The Commitment of
Mary Todd Lincoln
David A. Casey, M.D.
Innominate Society
October 11, 2011
Introduction
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Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln,
lived through a series of tragedies. She suffered
from psychiatric symptoms and was civilly
committed in 1875
Her case raises may interesting questions
including the problems inherent in retrospective
psychiatric diagnosis of historical figures and
longstanding controversies on the role of
involuntary hospitalization in psychiatry
The Commitment Papers
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In 2010 the Louisville’s Frazier History Museum
obtained the original commitment documents
and will display them for the first time as part of
a new Civil War exhibit beginning on Saturday,
October 15.
Tonight’s discussion will include the case of
Mary Todd Lincoln and a presentation about the
documents themselves
Early Life
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Born Mary Ann Todd on December 13, 1818 in
Lexington, Kentucky to a prominent, well-to-do,
slave-holding family
Mother Elizabeth died when Mary was 6
Father Robert remarried Elizabeth Humphreys
in 1826 when Mary was 7
Poor relationship with step-mother
14 siblings from father’s 2 marriages
Attended finishing school learning fluent French
Mary Todd Lincoln House,
Lexington
Youth
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Moved to live with sister Elizabeth Edwards in
Springfield, Illinois in 1839, age 20
Courted by Stephen A. Douglas, many others
Married Abraham Lincoln, age 33, in 1842 when
she was 23
Her aristocratic family opposed the marriage as
beneath her social standing; she and Lincoln
broke off engagement but saw each other
secretly
Mary Todd Lincoln
Springfield Years
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Lincoln family lived mostly in Springfield
through inauguration of 1861
Lincoln Home National Historic Site 1844-1861
Lincoln Children
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All 4 children born in Springfield
Robert Todd Lincoln (1843-1926); only child to
survive into adulthood and outlive Mary;
became prominent lawyer and diplomat
Edward “Eddie” Baker Lincoln (1846-1850)
William “Willie” Wallace Lincoln (1850-1862;
died while Lincoln was president)
Thomas “Tad” Lincoln (1853-1871)
Lincoln Family
Political Wife
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Avid political supporter of Lincoln
Often alone for long periods with the children
Deeply affected by death of Eddie of diphtheria
or TB in 1850, short of his 4th birthday
Developed reputation for being an unusually
outspoken, unconventional woman-and often
criticized for these traits
Edward “Eddie” Lincoln
White House Years
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Deeply conflicted by Civil War
Brother was CSA surgeon; several half-brothers
and a brother-in-law were CSA casualties
Publically was ardent supporter of husband’s
attempts to preserve Union
Unpopular and insecure first lady; loyalty
questioned by political opponents
Never accepted into Washington society as a
“westerner”; criticized as coarse, pretentious
White House Years
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Suffered severe bouts of depression, especially
after death of Willie, age 11, in 1862, of typhoid
Suffered head injury in carriage accident, 1863
Mood swings, irritability, public outbursts
Referred to by staff as the “hellcat”
Criticized for over-spending, especially on White
House renovations, clothing—in attempt to
satisfy critics who described her as “plump and
plain”
William “Willie” Lincoln
White House Years
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Behavior increasingly erratic following Willie’s
death; Lincoln warned Mary she may be sent to
an asylum
Took to bed; severe headaches; viewed by public
as a hypochondriac
Became involved in spiritualism in attempt to
contact her dead son; bilked out of “a small
fortune” by mediums
Her illnesses and behavior were widely reported
and discussed
Assassination and Aftermath
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Seated next to husband, holding his hand when
he was shot at Ford’s Theater, April 14, 1865
Along with son Robert, stayed by President’s
side through night until he died the next day
Remained in White House for 5 weeks in state
of deep grief
Returned to Illinois where she lobbied Congress
for a pension and friends for money
Prelude to Commitment
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18 year old son Tad died in July, 1871
“Dropsy” or congestive heart failure
Grief exceed even that of previous deaths
Troubled by rumors of Lincoln’s romantic
fixation on his first love, Ann Rutledge
In March, 1875 during trip to Jacksonville,
Florida suddenly became convinced that only
surviving son Robert was deathly ill and took a
train to Chicago, surprised to find him well
Thomas “Tad” Lincoln
Erratic Behavior
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Told Robert she had been poisoned on train and
her purse stolen by a “wandering Jew”, though
no evidence of this
Jumped out of a window to escape a nonexistent fire
Spent thousands on jewelry, dresses, draperies
which were never used
Walked around Chicago with $56,000 in bonds
sewn into clothing
Commitment
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Robert Lincoln consulted a number of
physicians who recommended commitment
Forcibly taken to court without having been
advised of proceedings
Numerous witnesses against her; her attorney
offered no defense
Spending sprees, psychotic symptoms described
May have attempted laudanum OD on learning
verdict of insanity and commitment order
Financial Conservatorship
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Robert Lincoln also named conservator over
Mary’s finances
He returned thousands of dollars in jewelry and
clothing, much not yet paid for
Robert Lincoln
Commitment Verdict
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“We the undersigned jurors in the case of Mary
Todd Lincoln, having heard the evidence in the
case, are satisfied that said Mary Todd Lincoln is
insane, and is a fit person to be sent to a state
hospital for the insane…” May 19, 1875
Committed to the Illinois State Hospital for the
Insane, but was allowed instead to be admitted
to Bellevue Place, a private asylum in Batavia,
Illinois
Indefinite order of confinement
Hospitalization at Bellevue Place
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Did not show signs of mental illness during 4
month stay
Given free rein of the grounds and allowed to
leave premises to shop and socialize
Robert assured his mother was content
Discharge
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Privately was lobbying for release
Mary obtained the assistance of attorneys Myra
and James Bradwell who mounted a press
campaign to have her released
Superintendent Dr. Richard Patterson was
embarrassed by press coverage and declared her
well enough to be discharged
She left on September 10, 1875, moving back to
her sister Elizabeth Edwards’ Springfield home
Aftermath
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A second trial was held in Chicago. On June 15,
1876 the jury declared her “restored to reason
and capable to manage and control her own
estate”. Robert was removed as conservator
Mary and Robert Lincoln never fully reconciled
She remained a recluse at Elizabeth’s home,
rarely leaving her room
In 1879 she suffered spinal cord injuries in a fall
and never recovered. She died of an apparent
stroke on July 16, 1882, age 63
Discussion
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What was Mary Todd Lincoln’s illness?
Was her commitment justified?
Described at the time as “insane”
Has been posthumously diagnosed with
schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder,
narcissistic personality disorder, borderline
personality disorder, syphilis
Most recent authors support bipolar disorder
Discussion
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Mary Todd Lincoln’s case has also been viewed
through the prisms of feminism and antipsychiatry
Can we really apply modern diagnostic
constructs to historical figures?
My view is that any such attempt is doomed to
failure—the case becomes a Rorshach test
where we project our own concerns
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The Commitment of Mary Todd Lincoln