Gaug­ing whether Mary Todd Lin­coln was in­sane

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Martin Ru­bin Martin Ru­bin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.