The Last Days of Mary Todd Lincoln

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Mary Lincoln: Mad? Or Just Angry?
Bluegrass Heritage Museum, Winchester, December 13, 2012
The U.S. has long enjoyed interesting presidential couples: Martha and George, Abigail and
John, Eleanor and Franklin, Mamie and Ike, Nancy and Ronnie, Barbara and George, Hilary and
Bill... and, Michelle and Barak. Today let’s focus on our Kentucky-born presidential couple.
Honest Abe is a monumental icon in U.S. history and American memory and with the many
connections being drawn between Barak Obama and Abraham Lincoln, the first US President
elected from Illinois - is anyone comparing Michelle Robinson to Mary Todd? Michelle and
Mary share some characteristics: they both were well educated, high energy and a strong
compassion for others – both came to the White House at tragic times in our nation’s history.
However, according to Justin and Linda Turner – who gathered her letters in an important
volume in the 1970s, Mary Todd Lincoln
… was destroyed by the experience [as a President’s wife] (Justin G. & Linda Levitt
Turner, p. xxv)... A nation which erected a marble temple to her husband – as surely a
house of worship as any cathedral in the capital – prefers not to think of her, but when it
does, dismisses her as a shrew, a spendthrift, a madwoman. (p. 4)”
As Catherine Clinton wrote in an essay about her biography of Mary Lincoln:
Mary Lincoln was her husband’s sounding board for every speech. She was deeply
partisan, blindly loyal, and held fierce grudges. Advice flowed freely as the couple daily
read the papers aloud to one another. She was jubilant upon Abraham’s election and
perhaps felt a share of the victory. She was rightly perceived as a new breed of
presidential wife, which is perhaps why the term first lady came into usage during her
tenure as mistress of the White House.
However, while Lincoln biographers gathered steam in the 1920s to create his presidential
legacy, they also made sure that Mary’s story was couched in the negative images projected by
William Herdon during her lifetime. Their personal dislike for each other had grown into an
intense rivalry and later she denounced him publicly as a liar. However, Lincoln’s biographers
throughout the early 20th century continued to portray her as a cross for her husband to bear. In
1928 Katherine Helm, Mary’s niece and portraiture wrote The True Story of Mary: Wife of
Lincoln in order to contradict the harsh, unsympathetic portrayals of earlier works. And other
valuable studies of her life and impact as First Lady drew out the more complex stories that
make her human like the rest of us: William Evans and Carl Sandburg (1932), Ruth Painter
Randall (1953), Justin and Linda Turner (1972), Ishbel Ross (1973), Jean Baker (1987) and
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Catherine Clinton (2007). However, several biographers in the late 20th century rejected these
revisionist interpretations of the impact a woman has on our history. Michael Burlingame’s The
Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (1994) frequently delineated Mary’s shortcomings, and in 2003
the British author Richard Carwardine in his Lincoln described a “grief-stricken . . . wife who
demanded more emotional support than she returned.” It is this version of Mary that we saw in
one of the more emotional scenes in the recent movie with Sallie Fields and Daniel Day Lewis.
C.A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln (2005) went so far as to proclaim that the
marriage of Abraham and Mary [ranks] as “one of the worst marital misfortunes in recorded
history” and further suggests his wife was “[Lincoln’s] cross to bear.” And in 2004 Daniel Mark
Epstein wrote in Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington: “Whatever her
youthful virtues had been, by the time she became First Lady she was vain, jealous, profligate
and given to heroic tantrums. . . . By 1863, when Mary Lincoln was not tormenting her husband,
she was neglecting him.” This is a strange and hateful vitriol that, if one had not actually read the
letters and diaries of the time period, might be taken as statements of fact.
Let me briefly sketch Mary Lincoln’s background as an elite, highly-educated white
woman from Kentucky during antebellum period:
Born December 13, 1818 in Lexington, Kentucky, Mary was the fourth child of cousins
Eliza Parker and Robert Todd who had three more children after her. She was 6 yrs old when
her biological mother died in childbirth (child psychologists murmur “abandonment”) and was
replaced by a stepmother Mary disliked. Elizabeth Humphreys produced 9 step-siblings and
along with Mary’s six siblings there was little room for individual attention. In 1871 Mary
described her childhood as “desolate” and referred to Charlotte Mentelle’s boarding school
outside the town – where she studied French, literature and dance— as her only real home. At
the young age of 22, before all of her more famous tragedies, she wrote to her friend Mercy
Levering “… to me it has ever appeared that those whose presence was the sunlight of my heart
have departed.”
In 1839, at the age of 21, Mary left Lexington to join her two married sisters in
Springfield, the new capital of IL, and there she joined “the Coterie,” the town’s most
marriageable youth, including Stephan A. Douglas. There she met the young law partner of her
cousin John Todd Stuart, state legislator Abraham Lincoln. It was an exciting courtship which
remains the subject of many speculations, especially the “Fatal first of January” 1841 when the
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engagement was broken off. This awkward beginning became fodder for rumor mills later in
Mary’s life, however, on Nov. 4, 1842, she finally married the poor young lawyer, with a
backwoods lineage and self-taught educational background – against her family’s wishes. They
lived in a hotel/boardinghouse until after the birth of their first son, Robert in 1843. In her own
home she held huge parties and birthed two more boys while her husband traveled the judicial
circuit six months of the year. Her husband’s rise in politics by the late 1850s, many claim,
came about by her political acumen.
A major tragedy in Mary’s life came in 1850 with the death of her 4 year old Eddy from
diphtheria soon after she learned of the death of her beloved Grandmother Parker in Lexington.
And upon the election of her husband to the presidency in the midst of state secessions, the
threats on Abraham’s life in 1861 made her panic-stricken. She made a poor entrance into the
tightly closed ranks of Washington DC society. All her efforts to prove herself worthy as the new
First Lady – the overhaul of the White House with $20K to show she had civilized taste and
knowledge of the latest styles in furniture and decor during her regular Saturday receptions, her
evening levees and official dinners, esp. her Blue Room salon – were scrutinized and found
wanting, by the Washington ladies and by what Mary called the “vampyre press.” According to
historian Fawn Brodie, there was “no allowance for a separate identity outside the Dolly
Madison stereotype, and the reporters watched Mary Lincoln for variations from it like circling
turkey buzzards. Failing to report her numerous visits to army hospitals, they followed her
instead on her wild shopping expeditions. They exaggerated her political meddling, distorted her
innocent flirtations, and libelously insinuated that she was a Confederate spy. The press called
her a lunatic – and as an obsessive newspaper reader she did not miss a single aspersion
(JG&LLT, p. xix)” By the time her second son, Willie, died of malarial fever in the White House
in February 1862, she was complaining regularly of “neurasthenia” and migraines. She also
began religious experimentations in mysticism during the next three years of mourning – and
perhaps because most followers of spiritualism supported causes such radical ideas as the
immediate abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage, Mary’s desperate attempts to
communicate with her dead children came to be the bane of her elder son’s existence.
MTL psychoses heightened during Civil War and under pressure from enemies:
Mary Todd’s erratic behavior as First Lady during the Civil War cannot be denied, but
these were bad times for everyone. Why would the public begin to cast her in the light of
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insanity even as her husband was becoming lionized as an American icon? Perhaps she provided
some grist for the mill. A close examination shows that, during times of trouble, she resorted to
five main patterns of self-destructive behavior which continued to evidence themselves at
various times in her later life: (1) an obsession with buying things and storing them away to
appease her sense of a rather miserly economy, (2) extravagant mourning (even in the Victorian
Age which made mourning an international cult), (3) migraines and insomnia which she selftreated with a variety of medicines, (4) an obsession about her husband’s political identity and
legacy, and finally (5) a stubborn insistence on her own personal independence.
She had an obsessional hunger for elegant clothes: in the 3 months preceding Abraham’s
assassination she paid $2000 for a single gown, $1000 for a cashmere shawl, bought 84 pairs of
gloves in a single month, $3200 worth jewelry – and kept the cost of these and other extravagant
purchases from her husband, turning frantically to wealthy men, whom she begged
surreptitiously to pay her bills lest the President be informed. A 2007 monograph by Jason
Emerson, Robert Lincoln's biographer, used modern professional medical opinions to posit that
Mary Lincoln likely had a chronic mental illness: that her carefully recorded mood swings and
delusions showed she was probably suffering from what is now called bipolar disorder. He also
admits that her symptoms could be due to adult-onset diabetes and her several falls and fractures
added to what could have been some peripheral neuropathies. However, on the subject of Mary
Lincoln's buying sprees and miserliness, Emerson uses non-medical terms such as "money
mania" (p 23) or "materialist mania" (p 45) - which leaves much room for counter-arguments
according to Dr. Mark H. Fleisher, University of Nebraska College of Medicine, a psychologist
who wrote a review of Emerson's book in the Journal of the American Medical Association in
June 2008. The 1932 personality study by Dr. W.A. Evans who read her letters remains for us
then a credible source. Evans saw nothing pathological in her panic about money: “The threecornered fight in her mental makeup between the desire to get, the desire to spend, and the desire
to hoard had lasted for nearly forty years. Sometimes one combatant was on top, sometimes
another. In the final stretch, miserliness held the field of battle.... This complex mania for
money, extravagance and miserliness – paradoxical as it appears to laymen – is well known to
psychiatrists. It is present in many people who are accepted as normal.”
When her Willie died, she fell into a deep depression for three months, suffering from a
mild nervous breakdown. Her older sister Elizabeth came from Springfield to tend her, but could
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last for only two months of it. Her close attention to the rituals of mourning included a growing
belief in the new religion of spiritualism. Spiritualism had been founded in 1848 in western NY
near where the 2nd Great Awakening spawned revivals in the “Burnt-Over District” and where
Joseph Smith dug up the Book of Mormon on a hillside near Palmyra, beginning the Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The three Fox sisters of Hydesville created an international stir
with their claims to have heard “rappings” from beyond the grave and their public exhibitions of
their ability to communicate with the dead. Late in 1863 Mary admitted to her half-sister Emilie
Helm that Willie “comes to me every night, and stands at the foot of my bed, with the same
sweet, adorable smile he has always had; he does not always come alone; little Eddie is
sometimes with him.” She sought out mediums so vigorously and joined in séances so regularly
that her husband intervened and exposed her favorites as frauds. Biographer Jean Baker has an
interesting perspective on this part of Mary’s life, however. Baker saw this emphasis on
spiritualism not as a psychosis but as a well-intentioned effort to bring some positive force back
into her life. Instead of interpreting her visions of her dead children as clinically delusional, one
might imagine her descriptions of mystical experiences as part of a larger movement in group
therapy to which many of her peers, including human rights activists Myra Bradwell and Charles
Sumner, contributed.
In the spring of 1865, after Abraham’s assassination, she collapsed from shock and
hysteria and remained bed-ridden for weeks. At the end of May she left for Chicago, and
William Crook of the White House guard wrote that “when she was not weeping she was in a
daze; it seemed almost a stupor. She hardly spoke. No one could get near enough to her grief to
comfort her.” In Chicago, she refused callers, complained of attacks of chills and migraine,
suffered from incessant weeping, and allowed no visits from her sisters. Her memory of her
husband and his legacy to the nation became an obsession for her and even the slightest
disrespect for him, including the Republican Congress’s refusal to forgive her shopping sprees
and support his widow with an adequate pension, made her strike out in rage. William H.
Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and biographer began his popular lecture series, insisting that
“Lincoln knew no joy” during his 23 years of marriage. Herndon’s invention of a classic
Victorian love affair between a young Abraham and Ann Rutledge infected a whole generation
of historians with his hatred of Mary whom he called the “female wild cat of the age.” She could
do nothing but follow his successes in the newspapers and beg her husband’s former friends to
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try and stop him from what she claimed was destroying her husband’s legacy. Her love of her
husband grew ever more eloquent. In a letter to her friend Sally Orne in 1869, she wrote: “each
day makes me worship his memory – more & more – Tomorrow is the anniversary of my
birthday – I will be 46 – and I feel 86 – My husband always so playfully & tenderly reminded me
of the day, if I affected to forget it. He was 14 years & 10 months older than myself, & was from
my eighteenth year – Always – lover- husband – father & all all to me – Truly my all.”
Yet she was unable to accept that her own actions as the widow of the Great Emancipator
could be met with such cynical disregard by the public. In 1867 she tried to sell her well-stocked
wardrobe and published open letters to the brokers describing them – but all she got was horror
and outrage from her family and friends. Her eldest son, Robert Lincoln, wrote to his beloved
Mary Harlan in Oct. 1867: “I have no doubt that a great many good and amiable people wonder
why I do not take charge of her affairs and keep them straight, but it is very hard to deal with one
who is sane on all subjects but one. You would hardly belief it possible, but my mother protests
to me that she is in actual want, and nothing I can do or say will convince her to the contrary. So
you see that I am likely to have a good deal of trouble in the future to do what I can to prevent
it.” Soon after Robert married in the fall of 1868, Mary left with her youngest, Tad, for Europe to
wait while Congress debated whether she should receive a pension. Her collapse in the elegant
English Reading Room upon hearing that the Senate had denied her a pension, accusing her of
making off with public gifts and living beyond her means, led her to seek medical help in
Bohemia’s Marienbad spa. She was probably lonely and frightened, but she noticeably
improved when Congress at last in 1870 (thanks to Sally Orne and Charles Sumner) granted her
a pension of $3,000 – though only after acrimonious debate in which Senator Richard Yates of
IL said publicly on the Senate floor that if Lincoln himself “could speak from the abode of
heaven,” he would oppose a pension for his wife. At the European spa Mary learned the benefits
of hydrotherapy – drinking, resting in spring-fed pools under the solicitous care of attendants –
and spas became an important refuge for her later in life when she felt cornered or powerless.
Freedom to travel and explore interesting sites and be pampered at health spas became a luxury
for which she would fight if denied.
MTL Shocks/Tensions post 1865 lead to her insanity trial:
In April 1871 she returned to the US with Tad, now 18 years old, and stayed with him in
a New York hotel while he suffered from “dropsy of the chest” and died soon afterwards. She
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broke with tradition and attended the short funeral ceremony, but retreated to bed and nearcomatose grief soon thereafter. For the next few years, she made Chicago her base but frequently
sought out health resorts in the US and Canada and joining in spiritualist gatherings, wanting to
escape the latest scandals in the newspapers about the new books on Lincoln and her extravagant
grief.
From November 1873 until May 1875 she had been under a doctor’s care fairly
constantly. Dr. Willis Danforth later testified that he treated her “for nervous derangement and
fever in her head” and that MTL told him about someone removing wires from her eyes,
especially the left one and bones from her cheeks; also the Indian spirit who lifted her scalp and
replaced it. Danforth attended her until the symptoms gradually improved and he stopped
visiting her; then in March 1874 he visited her again almost daily until September for the same
complaints but she added that her husband had informed her she would die on the coming sixth
of Sept and she stayed in her room until mid-November – Danforth was sure that this was a
“debility of the nervous system” and that her symptoms were “not dependent on the condition of
her body, or arising from physical disease.” Yet we can with confidence say that women had no
worse enemy in the nineteenth century than the medical doctor. Medical “science” of this era
reinforced the stereotyped view of white women’s frailty, all women’s low intellect, and
restricted social destiny by emphasizing women as biologically radically different from men,
laying special emphasis on her nervous system. It was at the same time more dominant over the
rest of women’s bodies than in men’s – and more prone to dysfunction. Male doctors then
focused obsessively on female sexuality, seeing the woman’s reproductive system in control of
her physical and social destiny. It was, as one doctor put it in 1870, “as if the Almighty, in
creating the female sex, had taken the uterus and built up a woman around it.”
She left for Florida the winter of 1874 when she realized that she wasn’t going to die.
Mrs. Richard Fitzgerald was hired as her nurse and to keep her company at night. Mary kept the
shades drawn in her room, refused to allow anything but a few candles for light and took Chloral
Hydrate (or “knock out pills”) to help her sleep. But in March 1875 she left for Chicago
frantically telegramming Robert and Ralph Isham, Robert’s doctor, to ascertain if he were well.
He was fine. Later she told people she had left because, as Dr. Danforth told it, “she said she
was not well... that an attempt had been made to poison her on her journey back. She had been
very thirsty, and at a wayside station not far from Jacksonville she took a cup of coffee in which
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she discovered poison. She said she drank it, and took a second cup, that the overdose of poison
might cause her to vomit. He [Danforth] did not see any traces of her having taken any poison,
and was of the opinion that she was insane. On general topics, her conversation was rational.”
Robert met her at the train station and checked into the Grand Pacific Hotel with her.
There she complained to him of fever and poor health, but he was sure that she was deranged:
she woke him up saying she was being followed and harassed and wanted to sleep in his room;
half-dressed tried to use elevator as lavatory but when halted accused Robert of trying to murder
her; she told him of her fear that Chicago would burn again; and her headaches were like needles
of flame moving through her brain; she had squirreled away $57K in securities in a skirt pocket
and refused to let loose of them since her beloved Abraham had purchased them, and finally, she
was making purchases she couldn’t possibly need or use, e.g., lace curtains for $600, 3 watches
for $450, 17 pairs of gloves and 13 dozen handkerchiefs, $700 jewelry, and $200 worth of
toiletries. Robert hired a Pinkerton detective to follow her for three weeks, consulted with Dr.
Robert Patterson of Bellevue Place and hired the Chicago law firm of Ayer & Kales who brought
in an old Lincoln friend, Leonard Swett. Swett brought in four more doctors who had treated
Tad and were trusted by MTL, as well as Dr. Willis Danforth who had been treating MTL since
1873. Swett then contacted David Davis, the executor for the Lincoln estate, who advised to take
action now before she began travelling again.
Robert learned on May 18th from the detective that some suspicious visitors had been to
MTL’s room and he felt she was vulnerable at this time to con men especially with the newly
cashed bonds ($1000) on her person along with the government security bonds in her petticoats.
That same day Dr. Danforth certified that he had examined MTL at the hotel and was of the
opinion that she was “insane and a fit subject for hospital treatment.” The next morning Robert’s
attorneys petitioned Cook County Court that Mary be confined and he be appointed conservator
of her estate. The judge’s warrant for her court appearance at 2 p.m. was filled out with the same
date. Leonard Swett surprised her in her room just before 1 pm and she had only an hour before
he escorted her to the hearing. After a crying fit and a few attempted diversions, she allowed
him and the sheriff to take her to the court. The trial took only three hours: Dr. Danforth was the
1st witness and he detailed MTL’s 2 yr history of mental illness; then S.M. Turner, manager of
Grand Pacific Hotel, testified re complaints about Chicago in flames and fear of hotel burning
down, a man communicating with her through wall of her room; servants and waiters re
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eccentricities and paranoias; Edward Isham re FL; Robt said she was of unsound mind since the
death of her husband; all other doctors re their understanding from 2nd hand info that she was
insane; Isaac Arnold (old friend and biographer of AL) was to serve as her defense, but no
evidence of any statements by him in the trial; the 12-man jury stepped aside briefly and returned
its verdict following a standard form for her commitment as per the 1874 IL law.
That evening she was returned to the hotel and when she proved unable to do it herself as
she cried hysterically, the sheriff ripped her government securities out of her petticoats. She
determined to kill herself: she escaped from her attendants and walked past the guards posted
outside her door to the hotel druggist to request 2 ounces each of laudanum and camphor (saying
she suffered from neuralgia in her shoulder and bathed it in this mixture) – the clerk told the
manager who stalled for time and said it would take 30 minutes to fill; she took a carriage
outside the hotel and went to another drugstore about a block away (the hotel druggist and
Pinkerton following her got to the clerk in time to warn him) and was refused; she went 2 blocks
down to another store where she was also refused; so she returned to the hotel druggist who gave
her a vial with burnt sugar and water; she waited 20 minutes and returned to the lobby and said
she needed more laudanum and stepped behind the counter to watch him fill the order, but he
went to the cellar to fill it again with the placebo before giving it to her; she drank it in the lobby
and returned to her room to wait, but Robt and Swett finally arrived and stayed with her the rest
of the night.
The next day Robert took his mother to Bellevue Place, a private sanitarium for women
in Batavia IL – 35 m w of Chicago. Typical treatments used on the patients there was “moral
therapy,” stressing freedom from personal restraint, comfort, courtesies of civilized society,
diversion of the mind from morbid thoughts and programs to occupy the patients’ minds” e.g.,
croquet, walks, carriage rides, playing the piano; patients who were underweight got eggnog with
2 teaspoons of whiskey, others received morphia, marijuana, beer – the medical staff kept
copious notes on the patients’ menstrual flow as well as eating habits and weight gains/losses.
Dr. R.J. Patterson (one of the physicians who advised Robert) was head of the institution – and
she interacted with the Patterson family socially. According to Dr. Patterson’s ledger that for the
1st 5 days of her confinement she was “cheerful, contented, and talkative” then turned “rather
depressed” and by the end of the month was “very melancholy” and no longer taking her daily
carriage ride – keeping to her room most of the month of June and had a “fit of crying” on July 5.
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July 8 she saw a woman reporter from the Chicago Evening Post and Mail and on July 15 she
announced that she wanted to go live with Elizabeth in Springfield “She raised me and I regard
her as a sort of mother. N&McM, p.54). July 28 Robert visited with his daughter Mamie and
afterwards MTL asked to be taken to the post office to mail a letter to her sister, written at
Robert’s suggestion – she also mailed a letter in secret to General John Franklin Farnsworth
(spiritualist) a lawyer who lived about 5 miles north of the asylum & the Bradwells. The General
came to Batavia the next day and told Patterson she needed to be released. Meanwhile she
visited with and wrote to Judge James and Myra Colby Bradwell (Illinois’ first woman lawyer)
who let everybody know that MTL was “no more insane that I am” and that she was a prisoner –
the Bradwell letters were probably destroyed by Robert later. They also brought in Franc Wilkie
of the Chicago Times to interview MTL on August 7th and published his opinion on her sanity on
the 24th. She also met with her older sister Elizabeth and Ninian Edwards who persuaded Dr.
Patterson to allow her to live with them in Springfield for a trial period; Robt had gone East on
vacation and Patterson did not want to do anything without his approval; August 23 Chicago
Post & Mail published a “Startling Interview” with Judge Bradwell that complained about the
“virtual imprisonment” of MTL by Patterson and 2 days later after being in Bellevue Place less
than 4 months, Robert took her from Chicago to Springfield by train. Elizabeth wrote to Robt
that her daughter slept in an adjoining room and took care of MTL at night, that she took daily
carriage rides and visited other Todd relatives with whom she had been estranged so that she had
“no hesitation, in pronouncing her sane, and far more reasonable, and gentle, than in former
years.” (N&McM, p. 75) By December, however MTL was becoming frantic about her
possessions still in Robt’s control she was “impatient and unhappy” and the Edwards found it
“impossible to reason with her on the subject” of money and her government security bonds. On
Feb 7th Robt sent his mother several items of hers that she requested, inc. 6 paintings, a clock, 2
candelabras and more than 115 books – mostly from his own home. She sent him more letters
demanding other specific items from her Chicago home and from his house, but she calmed
down when she found out that the requisite year of Robt’s conservatorship was to be up in June.
Nine months after arriving in Springfield, on June 15, 1876, with Swett as her attorney,
MTL was adjudged “restored to reason” and given freedom and control over her estate – $4K in
saved interest and now = $81K and in the hands of a trusted banker in Springfield (Jacob Bunn, a
friend of the Lincolns). Several papers all around the country reported the ruling because MTL
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sent reports of the Springfield coverage to the Chicago Times as well as newspapers in NY, Phil,
SanFr. Robt gave accounting of her finances, but 3 days later, June 19th she wrote a letter in
which she demanded the return of all her possessions such as all her paintings and a silver set
and some items that Mary had “appropriated” and ended with the threat of lawyers holding a list
of her rightful possessions. She could not tolerate any longer Robert’s control over her and her
effects:
Springfield IL June 19, 1876 to Robert T. Lincoln: “Do not fail to send me without the
least delay, all my paintings, Moses in the bullrushes included – also the fruit picture,
which hung in your dining room – my silver set with large silver waiter presented me by
New York friends, my silver tete-a-tete set also other articles your wife appropriated &
which are well known to you, must be sent, without a day’s delay. ... I am now in
constant receipt of letters, from my friends denouncing you in the bitterest terms, six
letters from prominent, respectable, Chicago people such as you do not associate with.
…Two prominent clergy men, have written me, since I saw you – and mention in their
letters, that they think it advisable to offer up prayers for you in Church, on account of
your wickedness against me and High Heaven. ... Send me all that I have written for, you
have tried your game of robbery long enough. On yesterday, I received two telegrams
from prominent Eastern lawyers. You have injured yourself, not me, by your wicked
conduct. Mrs. A. Lincoln My engravings too send me. M.L. Send me Whittier Pope,
Agnes Strickland’s Queens of England, other books, you have of mine –
In September 1876 she left for France via Kentucky (Mammoth Cave), Philadelphia
(centennial exposition) and NYcity with the Edwards’ grandson Edward Lewis Baker, Jr. – she
told her sister according to Helm “I cannot endure to meet my former friends, Lizzie. They will
never cease to regard me as a lunatic. 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. I love you, but I
cannot stay. I would be much less unhappy in the midst of strangers.” stayed at Pau, a popular
health resort in Fr Pyrenees with mineral baths (dropsical condition, boils and colds, chills,
neuralgic headaches) for 4 yrs though traveling about France and Italy – left her finances to be
handled by Jacob Bunn, banker friend of AL, and wrote scrupulous business letters re every
mortgage, pension and interest checks, advised him on her investments, figured accurately, and
accounted for every penny she drew. Dropped to 100 pounds by early 1880 (aged 62) and had
injured herself in two serious falls before she decided to return to the US. In 1999 Drs. Norbert
Hirschhorn and Robert G. Feldman conjectured in the Journal of the History of Medicine and
Allied Sciences that these symptoms are evidence that Mary Lincoln had "tabes dorsalis" caused
by prolonged and untreated diabetes. Symptoms include weakness, shooting and burning pains,
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pricking sensations or sensations like small insects are crawling over skin, unsteady gait,
progressive degeneration of the joints, loss of coordination, episodes of intense pain and
disturbed sensation, personality changes and impaired response to light.
Mary returned to NY Oct 1880 on same boat as Sarah Bernhardt (who had saved her
from falling down stairwell) and pushed aside as throngs came to see the famous actress, though
a reporter for the NY Sun noticed her there and wrote about the fact that she was “almost
unnoticed.” and Lewis Baker who had come to greet his great-aunt wrote later that she was not
the least upset and that she had long since come to terms with anonymity. The return to
Springfield did not bode well: the 2 sisters quarreled constantly and Eliz wrote to Emilie Helm
that Mary was faking invalidism so to take up all her time, inc. darkened rooms, wearing a
money belt even when she slept, accused Eliz of stealing from her and going through her 64
trunks and crates full of exotic fabrics from Europe basted together to look like dresses so to
escape paying required customs duties, staying in her room mostly.
In May 1881 Robert (now Secy of War for President Garfield) and 11 yr old Mamie came
to make peace – Robert left reassured about her health since he thought she was faking it – he
wrote to Sally Orne that she had “not been out of her room for more than six months and she
thinks she is very ill. My own judgment is that some part of her trouble is imaginary.” Mary
however continued to complain of her old “neuralgia” pains in her back and of failing vision. In
the autumn of 1881 she traveled to NY to be treated by Dr. Lewis Sayre, a leading orthopedic
surgeon and stayed at Miller’s Hotel on W 26th Street (had “Turkish, Electric and Roman Baths”
– she took daily Electric baths). Robt and his wife visited her there several times. She lobbied
for pension increase and got $2000+/yr and gift of $15K but she refused to believe it until she
“saw” it. By March 1882 she was ready to return to Springfield.
In July 1882, lying in her bed, drawn blinds, barely able to lift her head, lying to one side
so as not to disturb “the President’s place” beside her; severe recurrence of boils, then at 8:15
p.m. July 15th (age 64) died – Dr. T.W. Dresser’s death certificate attributed the cause of death
simply to “paralysis” and Dr. W.A. Evans in 1932 suggests that this was brought about by
apoplexy, though today the consensus in the medical field is that her symptoms also suggest
diabetic coma. Her estate amounted to nearly $90,000 – and despite her 64 trunks in Springfield,
the Edwards sent to Chicago for white silk to bury her in.
12
Mary had lived for seventeen years after her husband’s death and in her last years,
according to Fawn Brodie, “she slipped back into what she called ‘my terrible fate,’ undergoing
‘daily crucifixion,’ ceaselessly wandering, searching for health in Canada and Europe, carrying
thousands of dollars of securities about on her person, buying useless curtains, jewels, fabrics,
and the inevitable gloves, haunted continually by a fear of destitution.” Her last years consisted
of her travels in Europe as an ex-patriot. Her final days secluded in the top floor of her sister’s
home – leaving her with an empty half of the bed, hostile relatives and packed trunks filled with
exotic fineries all around her that she could neither use in a public setting nor would she dare to
sell or give away.
I leave you with these personal questions to ponder as you think about how historians
have judged Mary Todd Lincoln: have you watched your parents give a gift of their precious
antiques or family jewelry to one of your siblings in one stage of their life and then the same
item to another sibling in another time? Have you listened as your parent obsesses over how the
times have changed and every young person is an amoral spendthrift? Have you taken a look in
your elderly parent’s closet or attic lately? Have you watched your elderly parent shrink and
weaken with diabetes? Was she really a mad-woman as so many of the medical men of her time
period asserted and her son confirmed? Or was she just angry at the world for the
disempowerment she felt when her power was curtailed and the terrible losses throughout her
life. I find the story of Mary Todd Lincoln’s last days fascinating and I hope you have enjoyed
this time together with her.
13
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