Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2012 Issue

This is Crazy: Mary Todd Lincoln to be Retried for Insanity

Mt&alincoln

Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln in younger days.

Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of President Abraham Lincoln, did not have an easy life. It is also fair to say she was not always the steadiest of individuals. She was probably always a bit unstable. That is not to say her issues were such as would prevent her from living a “normal” life. She did. Unfortunately, she would be visited by some of the most unendurable of personal tragedies imaginable. It would be enough to push even the most stable of people over the edge.

Mary Todd was born in Kentucky, but not in a log cabin. She didn't wear a coonskin cap. Rather, she lived in a large house in Lexington. It needed to be large, as Mary Todd had 14 siblings from her father's two marriages. Her mother died when she was six, and while she did not have the greatest of relationships with her step mother, life was not bad. Mary moved to Springfield, Illinois, to live with her sister in 1839. We all know who she met there. Actually, she met Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln's rival in debates, a senatorial race, and eventually a presidential race. She chose Lincoln, and if Douglas had the more successful political career for the next 20 years, her husband was the victor when it mattered most.

Abe was a busy man, what with all that lawyering he needed to do to support the family. The result was that most of the responsibility for raising the kids fell on her shoulders. The closeness to the children must have made the tragedies even worse. She had four sons. Her second son died in 1850 at the age of four. Midway through her husband's term as President, her third son died. It was a great strain.

Mary Todd Lincoln was never very comfortable in Washington society. Sure, she was born to the higher society of Lexington, but Kentucky is still Kentucky, and Washington is Washington. She attempted to make up for any perceived deficiencies by spending lots of money on nice things, but that rarely works. Meanwhile, her husband was burdened with the horrors of war, and she shared in those burdens, visiting wounded soldiers and helping as best she could. She was steadfastly loyal to the President's policies and the Union, but it could not have helped that she was from a border state and several of her siblings fought on the side of the Confederacy.

Of course, we all know what came next. Mrs. Lincoln was at her husband's side that terrible night at Ford's Theater when he was assassinated. The Secretary of State eventually had to insist she leave her husband's side after he died, so overcome by grief was she. There had always been signs of her being a bit different, but this event would send her into a downward spiral. How much worse it must have been when yet another son died in 1871.

Mary always had a fear of poverty, afraid that the lifestyle to which she was accustomed would one day be torn away. She managed to secure a $3,000 annual pension from Congress in 1870, though she really didn't have any financial needs. What she had was fears, and she became convinced she was running out of money, despite reassurance from her one surviving son, Robert. She took to sewing bonds in her dresses for security. Her grief unrelieved, she began conducting seances, supposedly conversing with her late husband. Eventually, she became convinced her one surviving son was dying, though his health was fine. Under the circumstances, how could anyone blame her? She visited her son, thinking he was ill, and claimed someone tried to poison her on the train. Her expenditures on items like dresses she didn't need and never wore was alarming to Robert Lincoln. Other incidents were reported, such as hearing imaginary voices. He did not know what to do, so eventually, he decided he needed to protect her from herself. In 1875, Robert had his mother committed to an asylum. When she resisted, a trial had to be held which deemed her insane.

Was she insane? Mary Lincoln did not think so. She wrote letters seeking help to her lawyer and his wife. They were sympathetic. They pushed for her release, and the whole situation became an embarrassment for all involved. At the rehearing, the director of the asylum conveniently declared she was sufficiently cured to go home. Mary went to live with her sister. Mrs. Lincoln would go on to spend several years in Europe before returning to Springfield. She died there in 1882.

One hundred and thirty years have passed since Mary Todd Lincoln passed on, but evidently we are not going to let her rest in peace. No, on October 1, Mrs. Lincoln will again go on trial for insanity. Is this crazy? Thankfully, this time Mary will not have to attend. She doesn't need the aggravation. She is, hopefully, in a better place.

The retrial of Mary Lincoln's sanity will be held at the Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield on October 1. We expect she will be acquitted this time. That's usually what happens at these “retrials.” There is no need to beat on the poor woman anymore. There is not a sharp line between sanity and insanity. Mary undoubtedly lived closer to that border than most, appearing to have crossed the line at times, other times safely back in the comfort zone. Robert was not a heartless son worried about preserving her money either. He was a last surviving son, carrying the weight of the family's burdens on his shoulders, with a mother who exhibited behaviors that at times concerned him for her safety. It was a family tragedy that unfortunately played out in public because these two were the closest relatives to a martyred hero.

So, was Mary insane? What difference does it make? It brings me back to a personal family story from long ago. My great uncle George was a bit of a rogue. Sometimes he did things that perhaps didn't exactly follow the rule book. My grandfather, on the other hand, followed the rules to a “T.” He might seem an unlikely defender of Uncle George, but George had been married to his sister. Sadly, she died at a way too early age, before I was born. My grandfather's explanation for standing up for George was simple. As he said, George was the love of his sister's life. That's all that mattered. Mary Lincoln was the love of one of the greatest men this country has ever known. That's enough. Rest in peace, Mary.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> E.H. SHEPARD, Original drawing for A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner.<br>$40,000-60,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> BERNARD RATZER, Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. $80,000-100,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> THOMAS JEFFERSON, Autograph letter signed comparing Logan, Tecumseh, and Little Turtle to the Spartans. Monticello: 15 February 1821. $14,000-18,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN C. FREMONT, Narrative of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in the Year 1842.. Abridged edition, the only one containing the folding map From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $3,000-5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ZANE GREY, Album containing 94 large format photographs of Grey and party at Catalina Island, Arizona, and fishing in the Pacific. From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $5,000-$8,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> WILLIAM COMBE, A History of Madeira ... illustrative of the Costumes, Manners, and Occupations of the Inhabitants. produced by Ackermann in 1821; From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ERIC TAVERNER, Salmon Fishing... One of 275 copies signed by Taverner, published in 1931,From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN WHITEHEAD, Exploration of Mount Kina Balu, North Borneo. Whitehead reached the high point of Kinabalu in 1888. Part of a major group of travel books from the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN LONG, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, describing the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians... The first edition of 1791. $3,000-$5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> SAMUEL BECKETT, Stirrings Still. This, Beckett’s last work of fiction with original lithographs by Le Brocquy, limited to 200 copies signed by the author and the artist. From the Estate of Howard Kaminsky.. $1,500-$2,500
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, wallpaper sample book, circa 1919. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Archive from a late office of the Breuer & Smith architectural team, New York, 1960-70s. $3,500 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> William Morris, <i>The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of Living Men,</i> illustrated by Walter Crane, Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, 1894. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustave Doré, <i>La Sainte Bible selon la Vulgate,</i> Tours, 1866. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustav Klimt & Max Eisler, <i>Eine Nachlese,</i> complete set, Vienna, 1931. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>Eric Allatini & Gerda Wegener, <i>Sur Talons Rouges,</i> with original watercolor by Wegener, Paris, 1929. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>C.P. Cavafy, <i>Fourteen Poems,</i> illustrated & signed by David Hockney, London, 1966. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jean Midolle, <i>Spécimen des Écritures Modernes...</i>, Strasbourg, 1834-35. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>E.A. Seguy, <i>Floréal: Dessins & Coloris Nouveaux,</i> Paris, 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. SOLD for $131,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. SOLD for $516,500
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. SOLD for $106,250
    <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. SOLD for $16,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. SOLD for $275,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. SOLD for $118,750

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