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Was Mary Lincoln a Lunatic?

Posted on 13 July 2015, 8:28

“We the undersigned jurors in the case of Mary Lincoln (below) are satisfied that Mary Lincoln is insane and is a fit person to be in a state hospital for the insane – that her age is 56 – that the disease is of unknown duration – that the cause is unknown – that she is not subject to epilepsy – that she does not manifest homicidal or suicidal tendencies and that she is not a pauper.”


So declared the all-male jury in the 1875 trial of Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of American President Abraham Lincoln.  The legal action had been brought by Robert Lincoln, the only surviving son of the Lincolns, believed to be in part motivated by the fact that his mother often sat with mediums and claimed to have communicated with dead people, including her son, Willie, and possibly out of concern that his mother would be duped into giving away his future inheritance to unscrupulous mediums.  Supporting the allegations of insanity against his mother, Robert Lincoln had five doctors, none of whom had examined his mother, testify as to her demented state. 

In my blog of April 7, 2015 (Was President Lincoln a Believer or an Infidel), I mentioned that there is strong evidence that Lincoln sat with mediums, including Nettie Colburn, at the urging of his wife, Mary, and was accompanied in one or more of them by various members of his cabinet.  One of the earlier mediums with whom Lincoln sat was J. B. Conklin, a trance medium from Ohio.  Shortly after Lincoln was elected president, an article appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in which he was attacked as a “Spiritualist.”  The only thing false about the article, Lincoln was quoted, “is that the half of it has not been told.  This article does not begin to tell the wonderful things I have witnessed.”

One of the readers of this blog kindly sent me a 1987 biography of Mrs. Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, by Jean H. Baker, a chapter of which details Mary Lincoln’s trial and confinement to the lunatic asylum.  Baker, a professor of history at Goucher College at the time she authored the book, while recognizing neurotic behavior in Mrs. Lincoln, for the most part defends her. “As a beneficiary of modern feminism and the developing field of women’s history, I came to believe that Mary Lincoln was a victim of bias,” she offers in the Preface of the 2008 edition of the book. 

According to Baker’s research, Mary Lincoln did not even know about the insanity charges until the morning of her trial.  She was escorted from her Chicago apartment by two of Robert’s friends to the Chicago courthouse, where she found that her own defense attorney was appointed by Robert.  During a three-hour trial, 17 witnesses, gathered by Robert Lincoln, testified as to her unsoundness of mind.  No defense was offered and she was then confined to the Bellevue Place sanatorium outside Chicago.  There, Dr. Robert Patterson, the head of the sanatorium, examined her and diagnosed a “hysterical bladder” and a nervous debility, both resulting from excessive grief on her brain force, dating back to the murder of her husband and more recently to the death of her son Tad. 

Baker noted that Patterson became aware of testimony that Mrs. Lincoln also suffered from the religious excitement of spiritualism, sometimes referred to as “theomania,” an affliction suffered by as many as 25 percent of the female patients.  As explained by the neurologist Dr. William Hammond, “the false sensuous impressions [conjured up by mediums] force too much blood to the brain and eventually predispose seance seekers to lunacy.”  Some years earlier, Patterson had written that “Spiritualists reject the inspired authority of scripture and regarding the human family as ignorant of their relations to God and their condition in eternity, teach that man by some mysterious unintelligible process may possibly strive at some definite truth.  This error so arouses the passions as to bring on the derangement.”   

As Baker saw it in 1987, a modern psychiatrist would have diagnosed Mary Lincoln with the personality disorder of narcissism. In order to counter the grief she had experienced from the deaths of three sons and her husband, Mary sought to find love and comfort by attracting new friends; however, her self-aggrandizement methods of embracing new friends backfired on her and turned people away, only adding to her grief and uncontrolled mourning.

As others abandoned or rejected her, Mary Lincoln turned more and more to spiritualism.  In addition, she went so far as to begin reading fiction, something a proper woman of the day did not do since it “distracted the female mind from its domestic tasks and encouraged its tendencies toward emotionality.”  So defiant of conventionality was she that she traveled to Europe without a male escort to protect her.  She even meddled in politics, something women weren’t supposed to do.

With the help of friends, especially one Myra Bradwell, who had a law degree but was not allowed to practice law because of her gender, and her husband, Judge James B. Bradwell, both spiritualists, Mary Lincoln was released from the asylum after just three months and three weeks of incarceration.  While Robert Lincoln fought the release, Dr. Patterson apparently wanted to avoid bad publicity and declared Mary Lincoln “competent” enough to be released.  She spent the next year living with her older sister in Springfield, Illinois.  After a year-long battle to recover her assets from Robert, she moved to southern France to live alone for several years, but health problems caused her to return to Springfield to live with her sister. She died of a stroke at age 64. 

Baker’s book makes one wonder how much of written history we can really trust.  Other historians have suggested that Mary Lincoln was the lunatic that her son made her out to be.  And while Baker portrays her as somewhat eccentric with many peculiarities – some of which would be seen as normal behavior today, especially for more liberated women – Baker’s Mary Lincoln emerges as a sane, intelligent, and strong-willed person, though one in constant despair with little to hope for after losing a husband and three sons – four sons, really, since Robert became “dead” to her.  Which historians can we believe?

It is easy to forget that those who lost loved ones in those days did not have all the coping methods that grieving people have today.  They couldn’t escape into a movie or television program, turn on soothing music, or communicate with sympathetic friends by phone or email.  They sat in dark rooms with little more than memories to placate the grieving mind.  While some men might have dealt with such grief by wandering down to the local saloon, women had no such option.  According to Baker, Mrs. Lincoln spent the first 40 days after her husband’s assassination in bed, and then after moving to Chicago, “spent her days contemplating the waves of Lake Michigan, tending to a correspondence made voluminous by sympathy notes, and walking in the park along the water’s edge.” 

It is also interesting to note how the many biographers of President Lincoln treat spiritualism.  Although I have read only a small percentage of them, I gather that most historians see it as a foolish cult involving nothing more than crystal-gazing charlatans, something a man of Lincoln’s stature would most certainly have nothing to do with.  In his popular 1995 book, Lincoln, David Herbert Donald, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, makes only one reference to the subject, stating that there may have been as many as eight seances in the White House following Willie Lincoln’s death and that the president attended only one and was not convinced.  Donald does not cite his source for this information. 
In a 1959 book, The Almost Chosen People:  A Study of the Religion of Abraham Lincoln, Dr. William J. Wolf, a professor of theology at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary, makes absolutely no mention of spiritualism.  The few references to Mary Lincoln do not go beyond mentioning that she was a member of the First Presbyterian Church in 1852.  If Wolf knew of the part spiritualism played in her life and the extent to which it may have influenced the president’s life, it would no doubt have tainted the book, the main theme of which was that President Lincoln was a God-fearing man.  Most Christians thought spiritualism was the work of the devil and that spiritualists didn’t fear God. 

Baker doesn’t seem to know what to make of spiritualism, seemingly understanding of Mrs. Lincoln’s beliefs at times but buying into the repulsive view of many at other times.  She definitely portrays William Mumler, a spirit photographer, as a fraud, claiming that he “superimposed” a photo of Lincoln on a photo of Mrs. Lincoln, (below) while referring to Mumler’s “sleazy studio.”  Of course, Wikipedia and other debunking sites will support her in such a view, but there was much testimony by credible people in Mumler’s favor – by people who closely observed the whole photographic developing process and were certain that Mumler could not have known about the spirit entities showing up in the photos or have obtained photos of them beforehand.


According to Mary Lincoln, she went to Mumler’s studio incognito, giving her name as Mrs. Tyndall.  Baker wonders how Mumler could not have known her true identity, but she may have overlooked the fact that this was during the late 1860s, before photojournalism, and it is likely that most people did not know what Mrs. Lincoln looked like, especially since the former belle of the ball in Lexington and Springfield hardly resembled her more trim, younger self, even if one could see through the bonnet and veil. 

So what can we believe?  Clearly, recorded history is subject to the preconceived notions or biases of the historian and we left to wonder what the truth of the matter really is.

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die is published by White Crow Books. His latest book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife is now available on Amazon and other online book stores.
His latest book Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I is published by White Crow Books.

Note:  As I will be traveling in coming weeks, I will not be able to respond to any questions or comments.  My next blog post will be on August 10.


News of Mary Lincoln all new to me.  Great she left the asylum. Did you see the film of Abraham L’s life?  What a man! In some quarters attitudes havn’t changed much, keep up the good work,  Stan

stan raymond, Tue 25 Aug, 04:02

Mike, glad to know that you’re OK! Enjoy your vacation!

CLAUDIO, Mon 3 Aug, 17:43

Hope all is well, gone fishing?

Claudio, Fri 31 Jul, 17:24

It is also easy to forget that almost everybody lost many loved ones in those days, before antibiotics and modern childbirth procedures.  I would speculate, though, that having no modern media to lose oneself in may have been healthier for the grieving process, perhaps helping them get more in touch with the spiritual reality behind it all.  Hey, a long walk on the shores of Lake Michigan sounds like a good thing to me!

Lloyd, Wed 15 Jul, 07:21

Thanks Mike,
  Some more evidence of the circular reasoning of critics and non-believers and instead of considering the possibilities simply are voicing their prejudices.

Richard Batzler, Tue 14 Jul, 03:52

A brilliant article Michael. Fascinating information.

Wendy Zammit, Mon 13 Jul, 12:11

I always enjoy your regular supply of new articles through White Crow Books, Mike. But this one I found particularly interesting. Thank you. Thanks also for your kind comment on my documentary ‘This Life, Next Life’ now showing on Youtube. I am pleased to say it has had over 6,000 viewings in just three weeks.

Keith P in England, Mon 13 Jul, 10:12

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