave details: “She is in the private part of the house of Dr. Patterson and her associates are the members of his family only. With them she walks and drives whenever she likes and takes her meals with them or in her own room as she chooses, and she tells me she likes them all very much.”
His only consolation “in this sad affair” he continued, was “in thinking that she herself is happier in every way, in her freedom from care and excitement, than she has been in ten years.” He said: ”. . . we are on the best of terms,” and “So far as I can see she does not realize her situation at all.” (He was wrong there: Mrs. Lincoln was nursing her resentment against him and was setting to work to obtain her release.) The son went on to say with truth: “It is of course my care that she should have everything for her comfort and pleasure that can be obtained.” He ended that his responsibility was one he would gladly share if he could, “but being alone as I am, I can only do my duty as it is given me to see it.”
That he visited his mother once a week at Batavia is attested by a newspaper correspondent who called upon Mrs. Lincoln at the sanitarium. Frequently he would bring “her favorite grandchild” with him, doubtless Mrs. Lincoln’s own little namesake. Robert and his mother at least had one unspoiled meeting ground, their great love for his two children who were named Abraham and Mary Lincoln. Perhaps he told her that summer that he and his wife were expecting a third child. (Jessie Harlan Lincoln was born on November 6, 1875.)
But mother and son on these visits talked for the most part almost as strangers, neither knowing what was in the other’s mind. She thought of him now as one who had basely betrayed her for the sake of money; he thought her far more mentally ill and uncomprehending than she was. For Mrs. Lincoln was quietly using her effective and fluent pen to enlist the aid of friends who could help get her from behind her barred windows. Her many letters denouncing Robert were constantly going out from the sanitarium.
Among those who received them were Judge and Mrs. James B. Bradwell, two influential people with legal training, Mrs. Bradwell being the first woman lawyer of Illinois. The Bradwells came to see Mrs. Lincoln in Batavia and became convinced that she was in her right mind and that her detention in an asylum was an outrage. Such questions eventually got results; in September she was removed to the home of her sister, Mrs. Ninian W. Edwards at Springfield, though she was still under judgment of insanity and was in the custody of the Edwardses. Robert was undoubtedly glad and relieved to have his mother in this home.
Mrs. Lincoln remained at the Edwards home in Springfield for nine months. Then Ninian W. Edwards petitioned for another sanity trial for her, saying: “She has not spent all she was allowed to spend during the past year, and we all think she is in a condition to take care of her own affairs.” This hearing took place on June 15, 1876, in Chicago and occupied only a few minutes. Robert did not appear but he was represented as not offering any objection. The relatives had probably agreed this was the best course to take. Mrs. Lincoln was declared “restored to reason” and capable of managing her own estate.
Robert’s mother returned to Springfield with Mr. Edwards. Four days after the trial she sat down and wrote her son a letter in which she let loose all the anger and resentment that had seethed within her during those thirteen months in which she had been branded a lunatic. The agitated handwriting itself indicates the fury with which she wrote.
The letter began: “Robert T. Lincoln Do not fail to send me without the least delay, all my paintings . . . my silver set . . . and other articles your wife appropriated . . .” (Evidence of the injustice of this accusation to Robert’s wife is in a letter Mrs. Lincoln had written her from abroad six years before. Speaking of household articles left in Chicago she had said to her daughter-in-law: “ Anything and everything is yours—if you will consider them worth an acceptance . . . It will be such a relief to me to know that articles can be used and enjoyed by you.”)
Mrs. Lincoln enumerated the articles at length and continued: “Two lawyers and myself, have just been together and their list, coincides with my own & will be published in a few days.” (How would a published list of articles he and his wife were supposed to have stolen affect his reputation?) The next sentence indicated that his Aunt Elizabeth Edwards shared his mother’s opinion of him, “Aunt Lizzie” to whom he had so often turned for help and understanding: “Trust not to the belief, that Mrs. Edward’s tongue, has not been rancorous against you all winter & she has maintained to the very last, that you dared not venture into her house & our presence.”