Mary Todd Lincoln on Trial (Part 4 of 4)

Continued from Part 3

Shortly after her husband's distressing letter arrived, Elizabeth Edwards sent another letter to Robert in which he did her best to downplay Ninian Edwards' fears that Mary Lincoln was trying to have her son killed (though she did verify that Mary had a pistol).    There was also Mary's compulsive buying although it was hard for the Edwards to be sure of how extensive this was since everything she bought was sent directly to her rooms.    They described Mary as being "very secretive, errand boys go to her room and the merchants disguise from me the extent of her mania."   

As you can imagine, Robert Lincoln was not happy about the idea of lifting the conservatorship and giving his mother direct control of her estate.   Though the Edwards were anxious to keep Mary from being sent back to Bellevue, Robert Lincoln was beginning to think he had no other choice. At about this time, Mary wrote Robert a very agitated letter demanding that all of the property she had in storage be sent to her sister's house.   Since her own rooms were already crammed with the various boxes and trunks already stored there, the Edwards told Robert to refuse any request to send more of Mary's possesions since they had already run out of storage space.  

And there was still the matter of whether Mary Lincoln would be allowed to regain control of her finances, including the thousands of dollars in bonds that she insisted Robert return.    After considerable negotiation, Robert and Mary Lincoln agreed to a compromise solution and a new hearing was held on June 15, 1876.    It was a brief trial since Robert had agreed not to contest his mother's petition to have the conservatorship lifted although, once again, Illinois law required that a jury be called to hear the evidence.   Mary, her lawyer, Robert, and his own legal counsel all agreed that she was fit to make her own financial decisions and the jury supported the petition.   Mary Lincoln had her bonds back and was officially declared to be sane.

And Mary made certain that everyone knew about it.   Along with the coverage in the Springfield newspaper, she sent press releases to the Chicago Times and newspapers across the country.   Despite feeling vindicated, she refused to forgive Robert for having her declared insane in the first place.   Within weeks of regaining her bonds, she demanded all of her possessions still remaining in Robert Lincoln's household and even went so far as to consult two lawyers about her "list of stolen property".    While Robert was perfectly willing to return the possessions, he refused to do it while threatened with lawyers since it would have seemed like confirmation that the items had been stolen rather than being gifts.  

It would take a long time for Robert and Mary to be reconciled.  Leaving Springfield in September, she took one of Ninian and Elizabeth's grandchildren with her as a new favourite since she was completely estranged from her own son's family.    Mary refused to stay in Springfield since it contained "too many sad memories" and began traveling across North America.    She also told her sister that she would be traveling to Europe but ordered her not to tell Robert about her travel plans since Mary mistrusted him.   The compulsive buying still continued as she wandered from on European capital to another.   Although Elizabeth Edwards assured Robert that his mother would get tired of traveling and eventually return to the United States, Mary refused to return until her own ill-health left her no choice.

Following injuries from two falls, Mary Todd Lincoln eventually returned home about the steamship l'Amerique on October 16, 1880.   While enroute, she was nearly killed by another fall but was saved by a fellow passenger, actress Sarah Bernhardt.   As The Divine Sarah would later recall, Mary Lincoln thanked her for saving her but Bernhardt realized later that she had "just done this unhappy woman the only service that I ought not to have done her -- I had saved her from death."

Returning to Springfield, Mary stayed in her sister's home as before but her mental and physical decline turned this stay into a major ordeal for everyone involved.  Not only did Mary wear a money belt that she refused to take off, even while sleeping, but she also accused her sister of stealing from her.   She kept the curtains drawn in her rooms so that visitors could hardly see at all and spent much of her time poring over the various possessions she had stored in her sixty-four trunks.  Some visitors even reported that she preferred to sleep on only one side of her bed to leave room for "the President" and  asked at times whether any visitors could hear his voice.

Robert Lincoln only reconciled with his mother in 1881 (largely helped by Mary's fondness for her granddaughter, Mamie).    She even managed a tense reconciliation with Robert's wife who visited her several times while Mary was in New York for medical treatment.   Mary Todd Lincoln died on July 15, 1882 at the age of sixty-three.    She was buried in the Lincoln Tomb next to her husband in Springfield's Oak Ridge cemetery.   Aside from a few thousand dollars found in the top drawer of her dresser, she had largely  used up her estate except for the contents of her trunks (most of which Robert gave away).   

In the decades since Mary Todd Lincoln's death, biographers and legal historians have argued over the circumstances of her insanity trial.   Many of the original documents were not released during Robert Lincoln's 51wlmflMneL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_[1]lifetime (he died in 1926) and some only became available with the death of the last Lincoln descendant in 1985.   At least one biographer, William E. Barton, suggested that there was a deliberate conspiracy to protect Mary's reputation and that she had been releases from Bellevue despite still being insane.   In arguing this, Barton seemed to ignore the fact that she lived independently for years afterwards without any of the calamities that her family had worried about.

In Ruth Painter Randall's biography of Mary Todd Lincoln, she pointed out that "the verdict of 'insanity' was a legal term, not a psychological one" and that Mary was rational and normal in most respects.   Given what we now know about the paternalistic attitudes of 19th century medical experts, how much of the evidence used against Mary at her trial was tainted by these attitudes?     Randall also examined more than a hundred letters written by Mary Lincoln after her release from Bellevue which demonstrate that her mind was as sharp as ever.  Unfortunately, Robert Lincoln destroyed many of his mother's letters out of a desire to protect her memory and, perhaps more importantly, to keep the Lincoln reputation intact. Later biographers picked up on this idea and, in recent years, Mary Lincoln has been treated much more favourably.  

Ultimately, Mary Todd Lincoln's trial and commitment was as much about politics and money as it was about protecting a woman from herself.    Being the widow of a martyred president meant that Mary was expected to abide by a code of behaviour that she had difficulty following even when her husband had been alive.   Though not quite the "kangaroo court" that later biographers have suggested, the trial of Mary Todd Lincoln is still an important example of how law and psychiatry can interact and the controversy that it often invokes as a result.





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  • Mary Todd Lincoln on Trial (Part 3 of 4)
  • The Brain of the Psychopath
  • When Truth Found a Home


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