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1875 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

February 2024
2min read

The Trials of Mary Todd Lincoln

On May 19, at the end of a three-hour hearing, a Chicago jury declared Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of President Abraham Lincoln, to be insane. Mrs. Lincoln’s trial came just over ten years after her husband’s assassination, which was the worst of many trying events in a life filled with tragedy. The blows started early: Her mother had died when she was six, to be replaced by a stepmother who had little use for her. A turbulent courtship with the promising but unpolished Lincoln ended with their sudden marriage in 1842, when she was twenty-three. The couple had four children, all sons, three of whom died before reaching adulthood.

Mary Lincoln had always been high-strung, and she did not respond well to the strains of her husband’s legal and political career. In his frequent absences she suffered severe headaches and was prone to screaming fits. Later, during the Civil War, she came under severe criticism for her Southern background and her spending on White House furnishings. Her outbursts and physical ills worsened as the war went on, and when the President was shot while seated by her side, she plunged into black despair.

In 1866 her husband’s former law partner, William Herndon, began spreading unpleasant tales about the couple, including his opinion that Lincoln had never loved her. Spurred by these stories and her continuing eccentricities, the public exhibited increasing bitterness toward Mrs. Lincoln. To escape it, she moved with her youngest surviving son, Tad, first to Germany and then to England. In 1871 they returned to America, where Tad died within two months.

This final tragedy made Mary Lincoln fall completely apart. She sewed into her petticoats more than fifty thousand dollars in securities, which she sometimes cashed in to finance compulsive shopping sprees, buying absurd quantities of goods that she never even looked at afterward. In spite of this, and even though Congress had granted her a pension in 1870, she was convinced that she was poverty-stricken. The hysterical episodes continued as Mrs. Lincoln hallucinated, heard voices, avoided sunshine, feared she was being poisoned, and suffered numerous and baroque delusions. In addition, she was plagued with painful physical woes. Large doses of chloral hydrate, a sedative prescribed by well-meaning doctors, added to her troubles. Eventually her lone surviving son, Robert, had her committed for her own protection.

After she spent four months in a sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois, a wave of public sympathy led to Mrs. Lincoln’s release to the custody of her sister and brother-in-law in Springfield. In June 1876 a second jury ruled her sane. After her release she finally found the compassion that had been missing for so long, but even this turned to ashes. “My former friends will never cease to regard me as a lunatic,” she told her sister. “I feel it in their soothing manner. If I should say the moon is made of green cheese, they would heartily and smilingly agree with me.” She soon fled the stifling environment of her native country to live among strangers in Europe. Four years later, plagued by a variety of physical woes, she returned to Springfield, where in 1882 she was finally laid to rest beside her husband.

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