Volume 2 January 2023
FLARE Focus on Mrs. Lincoln and Mental Health: A Short Apology
Editor’s Note: Haley Gray is a graduate student at Saint Louis University. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Saint Louis University, and is now focused on pursuing a specialized master’s degree in The Politics of Inequality. This essay was written for a first ladies course at SLU and is her first publication in the field of first ladies studies.
Research reveals that First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln was very different as a child from who she evolved into as an adult. Mrs. Lincoln, as noted by many childhood friends, was the embodiment of joy and spontaneity; she was described as "the very creature of excitement" by a young lawyer in 1840. Later tales of Mrs. Lincoln depict a woman who was struck by tragedy, emotionally hurt, and mentally destroyed by the time of her death in 1882. She had no ability to take her case to social media or to engage with mental health awareness organizations. Instead, her life devolved partly through lack of understanding by the medical community, the courts, the people around her, and public opinion. Today, seven score and one year later, Mrs. Lincoln is deserving of compassion, care, and an apology.
Mrs. Lincoln's time at the White House was mixed with sadness and misery, despite the fact that her position satisfied her great aspirations. There was little public sympathy for Mrs. Lincoln when her eleven-year-old son, Willie, died of typhoid fever in February 1862, just twelve years after her son Eddie passed away at the age of three. The Civil War consumed all care; mothers were losing their sons on battlefields everyday from afar, while Mrs. Lincoln had the honor of being present at her son’s death.
She was further devastated by her husband's assassination in 1865, and for the remainder of her life, Mrs. Lincoln seemed to experience nothing short of misfortune. Mary supposedly sat for "spirit photographer" William Mumler during a trip to New England; his efforts produced the famed image of Mr. Lincoln's ghost faintly standing behind his wife. In her grief, Mrs. Lincoln believed the picture was real and took comfort from it. “A very slight veil separates us from the loved and lost,'' she wrote to a friend, “though unseen by us, they are very near.”
In 1875, Mary had a vision while traveling in Florida that her son, Robert, had fallen ill and immediately rushed to his side in Chicago. Robert was healthy, and he started to doubt his mother's mental state; he came to the conclusion that she needed to be admitted to an asylum to recover. Illinois law required a trial to decide insanity, so Robert and Mrs. Lincoln went to court. The trial endured for three hours. Mrs. Lincoln sat calmly as a jury of twelve men determined she was legally insane, naming Robert conservator of her inheritance. The following day Mary was sent to Bellevue Place Sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois. Based on her peculiar behaviors, it is likely that Mrs. Lincoln suffered from a number of medical conditions, such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, paranoia, and diabetes.
Mrs. Lincoln appears to have orchestrated her own escape three months after being institutionalized. She snuck letters to friends, lawyers, and even the Chicago Times. After promising the jury during the trial that she would benefit from therapy at his hospital, the director of Bellevue eventually declared Mrs. Lincoln to be in good enough health to leave.[i] Mary moved in with her sister, Elizabeth, and died seven years later as a misunderstood woman.
The 19th century saw essentially no care for those suffering from mental illness; instead, they were frequently sent to prisons or other institutions. Today, the number of people seeking mental health treatment has skyrocketed, including diagnoses for conditions such as serious depression and anxiety disorders. Other first ladies, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, and Laura Bush, all influenced mental health policy, but it is Rosalynn Carter who devoted her public service career to advancing mental health care. In her own words, “We know so much more [about behavioral health disorders] today, and yet the problems are still very much the same, with one exception: recovery. Twenty-five years ago, we did not dream that people might someday be able actually to recover from mental illnesses. Today it is a very real possibility. For one who has worked on mental health issues as long as I have, this is a miraculous development and an answer to my prayers.”
History has not been kind to Mrs. Lincoln and acts as a reflection of society's lack of understanding of grief and mental health, both then and now. To better understand Mrs. Lincoln is to better understand loss, motherhood, and widowhood. It's worth hoping that society has become more compassionate and accepting of complex and ambitious women who suffer the mental and emotional effects of family tragedy.
[i] Jason Emerson, The Madness of Mary Todd Lincoln (Southern Illinois U Press, 2007). See also the account by Jean Harvey Baker in Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (Norton, 1987).