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>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> first edition of the earliest extant manual on modern chess, Salamanca, circa 1496-97. Sold for $68,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Carte-de-visite album with 83 images of prominent African Americans & abolitionists, circa 1860s. Sold for $47,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk,</i> Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold for $106,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Man Ray, <i>[London Transport] – Keeps London Going,</i> 1938. Sold for $149,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Thomas Jefferson, Letter Signed, to Major-General Nathanael Greene, promising reinforcements against Cornwallis, 1781. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Nicolas de Fer, <i>L’Amerique Divisee Selon Letendue de ses Principales Parties,</i> Paris, 1713. Sold for $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Russell H. Tandy, <i>The Secret in the Old Attic,</i> watercolor, pencil & ink, 1944. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Hemingway, <i>Three Stories & Ten Poems,</i> first edition of the author's first book, Paris, 1923. Sold for $23,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Walker Evans, <i>River Rouge Plant,</i> silver print, 1947. Sold for $57,500.
  • <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Adams (Richard). <i>Watership Down,</i> FIRST EDITION, author inscription on front free end paper, folded map tipped in, original boards, dust-jacket. £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bowles (John). <i>Several Prospects of the Most…la Ville de Londres, avec des Remarques Historiques fort Succinctes, qui les Regardant,</i> 20 double page engraved plates only, of 23, 1724. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Auden (W.H.). <i>Our Hunting Fathers,</i> FIRST SEPARATE EDITION, 1 of 22 copies, COPY B OF 5 PRINTED ON NORMANDIE, original patterned wrappers, Cambridge, for Frederic Prokosch, 1935. £800 to £1200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Barrie (J. M.) & Attwell (Mabel Lucie, illustrator). <i>Peter Pan & Wendy,</i> FIRST EDITION, 12 chromolithograph plates, publisher's blue cloth, original printed dust jacket, [c.1920]; and 3 others (4). £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bartolozzi (Francesco). Genius Calling Forth the Fine Arts to Adorn Manufactures and Commerce; Agriculture (Husbandry Aided by Arts and Commerce), glazed and framed. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> A collection of engraved caricatures, including Gillray ([James]) Tales of Wonder!, 1802; Rowlandson (Thomas) Sports, Smock Racing, 1811;Irish Jaunting Carr, 1814. £400 to £600
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bennett (Charles H, illustrator). <i>Æsop’s Fables,</i> 1875; Buchanan (Robert). <i>Ballad Stories of the Affections,</i> [1866]; Douce (Francis), The Dance of Death, 1833. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Chinese Illustrations. A group of 6 Cantonese rice paper illustrations, depicting scenes of torture with different instruments, gouache, c.340 x 220mm, original wrapper boards preserved, [c. 1800]. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Dulac (Edmund). <i>The Queen of Romania, The Dreamer of Dreams,</i> 5 coloured plates, [1915]; and others illustrated by Edmund Dulac. £300 to £400
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Fronth (Per). Xingu Chronicles, the portfolio, comprising 30 plates, photogravues in colours, each signed, dated and titled in pencil, each numbered 10/35, on wove paper, 790 x 600 x 60mm, 1997. £300 to £400
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Pasternak (Boris). <i>Doctor Zhivago,</i> FIRST ENGLISH EDITION, original red publisher’s cloth, pictorial dust jacket, 4to, Collins & Harvill Press, 1958. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> 13 sepia photographs of visitors to the Thermes Nationaux d’Aix-les-Bains, c. 150 x 105mm, c.1890 (12). £300 to £400
  • <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM. <i>The Tragedie of Julius Caesar.</i> London, 1623. 1st appearance in print, Complete from the First Folio. Sold for $175,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Ernst, Max. <i>Mr. Knife and Miss Fork</i>. Paris, 1932. DELUXE EDITION. Sold for $15,625
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Einstein, Albert. Signed Passport Photo for his US citizenship application. Bermuda, 1935. Sold for $17,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Verard, Antoine. Illuminated printed Book of Hours. Paris, 1507. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Wetterkurzschlussel. German Weather Report Codebook - for Enigma use. Berlin, 1942. Sold for $225,000
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Morelos y Pavon, Jose Maria. Autograph letter signed to El Virrey Venegas, February 5, 1812. Sold for $6,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Milne, A.A. Complete set of <i>Winnie-the-Pooh</i> books. 4 volumes. All first issue points. London, 1924-1928. Sold for $5,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> A 48-star American Flag, battle worn flown at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, 1942-1944. Sold for $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Locke, John. Autograph Letter Signed mourning the death of his friend, William Molyneaux, 2 pp, October 27, 1698. Sold for $20,000
  • <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.
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    <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>

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