Here is the melancholy story of Mary Todd Lincoln, widow of President Abraham Lincoln, who was shot next to her on 12 April 1865 as they were watching a play. He died three days later. The book has a single theme with two strands: was Mrs. Lincoln insane before as well as after her husband’s murder? And in subsequent years was she treated with continuous and sympathetic care by her son, Robert, or was he a greedy monster who ensured that his mother was declared insane so that he could get his hands on her substantial estate?
Jason Emerson, a journalist and specialist on the Lincoln family, has examined every available document, especially letters, including some he discovered in a trunk never previously opened. Part of this material contends that, while Mrs Lincoln was a distraught person by the age of 52, owing to the loss of her husband and other close family members, her cunning son also victimised her.
But having consulted psychiatrists, Emerson concludes differently: that Mrs Lincoln had long been disturbed, and even before her husband’s murder was at least deeply depressed and monomaniacal, on the way to being what is now diagnosed as bipolar.
By the time she married Lincoln, when she was a sprightly, flirtatious, attractive 18-year-old, Mary Todd was already a difficult person. Eventually unpopular in Washington and in the press, she was tenderly cared for by her husband, who before he rose to the presidency was a busy lawyer and aspiring politician, often away from home. As she was to say, ‘Ill luck presided at my birth — certainly within the last few years it has been a faithful attendant.’
This is wholly accurate. ‘At the age of 52, Mary had now lost to untimely deaths both her parents, three brothers, and one brother-in-law during the Civil War, three sons and a husband, and she had alienated nearly all her remaining family.’ When she became too upset, her husband would pick up the nearest child and quietly leave the room. A manic clothes buyer — usually of garments she never wore — and worried about money — she carried huge sums on her person — Mrs Lincoln was convinced that many of those around her wished her ill.
In 1875, she became the defendant in a nationally publicised trial, approved by Robert, where after just 10 minutes’ deliberation the jury found her insane; her son committed her to a ‘home’ for genteel ladies, under constant observation.
Apart from her own demons, there were plenty of reasons for her increasing depression. The national press tended to be antagonistic to her; William Herndon, her husband’s former law partner, wrote scathing accounts of her habits, and she was always worried, even when she was at odds with her son, that he might be an assassin’s next target.
As for Robert, at 21 the sole surviving son, he was suddenly the head of the Lincoln family. Emerson describes him as a typical example of ‘those intangible masculine [Victorian] principles of duty and honour’. He had ‘a severe (and lifelong) aversion to public scrutiny and publicity’.
Why suggest, as Emerson does, that such traits display ‘evidence of his Victorian sense of dignity and family privacy’? Nowadays, surely, Robert would be described as a devoted and unselfish ‘carer’. This son of a murdered president, with an increasingly difficult, sometimes impossible, mother, treated her with respect, affection, and guilt at having her committed for her own safety. But even today, writes Emerson, ‘the popular mind condemns him as a rapacious, avaricious snob who detested his mother and put her away to rid himself of her and steal her money.’ In fact, she left him most of her estate in her will.
Mary Lincoln strikes me as having been insane much of the time, but by no means all of it; her letters from France show her as calm and happy. On the other hand, many of her actions and her attacks on her son as the creator of a ‘villainous plot’ exhibit agonising instability, to use an anodyne word. Emerson sympathetically sums her up: Mrs Lincoln merits ‘understanding for her horribly traumatic life and her psychiatric illness. She deserves empathy, and not a little pity for the trials she endured.’
Like all unflagging authors, Jason Emerson is in love with his subject. But apart from those still convinced that she had been traduced and betrayed, 25 pages on poor Mary Todd Lincoln would have been plenty.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 6 October 2012