The Madness Of Mary Lincoln

by Tom Pyle

The Madness of Mary Lincoln. By Jason Emerson. 272 pp. Southern Illinois University Press. 2007.


Did Abraham Lincoln suffer a mental illness?

Well, the death of his first love, Ann Rutledge, may have pushed him for a time to the edge of despondency. But are we to believe that Father Abraham pulled off nothing less than the saving of democracy while also battling a severe mental disorder? No. He might have been sad, but he wasn’t mad.

Alas, his poor wife Mary was a different story. So one easily concludes after reading (in one sitting) The Madness of Mary Lincoln, a fascinating and well-crafted later-life biography by newcomer Jason Emerson of the Great Emancipator’s disturbed wife.

It is the riveting, and pathetic, tale of Mary Lincoln’s involuntary commitment to an insane asylum in 1875, as mandated by a jury trial involving her sole surviving son, Robert. It also relates the meddlesome efforts of her friend, social crusader Myra Brantwell, to secure her release one year later. And it is a sleuthing tale about the only recent discovery, in a long-forgotten attic-relegated footlocker of Robert Lincoln’s lawyer, Frederick Towers, of 25 personal letters and other documents of Mary Lincoln, bringing to light lusciously rich new historical evidence from the hand of Mary herself.

While obviously problematic as a diagnosis backward in time, the book’s appendix contains a reasonable assessment from a modern day psychiatrist that identifies Mary’s affliction as bipolar disorder with psychotic features. In the end, it seems that Robert was left with no choice but to undertake the drastic measure of committing his own mother against her will for her own protection. Painfully, the episode leads to Mary’s estrangement from Robert, of whom she later refers in her letters as the “monster”.

This book hits an audience trifecta. First, with its detailed account of the fate of Mary after Lincoln’s assassination, it will inform Lincoln fans. After her release, for instance, did we know that Mary spent nearly four years in relative seclusion in France? Or that son Robert, eventually a successful lawyer, became chairman of the board of the Pullman Company and a self-made millionaire?

Second, it will intrigue students of historiography. Especially in the Lincoln field, where so much of what we know has been already so much picked over, it is invigorating to learn of a vast new source material turning up out of the blue, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. What the historians and surviving family members, and of course lawyers, decided to do with these materials makes for a fascinating technical read.

Third, it will interest those who encounter mental illness. Mental illness is no joke, even in 1875. When a loved one with a mental illness lacks insight into his or her illness, there can be nothing more wrenching for families. Any family member who has had to acquiesce to  the involuntary commitment of a loved one will understand the excruciating dilemma this posed for Robert.

Beyond this trifecta is the added bonus of its economical prose and digestible length. The writing is well crafted and quite accessible to the reader, not always the case with certain pompous, more “learned” histories that weigh as much as cinder blocks. The content is refreshingly sized for rapid intake and digestion. Emerson gets the job done in under 200 pages, even with extensive footnotes that authenticate nearly every fact in this PowerBar of a book.

Congratulations to Jason Emerson on a first-class piece of history all around! Emerson is apparently now writing a book on Robert Lincoln. I can’t wait to see it.

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