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The Madness of Mary Lincoln

April 2024
17min read

Her son had her committed. She said it was so he could get his hands on her money. Now, 130 years after this bitter and controversial drama, a trove of letters—long believed destroyed—sheds new light on it.

In August 1875, after spending three months in a sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois, put there by her son against her will, Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the martyred President, wrote: “It does not appear that God is good, to have placed me here. I endeavor to read my Bible and offer up my petitions three times a day. But my afflicted heart fails me and my voice often falters in prayer. I have worshipped my son and no unpleasant word ever passed between us, yet I cannot understand why I should have been brought out here.”


This letter, along with 24 others, completely unknown and unpublished, was recently discovered in a steamer trunk owned by the children of Robert Todd Lincoln’s attorney. They are known as the “lost” insanity letters of Mary Lincoln, and their discovery will forever rewrite this famous—and infamous—chapter in the Lincoln-family history.

The newly discovered letters document a long and intimate correspondence between Mary Lincoln and Myra and James Bradwell, Mary’s legal advisers and the people most responsible for getting her out of the sanitarium. The letters were known to have existed. It was assumed Robert Lincoln burned them; he had admitted attempting to destroy all of his mother’s correspondence from the insanity period.

Many historians have tried and failed to find the letters. The biographer W. A. Evans wrote in 1932, “It is to be regretted that we have nothing of the Bradwell correspondence except the tradition.” In 1953 the most respected Mary Lincoln biographer of all, Ruth Painter Randall, dismissed them in a single sentence: “Her letters to the Bradwells have vanished.” The compilers of Mary’s life and letters, Justin G. and Linda Levitt Turner, wrote in 1972, “None of Mrs. Lincoln’s letters to the Bradwells remains, and there is reason to believe Robert had theirs to her destroyed, so damning were they to him.”

“It does not appear that God is good, to have placed me here.’

Prior to the finding of these letters, only 11 Mary Lincoln letters were known to exist for the period from 1874 to 1875. This cache adds 8 more, but it also includes letters from 1872 to 1873 and 1876 to 1878. This is important because, as the Turners wrote, “Letters written by Mary Lincoln in the period between 1871 and 1876 are today the rarest of items,” while nearly all extant letters from 1877 until her death in 1882 were solely about financial matters.

the lost letters offer many new insights into mary’s mental and physical condition before, during, and after the 1875 insanity episode; what she did to secure her freedom from the sanitarium; the opinions of her family and friends on her incarceration; the estrangement between Mary and her son Robert as a result of the insanity episode; and her life in Europe afterward, about which very little is known.

In addition to the letters, the steamer trunk contained a 111page unpublished manuscript about the insanity case, “The Dark Days of Abraham Lincoln’s Widow, as Revealed by Her Own Letters,” written in the late 1920s by a descendant of Myra and James Bradwell. It is because of this manuscript that the lost letters were hidden from history.

Myra Pritchard found herself facing a lawsuit if she did not agree to turn over the letters to the Lincoln family.

In October 1927, a little more than a year after the death of Robert Lincoln, his wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln, received an unexpected visitor to her home in Manchester, Vermont. Myra Pritchard, the granddaughter of James and Myra Bradwell, called as a courtesy to inform Mrs. Lincoln she was about to publish a book on Mary Todd Lincoln. Pritchard’s personal papers (which this author found still in her family’s possession) show that Myra’s mother, Bessie Bradwell Helmer, gave 37 letters by or about Mary Lincoln to her daughter with the stipulation that they be published, but not until both Bessie Helmer and Robert Lincoln had died. “My mother was most anxious that these letters be published,” Pritchard wrote, “because she felt that Mrs. Abraham Lincoln had been maligned and that these letters would explain much of the real Mrs. Lincoln to the world and place her in a more favorable light.”

Mary Harlan Lincoln not only agreed to have her attorneys meet with Mrs. Pritchard in Washington, D.C., and inspect the manuscript but also suggested that she might be able to add information from her own files. This offer, later events made clear, was intended as a delaying action. Far from helping Myra Pritchard, Mary Harlan Lincoln thwarted her.

After examining the manuscript, and knowing full well that throughout his entire life Robert Lincoln had sought to suppress or discourage publication of his mother’s letters, Mary’s attorneys, Frederic Towers and Norman Frost, told Pritchard that three letters quoted in the manuscript were “objectionable” to Mrs. Lincoln. Myra Pritchard was unwilling to omit them but found herself threatened with a lawsuit if she did not (similar cases had established that the writer of a letter—and his or her heirs—not the recipient, was the actual owner). Her only recourse, she realized, was to accept an offer made by Towers and Frost: sell the letters and the manuscript to the Lincoln family for $22,500. The contract stated that all materials and copies in Myra Pritchard’s possession be handed over, that no other copies exist, and that she turn over any subsequently obtained letters.

As unhappy as Myra Pritchard was about the sale, she upheld her agreement of silence. But her silence was not a complete acquiescence, for she had secretly kept typewritten copies of all the Mary Lincoln letters along with her book manuscript.

When Myra Pritchard died in February 1947, her sister-in-law, Margreta Pritchard, burned the 1928 manuscript, as Myra had requested. But she didn’t destroy the copies of the letters. She approached Oliver R. Barrett, a prominent Chicago attorney and one of the foremost Lincoln collectors in America at the time, to ask his advice on whether or not they should be published. Barrett felt it would not be “exactly morally right” to reveal letters that Robert Lincoln had so aggressively sought to keep private during his life and which his family had taken the time and expense to purchase. He urged her to destroy them, and eventually she did. But she kept all the personal and legal documentation concerning the provenance, sale, and destruction of the letters, which her relatives still possess.

For her part, Mary Harlan Lincoln left the letters and Pritchard materials with her attorney, Frederic Towers. Upon his retirement, he placed them, along with countless other Lincoln-family documents, in a steamer trunk and stored them all in his attic. This author found them there, last summer, after a five-month search.

Nervous, emotional, and high-strung, Mary Lincoln suffered a life full of tragedy and disappointment. While there is disagreement over exactly when her mental troubles began in earnest, her only surviving son, Robert, said that her husband’s assassination, along with a head injury she received in an 1863 carriage accident, were the two main causes.

The known and accepted facts of the insanity episode are that it started in March 1875, when, during a visit to Jacksonville, Florida, Mary became unshakably convinced that Robert was deathly ill. She traveled to Chicago to find him in fine health. On her arrival, she told her son that someone had tried to poison her on the train and that a “wandering Jew” had taken her pocketbook but would return it later. During her stay in Chicago, Mary spent money lavishly on useless items, and walked around the city with $56,000 in government bonds sewn into her petticoats.

Dr. Willis Danforth, Mary’s physician, had been treating the widow for more than a year for fever and nervous derangement. As Danforth later testified at the insanity trial, the widow claimed then that an Indian spirit was removing bones from her face and pulling wires out of her eyes. She told Danforth that she heard raps on the table revealing the time of her death, and she would sit and ask questions and repeat the table’s answers.

Robert, fearing for her safety, hired Pinkerton detectives to follow and watch over her. He consulted with personal and family friends as well as several doctors about her condition. As he later wrote to one of his mother’s friends, “Six physicians in council informed me that by longer delay I was making myself morally responsible for some very probable tragedy, which might occur at any moment.” On the basis of the doctors’ advice, Robert took steps to place her in specialized care. Under Illinois state law, the only way he could do this was to initiate insanity proceedings against her in county court.

A re-creation of Mary Lincoln’s room at the Batavia Depot Museum in Batavia, Illinois.
chris winter/batavia depot museum2006_3_56b

On May 19, 1875, after three hours of testimony from physicians, hotel personnel, shopkeepers, and Robert himself, a jury declared her insane. Robert testified that he had “no doubt” about this. “She has been of unsound mind since the death of father; has been irresponsible for the past ten years.” She was taken to a private sanitarium called Bellevue Place in Batavia, and Robert was made conservator of her estate.

Although he spoke of the assassination, Robert Lincoln—and others—always believed the root of Mary’s mania was money: her indefatigable need to spend it and her paranoid conviction that she had none. “The simple truth, which I cannot tell anyone not personally interested, is that my mother is on one subject not mentally responsible,” Robert wrote to his future wife, Mary Harlan, in 1867. “You could hardly believe 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.” In fact, Abraham Lincoln’s estate was more than $83,000 upon his death, one-third of which was Mary’s. Moreover, she received $22,000 in late 1865 as the remainder of her husband’s presidential salary, and Congress voted her a $3,000 annual pension in 1870. Robert told Mary Harlan in 1867 that there was nothing he could do. “I have taken the advice of one or two of my friends in whom I trust most and they tell me I can do nothing. It is terribly irksome to sit still under all that has happened and say nothing, but it has to be done. The greatest misery of all is the fear of what may happen in the future.” Just eight years later he was forced to act.

bellevue place was a private asylum for “a select class of lady patients of quiet unexceptionable habits.” Dr. Richard J. Patterson, who lived in the main house there with his family, used the most modern “moral” treatment of “rest, diet, baths, fresh air, occupation, diversion, change of scene, no more medicine than … absolutely necessary, and the least restraint possible.” In this place Mary Lincoln lived near the Patterson family in a two-room suite, and as Robert later explained to critics, “There is nothing about his house to indicate an asylum except that outside of the windows there is a white wire netting such as you may see often to keep children from falling out of the window.” Even that wire netting was removed at Robert’s request. Mary lived apart from the other patients, had a private bath, kept her own room key, and had the freedom to go for a walk or take a carriage ride whenever she chose.

Robert Lincoln always believed the root of Mary’s mania was money : her need to spend it and her conviction she had none.

The Bellevue patient logbook shows that for the first two months of her stay, Mary Lincoln was quiet and solitary, a bit erratic with her desires, and at times depressed. Dr. Patterson thought she was improving. Robert Lincoln visited his mother every week, and he found her most cordial. “While she will not in words admit that she is not sane, still her entire acquiescence in absolutely everything … makes me think that she is aware of the necessity of what has been done,” Robert wrote to John Hay, his father’s secretary. The situation changed from a lamentable family affair to a painful public controversy upon the entrance of Myra and James Bradwell.

James B. Bradwell, a Chicago attorney who had represented Mary Lincoln in the past, was, in 1875, a member of the state legislature. His wife, Myra Colby Bradwell, was an abolitionist, a feminist, and the founder and editor of the Chicago Legal News , although she could not practice law herself. She had passed the Illinois bar exam with high honors in 1869 but had been denied a license to practice because she was a married woman. Both the Illinois Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the denial.

The currently known and accepted narrative of events is that after a visit from a Chicago newspaper reporter in early July of 1875, Mary Lincoln began the orchestration of her plot for freedom. While mailing a letter to her sister, done at Robert’s suggestion, Mary apparently smuggled letters to many other people, seeking help in her release. On the very next day Gen. John Franklin Farnsworth, a Republican politician, came to visit, as did the Bradwells. They told Dr. Patterson they had been asked to help secure Mrs. Lincoln’s freedom, saying she should be let free and kept under the care of “some tender and sympathetic friend,” while Robert continued to control her money.

Mary’s sister, Elizabeth Edwards, meanwhile responded to Mary’s letter with an invitation to come visit her in Springfield. There followed a flurry of letters and meetings between Robert Lincoln, Elizabeth Edwards, and Myra Bradwell. Robert did not want his mother to leave Bellevue; he believed that left to her own, she would endanger herself and her property, for which he was responsible. Elizabeth Edwards had proposed only a short stay, assuming Mary would be in the care and company of a professional nurse and would return to Bellevue for continued treatment. When she realized that Mary, urged by Myra Bradwell, intended the “visit” to be permanent, in place of Bellevue, she withdrew her invitation, citing ill-health.

For her part, Myra Bradwell wrote and visited both Elizabeth Edwards and Robert Lincoln, urging Mary’s freedom. She persuaded Mrs. Edwards to change her mind and care for Mary. Myra and her husband also undertook a vigorous public relations campaign. They fed stories about Mary’s unjust treatment to the papers, they gave interviews, and they even brought a reporter from the Chicago Times to Bellevue. The paper’s August 24 story was headlined: “mrs. lincoln. Her Physicians Pronounce Her Entirely Sane.”

Robert Lincoln considered the Bradwells meddlers in affairs that were none of their business. “What trouble Mrs. Bradwell may give me with her interference I cannot foretell,” he wrote his aunt in early August 1875. He also said that Dr. Patterson had “expressed a fear that Mrs. Bradwell’s visits and manner of late would tend to undo the good that has been accomplished.” Finally, he asked Myra not to visit his mother so often. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune , a pro-Republican (which is to say, pro-Robert) newspaper, insisted the scandal over Mary’s incarceration had been “set afloat by over-officious and intermeddling mischief-makers, who interfered in a matter which did not concern them, for purposes of sensation.” Whether for sensation or out of friendship, the Bradwells succeeded in pressuring Robert to agree to Mary’s release. She moved into the Edwards home in September 1875.

The “lost” insanity letters collection contains 11 letters from Mary’s time at Bellevue. Most were written by her, but some are from Myra and James Bradwell, Elizabeth Edwards, and Dr. Patterson. They show Mary questioning her religious faith, illuminate her continuing mania about money and clothing, and, perhaps most interesting, reveal the Bradwells to have been more instrumental than previously known both in securing her release and in causing her resentment of Robert.

When the Chicago Evening Post and Mail correspondent visited Mary Lincoln at Bellevue in July 1875, as mentioned above, Mary Lincoln asked the reporter about her friends in Chicago and “alluded to her attachment to Judge Bradwell’s family.” What has gone unrecorded in the insanity story is that after reading the Post and Mail story, Myra Bradwell journeyed to Bellevue to visit her friend “to satisfy myself in regard to Mrs. Lincoln’s insanity.” Dr. Patterson refused to let her either visit Mary Lincoln or leave her a note, she reported to the Bloomington (Indiana) Courier . Patterson’s treatment of Myra led her to exclaim about her friend, “Then she is a prisoner, is she not?”

It was after the press interview that Mrs. Lincoln is supposed to have secretly mailed letters to several people seeking help in her release. One of the newly discovered letters shows that in fact she sent only one, to her attorney, James Bradwell. “May I request you to come out here just so soon as you receive this note. Please bring out your dear wife, Mr. Wm. Sturgess and any other friend,” she wrote. “Also bring Mr. W. F. Storey with you. I am sure you will not disappoint me. Drive up to the house. Also telegraph to Genl. Farnsworth to meet you here.”

Mary’s request for w. f. storey is another interesting revelation from this letter. The editor of the Chicago Times , Storey had been an antiwar Copperhead during the Civil War and afterward was an outspoken reporter and critic of Chicago society. His motto was: “To print the news and raise hell.” Storey did not visit Bellevue but sent a reporter, Franc B. Wilkie, who wrote the August 24 Times story about Mary’s sanity that caused such a public controversy. This letter shows the story was Mary’s idea, not the Bradwells’, as has long been supposed.

Robert Todd Lincoln
library of congress2006_3_56c

After their visit, and at Mary’s behest, the Bradwells wrote to both Mary’s sister Elizabeth and her cousin John Todd Stuart, seeking their aid in her release. James Bradwell told Stuart that Mary “feels lonesome and that the restraint of the place is unendurable.” Myra Bradwell told Elizabeth Edwards that Mary “feels her incarceration most terribly and desires to get out from behind the grates and bars.” This last is a charge Myra Bradwell would later make to newspapers as well. Both Bradwells suggested Mary visit the Edwards home in Springfield. “I cannot feel that it is necessary to keep her thus restrained,” Myra Bradwell wrote in her July 30 letter. “Perhaps I do not look at the matter rightly, but let this be my excuse—I love her most tenderly and feel sorry to see one heart ache added to her already overburdened soul.”

Mrs. Edwards’s reply to Myra Bradwell, found amid the “lost” letters, shows something never before seen: her honest opinion regarding her sister’s incarceration. Her 200-word letter agreed with Myra Bradwell’s assessment that Mary never should have been put in Bellevue but instead have had a “protector” and “companionship.” Elizabeth Edwards wrote, “Had I been consulted, I would have remonstrated earnestly against the step taken.” She later apologized to Robert for the contents of this letter, because it stoked Myra Bradwell’s resolve.

there are five “lost” letters from mary lincoln to the Bradwells during August 1875. In them, she repeatedly requests they communicate with more of her old friends and seek their help. She also gives vent to her sorrows and frustrations with such statements as “It does not appear that God is good, to have placed me here” and “I am sleeping very finely and as I am perfectly sane, I do not desire to become insane.” In her importunings for help she wrote, “God will not fail to reward you if you do not fail to visit the widow of Abraham Lincoln in her solitude.”

One of Mary’s original symptoms was her obsession with clothing and personal goods, a mania that is evident in some of these August letters. In one, Mary asks Mrs. Bradwell to bring her samples of black alpaca and heavier black woolen goods. In her next letter, she urges Mrs. Bradwell to “say nothing” to anyone about her request for materials. In two subsequent letters Mary asks her friend to bring two trunks full of clothing and a forgotten key to a third trunk. While such requests sound innocuous, to Robert and Dr. Patterson they were evidence of Mary’s continuing troubles.

But Robert’s chagrin at his mother’s clothing mania was not the cause of their ultimate estrangement, which lasted five years. In fact the new letters suggest that it was not the incarceration that caused the family split but rather the influence of the Bradwells. Both the Bellevue patient logs and Robert’s own letters attest that at first Mary Lincoln was very cordial to him during his weekly visits, but the Bradwells seemed to have planted seeds of resentment. Myra’s letters and newspaper interviews make no secret that she considered Mary a prisoner. It is no great leap to suggest that Myra berated Robert and his motives in his mother’s presence and, whether implicitly or directly, encouraged Mary to do the same.

Mary’s changing attitude is shown when she wrote the Bradwells in early August: “… if I have used excited words in reference to my son, may God forgive me, and may you both forget it.” Yet a week later a coolness was evident: “I rather think he would prefer my remaining here in his heart,” almost as if echoing some similar sentiment of Myra Bradwell’s. The mother-son relationship soured from there, with Mary constantly flinging accusations that Robert was hoarding her possessions.

On June 15, 1876, the verdict of a second trial in county court declared Mary Lincoln “restored to reason” and capable of governing her property. Four days later she wrote to Robert what has become one of the most famous insanity letters, denouncing his “wicked conduct” against her and demanding the return of all her property in his possession. “Send me all that I have written for, you have tried your game of robbery long enough,” she said. This statement certainly attests to Mary’s belief that her son put her in Bellevue in order to steal her money, a charge later repeated by historians. In fact, Robert’s stewardship of his mother’s holdings resulted in more than $4,000 in interest, and he accepted no compensation for his conservatorship, although he could have.

This letter has long fueled speculation that Mary’s lost insanity letters may be replete with denunciations of Robert, vindictive revelations of his secrets, and perhaps even evidence that the entire trial and insanity episode was, as one book claimed, a “kangaroo court” full of “brazen injustice,” and a “high-handed denial of her civil rights.”

There has long been speculation that Mary’s lost insanity letters may be full of denunciations of Robert.

The letters do contain many venomous statements about Robert. The most interesting, and most powerful, was written to Myra Bradwell on June 18, 1876, the day before Mary’s final letter to Robert. Its 700 words are vicious and splenetic. She decries Robert as a thief who, desiring her money, “brought false charges against me.” She states that because of his conduct, he will not be allowed to approach his father in heaven and that “this one as my beloved husband always said was so different from the rest of us.” She then tells Myra Bradwell that Robert committed great “imprecations against you all” and encourages the Bradwells and Franc Wilkie of the Chicago Times to write articles denouncing his actions: “have justice rendered me … I have been a deeply wronged woman, by one, for whom I would have poured out my life’s blood.” The letter also contains the surprising revelation that Mary’s hair had turned white during the course of the insanity episode, a bleaching that she blamed on Robert.

A few months after regaining her property, and having severed all contact with Robert, Mary went into self-exile in Europe. She claimed she could not bear the soothing manner of people who would never stop thinking her a lunatic. She spent the next four years traveling the Continent while based in Pau, France. There are approximately 100 known letters from this period of her life, the majority being to her banker and containing only financial matters. Very little is known about her time abroad. Ten of the “lost” letters, however, date from 1876 to 1878 and offer significant insight into Mary’s European years.

The most striking aspect of all 10 letters is that they are calm, rational, and cogent, full of descriptions of her travels and inquiries about friends and events at home. She offered an explanation for her peace in a December 1876 letter: “I am allowed tranquility here and am not harassed by a demon.” The demon, of course, was Robert; the harassment would be his criticism of her spending habits.

In these later letters she is no longer questioning the justice of God; now she is trusting in Him for healing and peace, as well as for vengeance against her enemies. She occasionally rails against her son and mentions her husband, often in terms of apotheosis, “my darling husband, who worshipped me so greatly, that often he said, that I was his weakness.” She mentions her physical health: boils under her left arm and pain over her entire body. The spa waters of Vichy “did me no good.”

Perhaps the most intriguing letter of all is from Sorrento, Italy, in April 1878. In it, she calls April her “season of sadness” and feels the sadness more keenly because she is returning to spots she first saw in the 1860s, in the midst of her bereavement. “It is only by a strong effort of will that I revisit these places,” she wrote. “My beloved husband and myself for hours would sit down and anticipate the pleasant time, we would have in quietly visiting places and halting in such spots as this, when his official labors were ended. God works in such a mysterious way and we are left to bow to His will. But to some of us, resignation will never come. But perhaps for the tears shed here, compensation will succeed the grief of the present time.”

The post-Bellevue letters also clearly show Mary’s close friendship with Myra Bradwell. They contain statements attesting to her love for Myra and constant desire to see her and hear from her. Mary was forever grateful for the friendship of the Bradwells. In later years she wrote, “When all others, among them my husband’s supposed friends, failed me in the most bitter hours of my life, these loyal hearts, Myra and James Bradwell, came to my assistance and rescued me under great difficulty from confinement in an insane asylum.”

Anxious about money, Mary Todd Lincoln tried to sell her clothes from the White House years through dealers in New York City.
library of congress2006_3_56d

Mary Lincoln returned from Europe in October 1880. Her physical health was deteriorating. In September she had fallen off a chair while hanging a painting and seriously injured her back, which made it difficult for her to walk. She returned to Springfield to live with her sister and spent most of her time in her room, sitting in the dark with a single candle, packing and unpacking her 64 trunks of clothing, and sleeping only on one side of her bed to leave “the President’s place” on the other side undisturbed. She and Robert reconciled in 1881, not long after President Garfield appointed him Secretary of War. Mary Lincoln died in her sister’s home on July 16, 1882, at the age of 64, most likely of complications from diabetes.

David Davis, Abraham Lincoln’s campaign manager, estate executor, and friend, wrote upon hearing of Mary Lincoln’s death: “Poor Mrs. Lincoln! She is at last at rest. She has been a deranged woman, ever since her husband’s death. In fact she was so, during his life.”

There have been many books and articles written about Mary Lincoln’s insanity case in the 131 years since it occurred. These works have examined everything from the extent of her insanity to Robert’s motivations to the unfair treatment of women by nineteenth-century American medical and legal professionals. Varying interpretations continue.

What can be agreed upon, however, is that the newly discovered “lost” letters will write a new chapter on the insanity episode. Their discovery continues to prove that even 141 years after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, there are still unknown jewels waiting to tell us yet more about the family of the most closely studied American in history.

The Lincoln Marriage

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