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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
His mother’s excoriation went on: “I am now in contant receipt of letters, from my friends denouncing you in the bitterest terms, six letters from prominent, respectable Chicago people such as you do not associate with . . . Two prominent clergymen, have written me, since I saw you—and mention in their letters, that they think it advisable to offer up prayers for you in Church, on account of your wickedness against me and High Heaven. In reference to Chicago you have the enemies, & I have the chance to have the friends there.” The letter concluded: “Send me all that I have written for, you have tried your game of robbery long enough. On yesterday, I received two telegrams from prominent Eastern lawyers. You have injured yourself, not me, by your wicked conduct. Mrs. A. Lincoln.”
The cruelty of this letter to a blameless and supersensitive man makes one cringe. He had turned his face away from her after the verdict of insanity so that she might not be hurt by the grief in it. Now she wanted to hurt him and destroy his reputation because that very mental illness made her believe he had done a terrible thing to her. He had tried conscientiously to do what was right and best for her; not once had he failed in his filial duty as he saw it. Here were two well-meaning human beings, mother and son, caught through no fault of their own, in fateful circumstances from which neither could escape.
Mrs. Lincoln, in deep humiliation at being thought a lunatic, left the country and remained abroad four years. During that time she refused to communicate with her son. When she finally returned to Springfield, Robert went to see her to make peace, taking with him the most effective advocate possible, his little daughter Mary. His mother, unable to resist that appeal, promised to forgive and forget and on the surface at least normal relations were resumed. But after her death he would seldom speak of her. He tried to collect and destroy those letters of denunciation she had written, evidences of her irrationality, but found it a hopeless task. The bitterness of the whole experience hurt him all his life.