Skip to main content

When Mary Lincoln Was Adjudged Insane

April 2024
14min read

New light on the tragic case of a President’s widow who saw her own son as a hated enemy

It is generally known that Mrs. Abraham Lincoln was adjudged insane in later life. The circumstances of her sanity trial, however, are not so familiar and certain details have been lacking. A new document has now come to light which brings the tragic event into focus as vividly as if it were done in technicolor.

Ten years after the assassination of her husband, Mrs. Lincoln was in a shattered, unbalanced condition which nowadays would demand psychiatric treatment. The strain of being First Lady through the Civil War years—vicious public calumnies, the loss of two little sons, the murder of her husband as he sat by her side, and finally the death of still a third son—had transformed a naturally buoyant woman into a pitiful, frightened creature who walked the floor at night with bright lights burning because of imagined dangers, and entered a public dining room to look fearfully around and whisper: “I am afraid; I am afraid.”

She was definitely irrational on the subject of money and believed herself in great poverty, while at the same time indulging in senseless and extravagant buying. Her one remaining son, Robert Todd Lincoln, nearly 32 and a rising lawyer in Chicago with a wife and two children, was doing his conscientious best to look after his mother. The climax of Mrs. Lincoln’s irrationality came in 1875.

In March of that year she was in Florida. In the treacherous mental world which she now inhabited, Robert was the one person she could turn to with confidence, her one protector. One does not know what touched off her sudden apprehension that something was amiss with him—it could have been a bad dream, a delayed letter or a bit of twisted information—but on March 12 she sent the following telegram to Robert’s physician: “My belief is my son is ill; telegraph. I start for Chicago to-morrow.”

The physician soon got in touch with Robert and found him in good health. Robert at once telegraphed his mother saying he was well and suggesting that she remain in Florida. She evidently did not receive it before she sent a second telegram, this time directly to him: “My dearly beloved son, Robert T. Lincoln—Rouse yourself and live for your mother; you are all I have; from this hour all f have is yours. I pray every night that you may be spared to your mother.”

She arrived in Chicago March 15 and went to the Grand Pacific Hotel. She was in a highly disturbed, nervous condition and would not go to Robert’s home as he begged her to do. He necessarily took a room adjoining hers in the hotel and stayed there to look after her. During the following nights his sleep was frequently broken by her tapping at his door and rousing him to tell of her fears. She thought people were trying to injure her and told wild tales of attempts to rob and poison her.

Robert did everything in his power to meet the situation. He employed a woman at the hotel to stay with her as much as possible and to sleep in her room at night. On April 1 she went into the hall not fully dressed and entered the elevator and when he led her back to her room, she screamed: “You are going to murder me.” He could not persuade her to go to his home; she had had a misunderstanding with his wife, probably another figment of her feverish, distorted thinking, for all the evidence indicates that Mary Harlan Lincoln was most affectionate and considerate toward her mother-in-law.

During the day Mrs. Lincoln went on shopping expeditions, buying watches, perfumery, trunks, lace curtains, jewelry, and other items for which she had no need. Toward the last of April she showed Robert securities valued at $57,000 which she was carrying in a pocket on her person. This was dangerous and Robert, without her knowledge, employed a man to follow and watch over her when she left the hotel.

The impossible situation continued for two months. Robert was apprehensive that his mother might be victimized, or robbed, or might irresponsibly dissipate the bulk of her estate. Also she plainly needed rest, protection, and medical care. But as he was to testify on the witness stand, she had never heeded his advice and would not heed it now. The only way he could put her in a sanitarium and get control of her property was by a legal judgment of insanity.

He asked the advice of his mother’s cousin, John Todd Stuart, and of Judge David Davis, administrator of Abraham Lincoln’s estate, and both agreed that a call for a sanity trial was the only course he could take. He sought the opinion of six physicians of high standing, describing her actions, and after consultation they informed him that by further delay he was making himself “morally responsible for some very probable tragedy, which might occur at any moment.”

It was a fearful decision for a son to make. He knew it would be a terrible blow to his mother, who had always been so tender and affectionate to him. (He probably did not foresee that she would attribute his action to a base motive.) He also knew how much of the publicity he so feared and abhorred would attend the holding of the trial. But he had exhausted his resources and himself and saw no other course to take. With great reluctance he did his painful duty as he saw it and asked for a sanity hearing.

The date was set for May 19, 1875, and the place was the Cook County Court in Chicago. When the day dawned Mrs. Lincoln knew nothing of the impending trial. To this unsuspecting woman someone had to break the news that people thought she was crazy; and someone had to get her to court. The one who undertook this painful duty was Leonard Swett, a good friend of Robert’s father, who had been associated with him on the judicial circuit, a man of strength combined with fine feeling. He was also Mrs. Lincoln’s friend; she liked and trusted him, and counted on his sympathetic understanding, as her letters to him show. He had been one of those who urged Robert to call for the trial, feeling it was necessary for Mrs. Lincoln’s own protection. The trial was set for two o’clock; at one Leonard Swett went to Mrs. Lincoln’s hotel.

The new light on what happened that afternoon of May 19 is contained in Leonard Swett’s account written to Judge David Davis five days later. The letter is written with a lawyer’s precision of detail and with great restraint, yet one catches in the lines Swett’s agony at what he had to do to the cherished and beloved wife of Abraham Lincoln, his revered friend. He said the matter of taking Mrs. Lincoln into custody “presented more real terrors than anything I have ever undertaken. To have advanced on a battery instead would, it seems to me, have been a real relief.”

When he entered her room, he said, Mrs. Lincoln “seemed cheerful and glad to see me.” Swett was a tall man with a figure not unlike that of President Lincoln; she doubtless lifted to him trusting blue eyes warm with welcome. He asked her to sit down and said: “I have got some bad news for you.” She seemed startled, as well she might; probably her first thought was that something was wrong with Robert but she sat down as he requested. Swett then told her that her friends had come to the conclusion that the troubles she had been called upon to pass through had been too much and had produced “mental disease.”

“You mean to say I am crazy, then, do you?”

“Yes,” said Swett, “I regret to say that is what your friends all think.”

“I am obliged to you,” she answered, “but I am abundantly able to take care of myself, and I don’t need any aid from any such friends. Where is my son Robert?” she continued. “I want him to come here.” It was probably the last time she ever turned to Robert with trust. Swett told her she would see him in court.

“The court,” she said, “what court do you mean; who says I am insane?”

“Judge Davis said so,” replied Swett, “and your cousin John T. Stewart [Stuart]; Robert says so; and as I do not want to throw the responsibility of this upon others, I say so.”

Swett then pulled from his pocket letters from several physicians giving their opinions that she was insane. She very naturally answered: “I haven’t seen those physicians, they do not come to see me, they know nothing about me, what does this mean?”

Swett explained that Robert had filed an affidavit in the county court that she was believed to be insane, whereupon a writ had been issued that gave the sheriff authority to arrest and take her to court. Two officers, continued Swett, were downstairs ready to seize her by force, handcuffing her if necessary, and take her to court. To prevent this he was asking her to go quietly with him.

Mrs. Lincoln refused and protested about this monstrous plot against her. She denounced Robert bitterly and reproached Swett: “And you my husband’s friend, you would take me and lock me up in an asylum, would you!” Swett’s account continued: “And then she threw up her hands, and the tears streaming down her cheeks, prayed to the Lord and called upon her husband to release her and drive me away.”

Finally the trapped creature asked him to leave while she changed her dress. He refused and she asked him why. He answered: “Because if I do, Mrs. Lincoln, I am afraid you will jump out of the window.” At last she stepped into a closet and made the change. As they started he said: “Will you take my arm, Mrs. Lincoln?” She answered with a flash of spirit: “No; I thank you I can walk yet.”

When he opened the door of the courtroom and she saw the forbidding interior and only men about, she shrank back. Swett coaxed her to enter by saying Robert was inside. When her son came to her she received him kindly and he sat down beside her. Her counsel, Isaac N. Arnold, who had been a good friend of her husband, sat on her other side. A reporter noted how modest and “gentle looking” she was as she sat silently through the three-hour ordeal. She heard various doctors say that she was insane, various laymen recount her eccentric sayings and actions.

What the ordeal was doing to Robert was apparent when he was called to the witness stand. An observer noted that his face was pale, his eyes red with weeping “and his whole manner was such as to affect all present.” His mother looked at him with sympathetic eyes. He had been her beloved son and now he was so evidently suffering deeply.

Robert gave a full account of what had happened since she had telegraphed in March thinking he was ill. When he told of the nights at the hotel when she would tap at his door to wake him and tell him her pitiful fears, he broke down and wept. To shed tears in public is an ordeal for any man but to Robert, supersensitive to the public gaze, that of being on the witness stand was torture. The scene was so touching that some of those in the audience wiped their eyes in sympathy.

He was asked if he thought it safe to allow his mother to remain unrestrained. He answered: “She has long been a source of much anxiety to me,” and again he wept. He said she had always been “exceedingly kind” to him. In his opinion she had been of “unsound mind” since the death of his father, had been “irresponsible” for the past ten years. She was “unmanageable” and would never heed his advice. He told of her unreasonable purchases, “for her trunks are filled with dresses and valuables of which she makes no use. She wears no jewelry and dresses in deep black.”

The jury returned a verdict of insanity. Robert then went to his mother and took her hand tenderly. She looked at him sadly and reproachfully and exclaimed: “O Robert, to think that my son would ever have done this.” He turned his face away that she might not see the pain in it

Before she left the courtroom Swett asked her for the securities she was carrying on her person. He told her he could get an order of court or have the sheriff take them forcibly but he hoped she would not impose that necessity upon him. He asked her if she would not give the bonds properly to Robert and she said no, that Robert never could have anything that belonged to her. Swett then asked if she would give them to Arnold who was standing by. She said she could not, as they were in her underclothing and “you would not be indelicate to me in the presence of those people.”

She implored Swett to take her to her room. Accompanied by Arnold, they left the courtroom through the tunnel. As soon as they arrived at her room Swett urged her to give him the bonds, until she was forced to yield.

She rose and with tears streaming down her face said: “And you are not satisfied with locking me up in an insane asylum, but now you are going to rob me of all I have on earth; my husband is dead, and my children are dead and these bonds I have saved for my necessities in my old age; now you are going to rob me of them.” Completely defeated and physically exhausted “she yielded as to force,” and gave Arnold $56,000 in government bonds. She had evidently cashed one bond since she had shown them to Robert.

Swett summed up the pathetic situation in the last paragraph of his letter to Judge Davis: “From the beginning to the end of this ordeal, which was painful beyond parallel, she conducted herself like a lady in every regard. She believed she was sane. She believed that I, who ought to be her friend, was conspiring with Robert and you, to lock her up and rob her of her money.”

Swett had indeed looked into her tortured mind. Mrs. Lincoln sincerely believed that Robert, her only remaining son, was an unscrupulous and callous man who had deliberately trumped up the terrible charge of insanity in order to get rid of her and obtain her money. As the numbness of shock wore off and the full conviction of this untrue and unjust theory took possession of her, she felt death was the only way out.

She managed to elude those who were watching over her at the hotel and went to several drugstores asking for camphor and laudanum, ostensibly as an application to an aching shoulder. The clerks were cautious and finally one of them, being forewarned, gave her the prescription without the laudanum in it, and she drank it believing it would end her life. This woman in whom affection was predominant, had had the greatest of sorrows before but never treachery from one she loved; it was her first attempt at self-destruction.

Robert was sent for immediately and stayed with her during her few remaining hours in Chicago. He did not know the motive she attributed to him; for with the belief that he had become an enemy she began to conceal her thoughts from him. The day after the trial she was taken to Bellevue Place, a private sanitarium at Batavia, Illinois, and put under the care of Dr. R. J. Patterson. Robert was appointed conservator of her estate.

Detailed accounts of the proceedings at the trial, including mention of Mrs. Lincoln’s gentle behavior and her remark: “O Robert, to think that my son would ever have done this,” were telegraphed to newspapers over the nation. People began to ask questions: what had this hardhearted man done to this gentle, harmless, and bereaved mother? Robert was sharply criticized. A devoted friend of Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. J. H. Orne, wrote him in distress, asking about his mother whom she greatly loved. Robert’s letter in reply showed such consideration and conscientiousness that Mrs. Orne was completely satisfied that he had done the best he could.

The son explained that the regrettable “public proceedings in court” had been necessary, because such procedure was the only legal method by which he could commit his mother to a sanitarium. He thought she was “as happily situated as is possible under the circumstances.” He gave details: “She is in the private part of the house of Dr. Patterson and her associates are the members of his family only. With them she walks and drives whenever she likes and takes her meals with them or in her own room as she chooses, and she tells me she likes them all very much.”

His only consolation “in this sad affair” he continued, was “in thinking that she herself is happier in every way, in her freedom from care and excitement, than she has been in ten years.” He said: ”. . . we are on the best of terms,” and “So far as I can see she does not realize her situation at all.” (He was wrong there: Mrs. Lincoln was nursing her resentment against him and was setting to work to obtain her release.) The son went on to say with truth: “It is of course my care that she should have everything for her comfort and pleasure that can be obtained.” He ended that his responsibility was one he would gladly share if he could, “but being alone as I am, I can only do my duty as it is given me to see it.”

That he visited his mother once a week at Batavia is attested by a newspaper correspondent who called upon Mrs. Lincoln at the sanitarium. Frequently he would bring “her favorite grandchild” with him, doubtless Mrs. Lincoln’s own little namesake. Robert and his mother at least had one unspoiled meeting ground, their great love for his two children who were named Abraham and Mary Lincoln. Perhaps he told her that summer that he and his wife were expecting a third child. (Jessie Harlan Lincoln was born on November 6, 1875.)

But mother and son on these visits talked for the most part almost as strangers, neither knowing what was in the other’s mind. She thought of him now as one who had basely betrayed her for the sake of money; he thought her far more mentally ill and uncomprehending than she was. For Mrs. Lincoln was quietly using her effective and fluent pen to enlist the aid of friends who could help get her from behind her barred windows. Her many letters denouncing Robert were constantly going out from the sanitarium.

Among those who received them were Judge and Mrs. James B. Bradwell, two influential people with legal training, Mrs. Bradwell being the first woman lawyer of Illinois. The Bradwells came to see Mrs. Lincoln in Batavia and became convinced that she was in her right mind and that her detention in an asylum was an outrage. Such questions eventually got results; in September she was removed to the home of her sister, Mrs. Ninian W. Edwards at Springfield, though she was still under judgment of insanity and was in the custody of the Edwardses. Robert was undoubtedly glad and relieved to have his mother in this home.

Mrs. Lincoln remained at the Edwards home in Springfield for nine months. Then Ninian W. Edwards petitioned for another sanity trial for her, saying: “She has not spent all she was allowed to spend during the past year, and we all think she is in a condition to take care of her own affairs.” This hearing took place on June 15, 1876, in Chicago and occupied only a few minutes. Robert did not appear but he was represented as not offering any objection. The relatives had probably agreed this was the best course to take. Mrs. Lincoln was declared “restored to reason” and capable of managing her own estate.

Robert’s mother returned to Springfield with Mr. Edwards. Four days after the trial she sat down and wrote her son a letter in which she let loose all the anger and resentment that had seethed within her during those thirteen months in which she had been branded a lunatic. The agitated handwriting itself indicates the fury with which she wrote.

The letter began: “Robert T. Lincoln Do not fail to send me without the least delay, all my paintings . . . my silver set . . . and other articles your wife appropriated . . .” (Evidence of the injustice of this accusation to Robert’s wife is in a letter Mrs. Lincoln had written her from abroad six years before. Speaking of household articles left in Chicago she had said to her daughter-in-law: “ Anything and everything is yours—if you will consider them worth an acceptance . . . It will be such a relief to me to know that articles can be used and enjoyed by you.”)

Mrs. Lincoln enumerated the articles at length and continued: “Two lawyers and myself, have just been together and their list, coincides with my own & will be published in a few days.” (How would a published list of articles he and his wife were supposed to have stolen affect his reputation?) The next sentence indicated that his Aunt Elizabeth Edwards shared his mother’s opinion of him, “Aunt Lizzie” to whom he had so often turned for help and understanding: “Trust not to the belief, that Mrs. Edward’s tongue, has not been rancorous against you all winter & she has maintained to the very last, that you dared not venture into her house & our presence.”

His mother’s excoriation went on: “I am now in contant 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 clergymen, 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. In reference to Chicago you have the enemies, & I have the chance to have the friends there.” The letter concluded: “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.”

The cruelty of this letter to a blameless and supersensitive man makes one cringe. He had turned his face away from her after the verdict of insanity so that she might not be hurt by the grief in it. Now she wanted to hurt him and destroy his reputation because that very mental illness made her believe he had done a terrible thing to her. He had tried conscientiously to do what was right and best for her; not once had he failed in his filial duty as he saw it. Here were two well-meaning human beings, mother and son, caught through no fault of their own, in fateful circumstances from which neither could escape.

Mrs. Lincoln, in deep humiliation at being thought a lunatic, left the country and remained abroad four years. During that time she refused to communicate with her son. When she finally returned to Springfield, Robert went to see her to make peace, taking with him the most effective advocate possible, his little daughter Mary. His mother, unable to resist that appeal, promised to forgive and forget and on the surface at least normal relations were resumed. But after her death he would seldom speak of her. He tried to collect and destroy those letters of denunciation she had written, evidences of her irrationality, but found it a hopeless task. The bitterness of the whole experience hurt him all his life.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.