The Insanity Trial of Mary Lincoln

This is the second post in a two-part series. ICYMI: Why Do We Think That Mary Lincoln Was Crazy?

Subscribers, you should have received a narrative timeline last night. If you did not, let me know and I’ll resend it to you.

At one o’clock in the afternoon on May 19, 1875, an unexpected visitor knocked on the door of Mary Lincoln’s hotel room. It was Leonard Swett, one of her late husband’s law associates. The self-proclaimed “First Widow” had just arrived in Chicago ahead of the ten-year anniversary of the assassination of her husband. She assumed Swett, having learned she was in town from the local papers, had come to pay his respects. He had not. 

Swett told Mary she had one hour to dress for a court date she didn’t know she had. She would be tried for insanity, a charge she didn’t know had been leveled at her. She would hear testimony from a dozen male doctors, some of whom she’d never met. She would recognize a few, perhaps, who she had met briefly when they attended to her family in the midst of crisis and loss. In 1850, when her son, Eddy, 3, died from an unknown disease; in 1862, when Willie, 11, died of typhoid; and in 1871, when Tad, 18, died from lung disease. Swett knew the details well because, as he informed her, he wasn’t just an escort. He was the lead prosecutor, determined to prove her insanity. She would have representation, too. He had chosen Isaac Arnold, a local lawyer, to lead the defense.


This was not why Mary had come to Chicago. Her presence was supposed to remind people of her great loss—and, just as much, the way she had been mistreated in the aftermath. It began the night of the assasination, when Lincoln’s Cabinet banished Mary, still wearing a blood-soaked dress, from her husband’s bedside. The day had started out better than most in the White House;  it was six days after the Confederacy had surrendered. Lincoln had sent his wife  a note requesting permission to accompany her, as if they were courting, on an afternoon carriage ride, and then to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. The driver had been surprised to overhear Lincoln, only 42 days into his second term, talking about the couple’s future: a rain ride across America, all the way to California, and then a steamer to Europe. Lincoln hoped to make it to Jerusalem. He promised Mary a different life, and hours later, it was. 

Mary’s widowhood had been defined by loss, betrayal, exploitation, and financial uncertainty, but still, she told Swett there must be some misunderstanding. She was accustomed to being assailed in public, and her response usually took the form of retreat; she physically disappeared for long bouts, holed up in a hotel room or fleeing the country, where she could write a never-ending number of letters in her defense. That had been the case when William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, published a book that described her “unloveableness” as the kind that felt like “a tooth ache—kept one awake night and day,” a reaction he shared with those who found her outspoken and dramatic personality to be too much. 

It didn’t help that Mary rose to prominence during the era of yellow journalism, and that stories about her out-of-control spending in the White House and life as a nomadic widow, with what seemed like a yearly scandal, sold exceedingly well. Sensational headlines left the impression of a volatile existence. Mary’s moods had always been unpredictable, but the loss of her husband to violence, three children to illness, and other intimates to various scandals and disappointing situations, left her paranoid and alienated. 

Mary often experienced migraines, but the most recent one, which struck while she was wintering in Florida before the trial, felt altogether different. It was accompanied by a nightmare too terrible to ignore. In them, Robert, her only surviving son, had fallen terminally ill. To dissuade her fears, Mary telegrammed him, but she couldn’t wait for an answer. Mary took the next train bound for Chicago and went straight from the station to Robert’s law office. 

Mary must have made a scene upon discovering her son was in good health—or it was simply notable that Lincoln’s widow made an unexpected visit. Witnesses had much to report about it. Her hair and dress were disheveled. She described the migraine in Florida as “Indian spirit….removing the bones of her face and pulling wires out of her eyes.” She asked Robert to accompany her to a hotel and, as Chicago had been ravaged by fires, check the smoke alarms in every room. 

Robert was mortified. Power brokers who had already warned him that Mary was a problem, and now, on the anniversary of the assassination, she would distract attention away from him. If Robert was going to run for office, people needed to remember that he was the son of Abraham Lincoln. But if his mother was going to dominate the headlines, all would be ruined. He needed to silence her, and the easiest way to do that in the 19th century was to declare her insane. 


Mary had no idea Robert was involved with the trial. He had stopped by to visit her that very morning and promised to see her that afternoon, which was technically true—he was at the courthouse, waiting to testify against her. The trial, Swett told her, lest there be confusion, had been Robert’s idea, but he had not wanted to deliver the news. That he left to Swett, who had grown impatient with Mary’s resistance. Before long, he began to threaten her. Mary could put on her “widow’s weeds”—the heavy black dress and “weeping veil” she’d worn every day since Lincoln died—and walk with him to the courthouse, or he would have a policeman put her in manacles. The press, he informed her, would be waiting. 

During a three-hour, well-planned courtroom performance, everything was taken away from Mary Lincoln. Eighteen witnesses, including Robert, testified to her mental state. Issac Arnold, Mary’s appointed lawyer, didn’t call a single witness in her defense. He asked a few of the doctors to confirm their credentials and, satisfied they were indeed experts, had no other questions. Mary, much to the frustration of journalists desperate to see some indication of her madness, sat quietly, shocked into silence. 

No one seemed concerned that the trial had violated procedure; she should have received legal notice of an impending hearing, which would have allowed her to hire her own attorney ahead of time. The all-male jury deliberated for ten minutes before declaring her insane. The court designated Robert her conservator, revoking her financial autonomy—already rare for women—and ordered her committed to an asylum run by Dr. Robert Patterson. Although he had testified against Mary in court, the two did not actually meet until he took her into custody. 

Patterson was a favorite of well to-do families with “problem women.” He treated “lady patients” at Bellevue, a three-story house set on twenty acres of countryside outside Chicago. He made sure that the staff referred to the bars on the patients’ windows as “ornamental screens.” 

Mary Lincoln was his most high-profile patient at Bellevue, though he didn’t treat her like a patient.  Mary took her meals in her private suite or in Patterson’s quarters, with his wife and family in full dinner dress. She was free to wander the grounds alone and communicate with the outside world, and she had full use of the Patterson family carriage. He kept her away from other patients; some who were violent, but most of the women under his “care” were an inconvenience to fathers who could not marry them off, or husbands who had no patience for postpartum depression or personal opinions. 

Patterson hoped, in return, that Mary would act the part of the star attraction at a zoo. He invited reporters to view the grounds and write glowing articles about his care of the First Widow. She refused to sit down for interviews he had arranged, though it hardly mattered. When she refused to meet with a reporter from The Chicago Post & Mail days shortly after she arrived, the paper printed a sensational story that her hair had gone white and her dress was already shabby. This surprised readers. They were accustomed to stories about her extravagant taste and fine clothing. They began, for the first time, to pity her.  


Mary wasn’t waiting around for a savior. She was allowed to invite guests, too, and she did so with purpose. Myra Bradwell, the editor and business manager of The Chicago Legal News, was first on her list. Myra was the first woman admitted to the Illinois bar; the U.S. Supreme Court had blocked her license, arguing that a woman’s sphere did not extend to the law, but she managed to do quite a bit without it. Just a few years earlier, men could have women in their family committed without due process. In one case, a Calvinist minister successfully incarcerated his wife in an asylum based solely on one medical examination during which the doctor had done no more than taken her pulse. Myra had written about the absurdity of the case in a column on “women’s rights,” and the laws had been changed. Mary’s high profile case had great potential.

 Myra focused on Mary’s most influential contacts, and within months, politicians and revered Civil War generals were voicing public support for Mary’s case. Some even wrote editorials in her defense, and the major papers took notice. The Chicago Times, whose motto was “Print the news and raise hell,” took the issue on as its own. 

Mary also enlisted her older sister, Elizabeth Edwards, who lived in Springfield, Illinois. Elizabeth also wrote letters that offered context. Robert had come to her for support before the trial and though she refused, she also offered an alternative. All of this could have been avoided if Robert had agreed to allow Elizabeth to care for Mary in her home, but her nephew had refused because he felt threatened by Mary’s high profile and financial independence. 

It wasn’t a good look for Robert, who only made his position worse in the press. He could have defended himself by quoting expert testimony or focusing on due process. Instead, he attacked Myra, who was well-liked and respected, a “a high priestess of a gang of spiritualists,,” and it backfired. He had to recant it, but more importantly, he needed to make a grand gesture, one that would convince the public he wasn’t a monster. He agreed to send Mary to live with Elizabeth, hoping the papers would see it as an act of love, but they didn’t. If Robert agreed that his mother didn’t need to be cared for by professionals in an institution, then there was no reason for him to have put her through the ordeal. Had it all been a son’s attempt to control his poor widowed mother’s life? The answer would be determined a year from the original trial, when her case would once again come before the court. 

“I was so cruelly persecuted by a bad son, on whom I had bestowed the greater part of my all,” Mary wrote in her diary. She preferred Springfield to Bellevue, but it was impossible to relax. She  took to carrying a pistol, which did not, given the circumstances, strike the Edwards household as unreasonable or paranoid. Ninian, Elizabeth’s husband, who had once described Mary as a woman who “could make a bishop forget his prayers,” represented her at the next hearing. He performed beautifully in court, and the jury voted in her favor. 

“You have tried your game of robbery long enough,” Mary wrote to Robert a month later, back in Springfield. He never replied. From then on, they communicated through lawyers or extended family.  


The estrangement was a tremendous loss on top of public humiliation, but it left room for Mary to find happiness in unexpected places. She grew close to her nieces and nephews. The press had never been kinder to her. Even her finances improved. The late Charles Sumner, one of her closest friends, had lobbied Congress to establish a pension for Mary in 1869; lawmakers had initially resisted, citing lack of precedent, but after they saw that Mary was truly alone, they voted on their own accord to retroactively increase it. 

America had finally come around to the First Widow. Mary wanted to use that shift in public opinion to further Abraham Lincoln’s legacy, but a high profile put her at risk. She didn’t trust Robert, but more than that, she didn’t trust herself. He had a new baby and another on the way. Mary was desperate to be a grandmother to them, and feared Robert could use it against her. If he reached out, she would likely reconcile, and then, perhaps she’d lose everything. It was too risky. 

“I go in exile alone!” Mary declared in 1876. She settled in Pau, a small commune in southwest France known for its temperate climate and natural warm springs. “Ladies find that their hair retains the curl much better than in England,” one doctor noted. It was a small town that took twenty minutes to cross by foot, but it was far from provincial. Wealthy Europeans frequented the fashionable casino and invitation-only social clubs. Napoleon III and his wife, Eugénie, had kept private apartments in the hills. 

Mary, who spoke French, remained abroad for six years. She was happy there until her arthritis and weakening eyesight made it hard to walk the wide boulevards and admire colorful dresses. With so few years left, she assumed, Pau no longer made sense. Her fear of Robert didn’t, either. She boarded a ship bound for America, sure she would die before he could act against her, and made it to her bed in Springfield. Robert came as soon as he heard, and he brought her granddaughter along. 

Mary died a few months later. She was buried beside her husband, wearing the ring he had proposed with, which he’d had engraved “Love is Eternal.” That was as true for husband and wife as it was mother and son. Years before they reconciled, Mary asked Myra Bradwell to prepare a will. She left Robert the entirety of her estate, worth roughly $1.6 million today.



The White House Historical Society is perpetuating the myth that Mary Lincoln went by Mary Todd Lincoln. If you have a moment, please let them know that it should be changed. 


Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton

Reflections on Grief and Loss at President Lincoln’s Cottage. 

Alice+Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis by yours truly.

See you next week! In the meantime, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram and my books, as well as others mentioned on SMK, on Bookshop, Amazon, and your local bookstore or library. If you have a question or comment, I want to hear it!