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A new exhibit at Louisville’s Frazier History Museum includes documents that recall a turbulent chapter in the post-Washington life of Mary Todd Lincoln.

It’s the first public display of the papers related to the former first lady’s commitment to an Illinois mental institution, an action initiated by her son.

Frazier Curator of Collections Kelly Williams Wilkerson says the documents were purchased at auction last year from descendants of the family that once owned Bellevue Place, the sanitarium where Mary Todd Lincoln was sent for treatment.

“We have a court proceeding document, where Mary Todd was legally declared insane, and that gives way to a warrant that we have for her arrest and commitment at Bellevue Place. And we also have a ledger for Bellevue, where she’s signed into the institution, she said.

In the spring of 1875, Robert Lincoln, a 31 year old Chicago attorney, was at wit’s end about his mother. Mary Todd Lincoln, also living in Chicago, was suffering from hallucinations and delusions, shopped compulsively and walked around with thousands of dollars sewn into her petticoat.

Having lost three of her four boys to illness over the years, she lived in constant fear that something would happen to her eldest and only surviving son, although he was in no danger.  A telegram she sent to Robert was recounted in the PBS documentary “Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided.”

“Rouse yourself, and live for my sake. All I have is yours from this hour. I am praying every moment for your life to be spared to your mother,” Mary wrote.

“Robert consulted with seven of the best doctors in the Midwest, and they all told him that if he did not act, something horrible was going to happen,” says historian Jason Emerson, author of The Madness of Mary Lincoln.

“Mary had this insane delusion about fire, that either buildings or whole cities were on fire, or were going to be. So all the doctors told Robert, they said any person with a delusion such as this could at any minute just leap out of the window,” Emerson said.

So Robert Lincoln began the process of having his mother involuntarily committed.

After a three-hour trial, a jury declared Mary Lincoln insane. She was taken the following day to Bellevue Place, an institution that at the time treated mostly wealthy women.

Emerson believes Mary Lincoln suffered from bi-polar disorder, a condition exacerbated by the awful losses she suffered–the deaths of her children and the assassination of her husband.

But Mary Lincoln biographer Jean Baker says historians are divided on the severity of her mental illness. Baker is firmly in the camp of those who believe Mary, while troubled, should not have been committed against her will.

“My position is here’s a woman who’s had a truly tragic life, and Robert should have
cut her a little slack and not tried to put her in an institution.”

Having gained her release after about four months, Mary Todd Lincoln was declared sane at a second trial, and lived in Europe for several years.

Both Emerson and Baker agree that Robert Lincoln acted out of genuine concern for his mother and was not trying to protect his inheritance as some have suggested, but the episode left Mary Lincoln bitter toward her son.

“She was so bitter fact that she claimed that she hired men to kill him and at one point she was carrying around a pistol that once belonged to her son Tad, and she said that if Robert ever comes near me I will kill him,” said Jason Emerson.

Mary Lincoln would not speak to Robert for five years, but they would eventually re-establish a relationship. She died in 1882 in Springfield, Illinois. .”

The Mary Todd Lincoln commitment papers are part of a larger exhibit at the Frazier History Museum called “My Brother, My Enemy,” that focuses on family divisions caused by Civil War loyalties and other circumstances.

Curator Kelly Williams Wilkerson says there are other Lincoln artifacts on display.

“We have an infant garment that Mary Todd Lincoln hand-stitched for Robert Todd. And it just show this interesting relationship and kind of the evolution of her life there, and she’s hand making his clothes, and she loves him obviously like a mother loves a new baby or any child. And then as an adult she feels he betrays her.”

The exhibit continues through early April at the Frazier History Museum.


(Photos, from top, courtesy of www.mrlincolnswhitehouse.org, Library of Congress, www.cowanauctions.com and Frazier History Museum)



Rick Howlett is host of WFPL's weekly talk show, "In Conversation."