Gauging whether Mary Todd Lincoln was insane
The British poet Stephen Spender noted in his diary when he met Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the 1980s that she said her greatest achievement was that after all she had gone through, she was still relatively sane. Would that the same could be said for that other first lady who had also had the terrible experience of having her husband shot in the head right next to hers, Mary Todd Lincoln. For Mrs. Lincoln not only had to endure the murder of her husband and the deaths of two beloved young sons (one in the White House, the other during her widowhood), but also the shame and indignity of actually being certified insane and committed to a mental institution in 1875 by her only surviving child, Robert Todd Lincoln.
But was Mrs. Lincoln actually insane and was her son acting in her best interests? Jason Emerson, an independent scholar in Cazenovia, New York, has written a book on the subject, “The Madness of Mary Lincoln,” and also a biography of her much-vilified son, and is, to say the least, highly informed about this hornet’s nest. His aim here is to give us access to the actual documents — ranging from court records to patient logs at the asylum, from newspaper accounts to letters from Mrs. Lincoln and members of her family and friends — so that we too can make fact-based rather than facile judgments about what was in its day a sensation, and then some.
Mary Lincoln had always been a difficult woman, high strung and emotionally labile. But, as Mr. Emerson writes, “In fact, Mary Lincoln’s life and mental health in the decade after her husband’s assassination was far more complex, pitiable, and worrisome than anyone except her oldest son truly understood.” Reading Robert Lincoln’s own letters, especially in the context of those by his aunt who became the patient’s hostess and caregiver after her release, give one a real sense of the impossible position he was in, made all the more so by the glare of publicity. One has a definite sense of a man in a private maelstrom within a larger public one, someone struggling to do the right thing. As Mr. Emerson so neatly puts it, “a quintessential Victorian gentleman did what he thought was both necessary and proper given his duty as the “head” of the family to protect his mother from herself and from other people.” Needless to say, he got no thanks — quite the opposite, in fact — from his mother, whose attacks on and about him, difficult for us to read, must have been heartbreaking for her only surviving child and mainstay.
Mr. Emerson really does deserve the adjective in his title of “independent scholar” and so, from his vantage point outside the academy, he is able to see clearly how historical fashions in academe have made us view this incident, so manifestly painful for all concerned, through shifting lenses:
“Given the immense amount of primary documentation offering evidence of Mary’s mental illness and Robert’s altruistic sense of duty, why has the notion remained so prevalent that Mary Lincoln was the perfectly sane victim of a male chauvinist society and a coldhearted rapacious bastard of a son who wanted to shut her away and steal her money? How can this be such a popular interpretation of the insanity case when there truly is no evidence to sustain the charges? There are multiple reasons, the two most important being the use of a revisionist (specifically feminist) historical philosophy by most of Mary’s modern biographers, and the generally poor historical reputation of Robert Lincoln, who as a millionaire captain of industry and intensely private individual, has been dubbed a callous and aristocratic prig.”
Without being tendentious, Mr. Emerson pulls no punches, happily free to do so away from the strictures of academic political correctness and false orthodoxies, as well as distorting ideological hindsight.
Res ipsa loquitur — the Latin phrase meaning the thing speaks for itself — can seldom have been as apt as in the case of this book. Passionate as Mr. Emerson is in his efforts at vindicating the hapless Robert Lincoln and his advocacy for what he believes is the true story of Mary Lincoln’s insanity trial and its aftermath, he is admirably eager for readers to make their own judgment on this sad chapter in American history:
“And so I urge those with an interest and eagerness to understand Mary’s plight to read through the documents in this book. Do not blindly accept my opinions … or any one historian’s. Do that most noble and glorious action a person can do — inform yourself and make up your own mind.”
The particular virtue of this volume is that it gives you the tools to make a really informed decision on the vexed topic and in so doing Mr. Emerson has rendered a great service.