The Madness of Mary Lincoln
by Jason Emerson
Read: Jan. 8-12, 2018
Blurb: In 2005, historian Jason Emerson discovered a steamer trunk formerly owned by Robert Todd Lincoln’s lawyer and stowed in an attic for forty years. The trunk contained a rare find: twenty-five letters pertaining to Mary Todd Lincoln’s life and insanity case, letters assumed long destroyed by the Lincoln family. Mary wrote twenty of the letters herself, more than half from the insane asylum to which her son Robert had her committed, and many in the months and years after.
The Madness of Mary Lincoln is the first examination of Mary Lincoln’s mental illness based on the lost letters, and the first new interpretation of the insanity case in twenty years. This compelling story of the purported insanity of one of American’s most tragic first ladies provides new and previously unpublished materials, including the psychiatric diagnosis of Mary’s mental illness and her lost will.
Emerson charts Mary Lincoln’s mental illness throughout her life and describes how a predisposition to psychiatric illness and a life of mental and emotional trauma led to her commitment to the asylum. The first to state unequivocally that Mary Lincoln suffered from bipolar disorder, Emerson offers a psychiatric perspective on the insanity case based on consultations with psychiatrist experts.
This book reveals Abraham Lincoln’s understanding of his wife’s mental illness and the degree to which he helped keep her stable. It also traces Mary’s life after her husband’s assassination, including her severe depression and physical ailments, the harsh public criticism she endured, the Old Clothes Scandal, and the death of her son Tad.
The Madness of Mary Lincoln is the story not only of Mary, but also of Robert. It details how he dealt with his mother’s increasing irrationality and why it embarrassed his Victorian sensibilities; it explains the reasons he had his mother committed, his response to her suicide attempt, and her plot to murder him. It also shows why and how he ultimately agreed to her release from the asylum eight months early, and what their relationship was like until Mary’s death.
This historical page-turner provides readers for the first time with the lost letters that historians had been in search of for eighty years.
Review: I majored in history in college. I had a few favorite topics in American history, and the time of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was one of them. I actually wrote a paper in my History of Illinois class about Abraham and Mary’s marriage. So some of the information in this book was relatively familiar to me from my research during my college years.
It has been a long time since I really read a historical non-fiction book with a somewhat critical eye. I took a lot of notes during my reading and one thing that really stuck out to me was the author’s obvious soft spot for Robert Lincoln. Historically, Abraham and Mary’s son has not been shown in a very good light for having his mother committed to the insane asylum. Some people feel like Robert had a sane woman committed just so he could save the embarrassment she was causing to the Lincoln family. Mr. Emerson has a differing opinion, and claims that Robert was just doing his duty to his mother by protecting her.
The student of history must not make conclusions outside of historical context. This is the principal mistake made in regard to Robert Lincoln. His personality, his motivations, have never been considered in their proper Victorian attire, but when they are, and when he is given a fair standard to measure against, there can be no doubt that Robert Lincoln was an honorable man who loved his mother. [p. 155]
It is not unknown the struggles that the Lincoln family endured. Not only did Mary Lincoln have to bury 3 of her 4 children, but she was also right beside her husband when he was shot. I’m not sure anyone would be able to suffer those kinds of losses and come out completely unscathed. Everyone does handle grief differently, but any way you look at it, the losses Mary had to deal with were substantial.
In the span of ten years, the former First Lady had gone from the White House, to a boarding house, to living as a homeless wanderer, and now, to an insane asylum. [p. 71]
Anyone who has read anything on the Lincoln family should have some knowledge of what is known as the “insanity episode” that Mary suffered. I personally feel as if Abraham kept Mary somewhat sane while he was alive. He was really her crutch that kept her from spiraling out of control. When he was gone she lost that crutch and that’s when her downward spiral really came to light. Based on the evidence from his research, Mr. Emerson puts forward Bipolar Disorder as a potential diagnosis from which Mary Lincoln suffered.
Looking at Mary’s early life, one can discern early manifestations of Manic-Depressive Illness (now called Bipolar Disorder), with symptoms of depression, delusions (of persecution, poverty and various somatic ailments), hallucinations, inflated self-esteem, decreased or interrupted sleep, mood swings, and extravagant spending (monomania). [p. 5]
Overall, I felt like this was a well-written, well-researched book. I enjoyed reading it and learned quite a bit. I found it easy to read. I know that this is not what my readers usually see featured on my blog, but I am trying to expand my reading into more non-fiction.