The Madness of Mary Lincoln

By Jason Emerson
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from Jason Emerson’s book, The Madness of Mary Lincoln (2007, Southern Illinois University Press), recently named “Book of Year” by the Illinois State Historical Society, and appears here through the courtesy of the author and his publisher.

On Wednesday April 12, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln wrote a playful yet tender note to his wife notifying her that he would join her daily carriage ride on Friday the 14th. It was a pleasant spring day and the Lincolns, who rode alone at the president’s request, discussed their plans for life after his presidency. They would travel across America to visit California, then to Europe, and Lincoln wanted to visit Jerusalem. They considered whether or not they would return to their house in Springfield, Illinois or live in Chicago upon Lincoln’s retirement from the White House.

Mary Todd Lincoln in mourning dress following the death of her son Willie in February, 1862

“During the drive he was so gay,” Mary said, “that I said to him, laughingly, ‘Dear Husband, you almost startle me by your great cheerfulness,’ he replied, ‘and well I may feel so, Mary, I consider this day, the war, has come to a close.” The Lincolns continued the blissful closeness of their afternoon carriage ride at Ford’s Theatre that night, watching a performance of Our American Cousin in the company of Clara Harris and Major Henry R. Rathbone. Mary was supremely happy, and smiled and leaned onto her husband several times. “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?” she whispered contentedly to her husband. “She won’t think anything of it,” the president replied. When John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal shot into Lincoln’s brain during Act 3 Scene 2, Mary Lincoln was holding her husband’s hand.

“The president is shot!” she shrieked as Booth leaped to the stage from the twelve-foot-high box and cried “Sic semper tyrannis!” As soldiers, civilians and physicians crowded into the presidential box, Mary Lincoln pleaded with Dr. Charles Leale, “Oh, Doctor, do what you can for my dear husband, do what you can for him.” Lincoln’s body was carried across Tenth Street to the Petersen house, while the stunned First Lady followed. Twenty-one year-old Captain Robert Lincoln, just returned from the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse and visiting with his friend John Hay in the White House, was sent for, and he arrived at the Petersen house not long after. While Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton directed the machinations of the government manhunt from a side room of the Petersen house, Mary Lincoln was alternating between weeping at her husband’s side and wailing in the front parlor. “Why didn’t he shoot me?” she shrieked when she saw one acquaintance, “Why didn’t he shoot me?” Clara Harris, covered in her fiancée’s blood from his arm wound caused by Booth’s dagger, tried to comfort the First Lady, but every time she approached, Mary would look on her with horror and scream, “Oh! My husband’s blood, my dear husband’s blood!” Robert comforted his mother during this period, and at times stood vigil in the death room, seeking his own comfort from Senator Charles Sumner. When Lincoln finally breathed his last at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, Mary Lincoln’s grief was inconsolable.

Robert Todd Lincoln at 21, about the time of the assassination of his father
Robert was the only Lincoln child to survive into adulthood, dying in 1926 at the age of 83.

Robert escorted his mother back to the White House, where they reunited with youngest Lincoln boy Tad, who had been at the National Theater that night watching a children’s play. “Returning to Mrs. Lincoln’s room, I found her in a new paroxysm of grief,” Mary’s seamstress, Elizabeth Keckly, later wrote. “Robert was bending over his mother with tender affection, and little Tad was couched at the foot of the bed, with a world of agony in his young face.” Keckly was with the Lincolns in the White House during those dark post-assassination days. She watched as the First Family became adjusted to their new reality, especially the relationship and reactions of Robert and Mary. “Robert was very tender to his mother in the days of her sorrow. He suffered deeply, as his haggard face indicated, but he was ever manly and collected when in the presence of his mother.” President Andrew Johnson allowed Mary Lincoln much latitude in her bereavement as to when she would move out of the White House. She did not vacate the house until more than one month after the assassination. On May 22, 1865, Mary and her boys left to begin a new life in Chicago.

In the audacity of John Wilkes Booth’s act and the aftermath of Reconstruction, Americans often overlook the very deep impact that Lincoln’s assassination had on his immediate family. Not only did it leave eleven-year-old Tad without a father and twenty-one-year-old Robert as head of the family, but it left Mary Lincoln a shattered widow. Many family friends, contemporaries and subsequent historians attribute the breaking point of Mary Lincoln’s tenuous mental state to that “very dreadful night,” as Robert later called it. Robert considered his mother’s derangement the direct result of it. Mary Lincoln herself wrote only seven months after the assassination, “When I reflect, as I am always doing, upon the overwhelming loss, of that, most idolized boy [her son Willie in 1862], and the crushing blow, that deprived me, of my all in all of this life [Abraham], I wonder that I retain my reason & live.” Yet upon a deeper look into Mary Lincoln’s life, it becomes evident that her peculiarities and peccadilloes began long before that fateful Good Friday in 1865….

Abraham and Mary were wed — despite one broken engagement and an eighteen-month hiatus in their relationship — in November 1842. Lincoln had inscribed on the inside of Mary’s wedding band the phrase “Love is Eternal,” and the marriage was, by most accounts, based on a foundation of love. “My wife is as handsome as when she was a girl, and I, a poor nobody then, fell in love with her; and what is more, I have never fallen out,” Lincoln is reported to have said during the White House years. General Daniel Sickles, who knew the Lincolns on a personal level during the Civil War, stated he had “never seen a more devoted couple;” while abolitionist Jane Grey Swisshelm noted their devotion in the way that Mary “completely merged herself in her husband….”

Of course, the Lincoln marriage was not perfect, and both Abraham and Mary had their faults. Mary Lincoln was intelligent, witty, vivacious and cultured, but she also was spoiled, petulant, selfish nervous and excitable. This duality of personality can be traced all the way back to her childhood. Mary’s cousin once wrote that, as a child, Mary was “very highly strung . . . having an emotional temperament much like an April day, sunning all over with laughter one moment, the next crying as though her heart would break.” During the Springfield years, it was familiarly stated that Mary was “always either in the garret or the cellar.” In the White House, presidential secretary William O. Stoddard wrote, “It was not easy, at first, to understand why a lady who could be one day so kindly, so considerate, so generous, so thoughtful and so hopeful, could, upon another day, appear so unreasonable, so irritable, so despondent, so even niggardly, and so prone to see the dark, the wrong side of men and women and events.” This emotionalism dominated Mary, shaped her personality and formed the background for her later hysteria and self-indulgence following the deaths of her husband and children, according to one psychologist and biographer. “No other [trait] was more potent in changing [her personality] from the grade termed ‘abnormal’ to that termed ‘pathologic,’ and in changing her mentality from balanced to unbalanced.”

One of Mary’s most memorable traits was her “unusually high temper . . . that invariably got the better of her,” and made her many enemies. When offended or antagonized, “her agreeable qualities instantly disappeared beneath a wave of stinging satire or sarcastic bitterness.” John Hay and John Nicolay, President Lincoln’s White House secretaries, dubbed Mary the “Hellcat;” Herndon later called her a “she-wolf,” and “the female wildcat of the age,” and stated that her irascible nature caused Lincoln a lifetime of trouble and unhappiness. Yet her temper was mercurial and she nearly always was regretful when her anger passed. In fact, Mary suffered from severe migraine headaches her entire adult life, which may have had some impact on her temper as well.

James Gourley, a Springfield neighbor, said the Lincolns had their ups and downs, like all families, but got along as well as anyone. “Lincoln yielded to his wife — in fact, almost any other man, had he known the woman as I did, would have done the same thing.” Lincoln sometimes would ignore his wife’s hysterics, Gourley stated, and frequently he would laugh at her. If Mary did not calm down, Lincoln would simply pick up one of the children and leave the house. Gourley’s reminiscences are in accord with others from the White House years. Mary’s seamstress, Elizabeth Keckly, wrote in 1868 that Lincoln “was a kind and indulgent husband, and when he saw faults in his wife he excused them as he would excuse the impulsive acts of a child.” Most accounts of their married years in Springfield, collected after Lincoln’s death in 1865, coincide with the statements that Mary was mercurial and often difficult, while Lincoln was often detached, yet ever patient.

Abraham Lincoln, however, was not a model husband. He was away from home riding the eighth judicial circuit for six to eight months a year, leaving Mary alone with the children. This terrified Mary, as she was constantly in dire fear of house fires and burglars, and either she or her husband often arranged for a neighbor boy to sleep in the house with her as protection. As Lincoln’s political career ascended he also spent time away to give political speeches and attend campaign rallies. For Mary, who was not only lonely, but also afraid of being by herself in the house (and was especially terrified of thunder and lightning storms) such travel was not ideal. Mary resented Lincoln’s time on the judicial circuit because he was the only lawyer who stayed away from home the entire circuit. Also, as the senior partner in the law firm of Lincoln and Herndon, Mary felt Lincoln should have stayed in Springfield and sent Herndon out to traverse the state each term. In fact, Mary once told a neighbor that if Lincoln stayed home as he should, she could have loved him better.

But even when Lincoln was home, he still was a difficult husband for Mary. Lincoln was busy and often distracted by politics and work; he eschewed normal social graces such as wearing appropriate attire both in and out of the house; he often said inappropriate things in public. Lincoln also was disrespectful to Mary as a homemaker. Lincoln often arrived late, or not at all, for dinner; he would bring friends home for dinner with him without notifying Mary; he was indifferent to food and never complimented her on her cooking. As Joshua Wolf Shenk characterized in his acclaimed study of Lincoln’s melancholy, “the Lincolns’ marriage had barrels of difficulties, exacerbated by her volatility and his withdrawal.”

Abraham Lincoln’s psychological influence on his wife cannot be ignored. His love and patience were the perfect anodynes for her volatile temper and erratic emotionalism. When once teased about his wife’s tantrums, Lincoln replied, “If you knew how little harm it does me, and how much good it does her, you wouldn’t wonder that I am meek.” Lincoln was not weak in this regard, simply indulgent and patient, even parental. As Michael Burlingame has shown, Lincoln assumed the role of “father surrogate” to Mary, someone to indulge, love and protect her. In fact, Mary’s White House seamstress stated that nothing pleased Mary quite so much as when Lincoln referred to her as his “child wife.” This was the essence of Lincoln’s influence on Mary: he played multiple roles in her life, satisfying multiple needs. “He was . . . from my eighteenth year — Always — lover — husband — father & all all to me — Truly my all,” she wrote in 1869. Lincoln was the buffer between her and the rest of society that she sorely needed, and the absence of his restraining influence after 1865 would have dire consequences….

Once Lincoln attained the presidency, Mary felt she had arrived at her true and entitled destiny. Yet the great stress and consternation of the White House years, one could argue, only pushed her mind closer to the edge of what was later called insanity. From the time of her husband’s election, Mary was in constant fear of his assassination and therefore of her own loss. She constantly asked about better protection for his life, although he always rebuffed her suggestions.

Washington society disliked Mary Lincoln. They openly scoffed at her western uncouthness, and simultaneously resented her sense of regal entitlement and haughty air, which led her on huge spending sprees and lavish partying in the midst of war. Mary also was disparaged for her “inordinate greed, coupled with an utter lack of sense of propriety,” which manifested itself in her easy willingness to accept gifts for her influence with the president, and through her susceptibility to the most obvious flattery. One psychiatrist called this Mary’s “narcissistic lavishness,” about which he succinctly explained, “She thrived on adulation, required attention, reveled in adornment, and was sensitive to snubs.” Northerners considered her a rebel, since she was from Kentucky; southerners considered her a traitor; and she was therefore derided by the presses of both sections of the country.

The Lincoln’s third son, Willie, at about five years of age
It was Willie’s death at the age of eleven in 1862 (probably of typhoid fever) that seemed to trigger Mary’s emotional decline.

A major turning point for Mary’s emotional and mental states came with the next loss in her life, the death of eleven-year-old Willie in February 1862. Of all the Lincoln boys, Willie was the most like his father — precocious, honest, kind and thoughtful — and today is considered the favorite son of both parents. Willie was “an amiable good hearted boy,” who “had more judgment and foresight than any boy of his age that I have ever known,” wrote Horatio Nelson Taft, father of Tad and Willie’s daily playmates. “He was so bravely and beautifully himself,” eulogized family friend and editor N. P. Willis. “A wild flower, transplanted from the prairie to the hothouse, he retained his prairie habits, unalterably pure and simple, till he died.” Both the Lincolns felt this loss grievously, but for Mary, who always was an extremely emotional woman, her sorrow at Willie’s death was incapacitating. She stayed confined to her room for weeks, prompting Robert Lincoln to request Mary’s older sister, Elizabeth Edwards, to come stay at the White House. When she left two months later, the president arranged for a nurse. Mary could not look at anything connected with Willie. She removed all his clothes and possessions and never again invited Willie and Tad’s daily playmates, Bud and Holly Taft, to the White House.

Commissioner of Public Buildings Benjamin French wrote in his diary that Mary “was terribly affected by her loss, and almost refused to be comforted.” Elizabeth Keckly, Mary’s seamstress, wrote, “Mrs. Lincoln’s grief was inconsolable. In one of her paroxysms of grief the President kindly bent over his wife, took her by the arm, and gently led her to a window. With a stately, solemn gesture, he pointed to the lunatic asylum. ‘Mother, do you see that large white building on the hill yonder? Try and control your grief, or it will drive you mad, and we may have to send you there.’”

Mary’s few mentions of Willie in extant letters she wrote over the ensuing year reveal she created an apotheosis for her son, calling him “too precious for this earth,” and their “idolised” and “sainted” boy. Her letters also attest to the weakness of her emotional state, for in May 1862 she stated how she was “so completely unnerved, that I can scarcely command myself to write.” While in July she wrote, “the anguish of the thought [that Willie is gone] oftentimes, for days overcomes me.” By the one-year anniversary of Willie’s death, Mary still was crushed, showing what psychiatrists call an “exaggerated grief reaction” in her hyper-sensitive and sustained response to her son’s death. “Only those, who have passed through such bereavements, can realize, how the heart bleeds at the return, of these anniversaries,” she wrote. This last statement is interesting, since it was on the ten-year anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination that Mary had her most dramatic break with sanity.

It is important to note that Keckly’s reminiscence is not the only reported instance of Abraham Lincoln commenting on his wife’s mental state. William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, stated in 1882 that “Mr. Lincoln held his wife partly insane for years, and this shows his toleration of her nature — his great forbearance of her outlandish acts, otherwise not understood by the great world.” William P. Wood, superintendent of the Old Capitol Prison, said in 1887 that Lincoln confided in him during the war that his wife’s caprices, “I am satisfied, are the result of partial insanity.”

These two statements may be true, but are troublesome since there is no corroboration and they were written seventeen and twenty-two years after Lincoln’s death, respectively. Herndon called Lincoln “The most shut-mouthed man I ever knew,” and made mention of “Lincoln’s reticence, secretiveness, his somewhat unsocial nature, his somewhat retired disposition.” Mary said that Lincoln “was not, a demonstrative man,” even with her; “When he felt most deeply, he expressed, the least.” To think Lincoln would comment on something as intensely private as his wife’s “insanity” to a mere acquaintance such as Wood is, therefore, doubtful; and to trust any statement of Herndon about Mary, whom he avowedly despised, is problematic. Keckly’s story, however, published in 1868, long before Mary’s 1875 insanity trial, is well known and generally accepted. It produces an interesting historical irony that for all the opprobrium toward Robert for committing his mother to a sanitarium, it was in fact Abraham Lincoln who was the first recorded family member to suggest that Mary may need hospitalization.

Abraham Lincoln with his youngest son, Tad, who survived his father but only for six years, dying at the age of eighteen in 1871, probably of pneumonia upon returning from a 2 1/2 year stay in Europe with Mary

Lincoln, however, was the reason Mary retained her sanity after Willie’s death in 1862. Besides his calming influence, and despite all her physical and emotional pain during those first two years in the White House, she knew she must be strong for the overwhelming burdens her husband had to bear as president of a divided nation. Mary told her sister that after Willie’s death she felt she had “fallen into a deep pit of gloom and despair without a ray of light anywhere. If I had not felt the spur of necessity urging me to cheer Mr. Lincoln, whose grief was as great as my own, I could never have smiled again.” In early 1865, Robert marveled at what a “brave front” his mother put on even though they all knew she was suffering. “Most women would be in bed groaning, but not mother! She just straightens herself up a little more and says, ‘It is better to laugh than be sighing.’ Tad would go all to pieces if she reversed the words of that opera, and so would my father.” Robert’s statement was made about his mother’s physical, rather than emotional, health, but it serves as an interesting juxtaposition to the personal self-pitying of her letters.

The suffering Robert alluded to came from Mary’s July 2, 1863 carriage accident, during which, while riding into Washington from the Soldier’s Home, the driver’s seat of the presidential carriage became detached, throwing the driver to the ground. The frightened horses began a frantic run along the Rock Creek Road, near the Mount Pleasant Hospital, and Mary leaped from the carriage to save herself. The news reports of the incident stated that Mary was stunned, bruised and battered, but no bones were broken and her injuries, which were immediately administered by surgeons from the nearby hospital, did not appear serious. She did suffer a bleeding wound on the back of her head caused by a sharp stone, which doctors at the nearby hospital quickly stitched up. The president telegraphed Robert at Cambridge not to worry, “Your mother very slightly hurt by her fall.”

Mary took to her bed and Lincoln sent for Rebecca Pomroy, the nurse who cared for Mary and Tad after Willie’s death, to attend her. Unfortunately, as was common during the Civil War era, Mary’s seemingly benign wound became infected. It was three weeks before Mary was up and about, and her recovery seems to have been incomplete. Mary Lincoln, who had suffered severe migraine headaches her entire adult life, had them with greater frequency after the accident. Robert Lincoln later told his aunt that his mother never fully recovered from her head injury, which implied, but did not explicitly state, that it had an impact on her mental health as well.

Besides the physical aspect of the injury, there also was an emotional one. Mary’s nurse wrote in her diary the accident was really an assassination attempt on the president as the driver’s seat was sabotaged. This undoubtedly deepened Mary’s existing fear for her husband’s life. On a family level, the president spent little time with his injured wife as he was busy coordinating and monitoring the ongoing Battle of Gettysburg. Robert also did not come immediately to see his mother and even ignored his father’s telegrams about it. These circumstances must have furthered Mary’s sense of loss of connection with her own family, for with Willie dead, Robert away at college and Abraham busy with the war, Mary had only Tad to give her undivided attention.

Mary’s intense grief over Willie’s death, coupled with the effects of her head injury, did not cause her to go mad, but did bring her nearer the breaking point. Emily Todd Helm, Mary’s half-sister, noticed in 1863 that Mary was nervous, excitable and wrought-up, and that she seemed in constant fear of more sorrows being added to her life. “I believe if anything should happen to you or Robert or Tad it would kill her,” Emily told the president. Emily also recorded in her diary a most disturbing and now-famous event in which Mary came into her room at night, smiling and with eyes full of tears, to tell her that Willie visited her at night to comfort her sorrow:

The Lincoln’s second son , Eddie, at about three years of age, a year before his death in 1850, probably of tuberculosis

‘He lives Emily!’ she said with a thrill in her voice I can never forget. ‘He comes to me every night, and stands at the foot of my bed with the same sweet, adorable smile he always had; he does not always come alone; little Eddie is sometimes with him and twice he has come with our brother Alec, he tells me he loves his Uncle Alec and is with him most of the time. You cannot dream of the comfort this gives me. When I thought of my little son in immensity, alone, without his mother to direct him, no one to hold his little hand in loving guidance, it nearly broke my heart.’ Sister Mary’s eyes were wide and shining and I had the feeling of awe as if I were in the presence of the supernatural. It is unnatural and abnormal, it frightens me.”

These visions could have been mere dreams, products of Mary’s unconscious mind, or, what sounds more likely, hallucinations. If the latter, they were Mary’s first truly psychotic symptoms. In either case, they show Mary exhibiting complex defenses to help ease the burden of her overwhelming loss. Indeed, in later years, at the end of her life, Mary would sleep only on one side of her bed, saving the other side as “the president’s place.” And again, in 1880, even though she had cut Robert from her life, still she reveled in newspaper speculations of her oldest son for president, a momentary reprieve of the loss of her son and her own loss of social position, which would be re-affirmed by her offspring. “I never in my life saw a more peculiarly constituted woman. Search the world over, and you will not find her counterpart,” Mary’s White House seamstress declared.

About the Author: Jason Emerson is an independent historian who lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He has worked as a U.S. National Park Service historical interpreter at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, the Gettysburg National Military Park, and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial; and also as a professional journalist and freelance writer. His articles have appeared in American Heritage, American History, and Civil War Times magazines, the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Lincoln Herald, and the Lincoln Forum Bulletin. He is a regular book review contributor to Civil War Times and America’s Civil War magazines.

Mr. Emerson’s next book, Lincoln the Inventor: The Story of His Mechanical Genius, will be published in January 2009 by Southern Illinois University Press. He is currently preparing a biography of Robert Todd Lincoln.

The Madness of Mary Lincoln
by Jason Emerson

From the publisher: In 2005, historian Jason Emerson discovered a steamer trunk formerly owned by Robert Todd Lincoln’s lawyer and stowed in an attic for forty years. The trunk contained a rare find: twenty-five letters pertaining to Mary Todd Lincoln’s life and insanity case, letters assumed long destroyed by the Lincoln family. Mary wrote twenty of the letters herself, more than half from the insane asylum to which her son Robert had her committed, and many in the months and years after.

The Madness of Mary Lincoln is the first examination of Mary Lincoln’s mental illness based on the lost letters, and the first new interpretation of the insanity case in twenty years. This compelling story of the purported insanity of one of America’s most tragic first ladies provides new and previously unpublished materials, including the psychiatric diagnosis of Mary’s mental illness and her lost will.

Emerson charts Mary Lincoln’s mental illness throughout her life and describes how a predisposition to psychiatric illness and a life of mental and emotional trauma led to her commitment to the asylum. The first to state unequivocally that Mary Lincoln suffered from bipolar disorder, Emerson offers a psychiatric perspective on the insanity case based on consultations with psychiatrist experts.

This book reveals Abraham Lincoln’s understanding of his wife’s mental illness and the degree to which he helped keep her stable. It also traces Mary’s life after her husband’s assassination, including her severe depression and physical ailments, the harsh public criticism she endured, the Old Clothes Scandal, and the death of her son Tad.

The Madness of Mary Lincoln is the story not only of Mary, but also of Robert. It details how he dealt with his mother’s increasing irrationality and why it embarrassed his Victorian sensibilities; it explains the reasons he had his mother committed, his response to her suicide attempt, and her plot to murder him. It also shows why and how he ultimately agreed to her release from the asylum eight months early, and what their relationship was like until Mary’s death.

This historical page-turner provides readers for the first time with the lost letters that historians had been in search of for eighty years.

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