Sunday, August 25, 2013

Mary Todd Lincoln at Bellevue Place


Ten years after Abraham Lincoln's assassination, a Chicago court declared his 56-year-old widow Mary insane and committed her to a mental institution. On May 20, 1875, she arrived at Bellevue Place, a private, upscale sanitarium in the Fox River Valley. Her determined efforts led to her release less than four months later, when her sister Elizabeth assumed her care in Springfield.
Robert Todd Lincoln, the president's eldest son and a practicing attorney, arranged the insanity trial after agonizing over his distressed mother's erratic behavior. He understood Illinois law, which required a jury trial for involuntary commitment to a mental institution. At 31, Robert was Mary and Abraham's only surviving child. His brother Eddie died long before the family left for Washington, Willie died in the White House, and Tad died in Chicago almost four years before the insanity trial.

In a June 1, 1875, letter to Mary's friend Sally Orne, he explained his difficult decision. "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."

The Trial

Mary did not realize that a public trial awaited her, and was forcibly taken to the courthouse on May 19, 1875, by Leonard Swett, a lawyer who knew both Robert and her late husband. Isaac Arnold, a family friend who reluctantly became her defense attorney, did not contest the case, and allowed 17 witnesses to testify to her unstable condition, while not calling any witnesses of his own. During the trial, Robert testified, "I have no doubt my mother is insane. She has long been a source of great anxiety to me."

Mary's actual mental, emotional, and physical condition in 1875 is still debated by historians and clinicians. Historian Jean Baker, one of Mary's biographers, called her behavior "eccentric," said her migraine headaches had been mistaken for hallucinations, and that she had been taking large doses of chloral hydrate for insomnia. She also explained, "Rather than a progressive brain-destroying mania that required confinement, Mary Lincoln suffered from the personality disorder of narcissism."

Dr. Norbert Hirschhorn and Dr. Robert G. Feldman, on the other hand, maintain that "Symptoms imputed as insanity at her trial clearly had their origin in the organic disease of tabes dorsalis. The bizarre behavior in 1875 leading to hospitalization, with elements of acute anxiety, insomnia, and delusions, most resembles post-traumatic stress disorder, coinciding with the tenth anniversary of her husband's murder."

They believe Mary Lincoln suffered from tabes dorsalis as early as 1869 and cite symptoms of the disease in her own words and writings. They argue that Mary's health problems in the years following the trial affirm this diagnosis. "In the last decade of her life she suffered intense pain from a progressive and fatal disease, one that was misinterpreted as madness."

The trial's verdict required Mary to be committed to the State Hospital for the Insane, but allowed her to stay in a private hospital such as Bellevue Place if finances allowed it. She also could have stayed in Robert's home, but her tumultuous presence there four years earlier caused Robert's wife to leave temporarily.

Mary's case has been much debated by writers and historians. Would she have fared differently if her case had been tried years later or had a different defense attorney? In his book The Insanity File, historian Mark E. Neely, Jr. contended, "The history of the treatment of insanity in American law provides no real evidence that Mary Todd Lincoln's fate would have been different in modern times."

Mary's Stay at Bellevue Place

Patients at Bellevue Place were routinely given popular drugs of the era or physically restrained, but Mary had considerably more freedom. Jean Baker explains, "Mary Lincoln did what she had been convicted of failing to do: She lived a normal life. She visited with the superintendent's wife, took rides in her carriage, talked to the Pattersons' retarded daughter Blanche, sat on the front stairs, and wrote letters."

 Because Bellevue Place was only a 90-minute train ride from Chicago, it was convenient for Robert to visit his mother. He comforted Sally (and possibly himself) with the observation, "My mother is, I think, under as good care and as happily situated as is possible under the circumstances."

But Robert was deceived in thinking his mother was "happier in every way, in her freedom from care and excitement, than she has been in ten years." Authors Justin and Linda Turner wrote instead that "Robert, hoping for the best and meaning the best, failed to divine the turmoil in his mother's mind. Behind her subdued facade, her brain seethed with schemes to obtain her release."

With the help of lawyers James and Myra Bradwell, Mary managed to engineer a release from her indefinite confinement in record speed. Myra told a Chicago newspaper reporter, "Mary Lincoln is no more insane than I am." Mary left Bellevue Place on September 11, 1875, when she was released into the custody of Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards. On June 15, 1876, Mary was officially declared sane in a Chicago court.


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