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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.

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What the Advanced Spirits Told a Lawyer!

Posted on 02 July 2015, 19:14

“In conducting my experiments, I have always insisted that they should be done in my own home under such conditions only as I should provide,” Edward V. Randall wrote of his more than 700 sittings with Emily S. French, a direct-voice medium (see my blog of two weeks ago for more about Randall and French).
Randall, a prominent Buffalo, New York lawyer, said he heard from hundreds, if not thousands, of discarnates during the 20 years he studied French.  “Each voice has individuality,” Randall explained. “When a new spirit comes for the first time and takes on the condition of vocalization, there is often a similarity in tone quality, but this soon passes away, as they grow accustomed to speak, never change, and are easily recognized.”  Randall added that the strength of the voices varied greatly, one of them loud enough to fill a great auditorium, others almost whispers.  The voices were in different tones, expressed different ideas, different personalities, and sometimes spoke in foreign languages.
On one occasion, again in Randall’s own house, when a window shade was accidentally raised, there was enough light in the room for him to see the spirit being talking.  “I saw his form perfectly,” Randall recorded.  “Without a break in his discourse, he stepped to one side toward the corner where it was darker, continuing the discussion, simply saying, as the place where he stood became partially lighted, ‘We have promised the time should come when you should see us, but we scarcely expected it would be this morning.’  He stood there in full materialized form, else how could I have seen him?  He was a spirit, for Mrs. French and I were in the room alone, and no other man could have come in without opening the door and letting in the full light of day.  I not only saw him, but I heard his spirit-voice, as I have heard it many times since.  This is a fact: I saw, I heard, I know.”

On another occasion, one of Randall’s friends in spirit told him that his spirit friends wanted to give him a test of their reality and power.  This was in a room in his house with only Mrs. French and himself present.  After the communicating spirit instructed Mrs. French to stand and for Randall to hold both her hands, Randall witnessed flowers coming from every direction.  “I immediately opened the door and hurriedly called for others of my household to see the display,” Randall recorded.  “We found upon the table, chairs, and carpet, upwards of one hundred pure white sweet peas, fresh, with dew sparkling in the petals.  The stems had been twisted off.”

When Randall asked the communicating spirit how that was accomplished, he was told that it involved a physical law that mankind had yet to discover and that it involved spirit people taking the flowers from a garden where they grew in abundance, changed their vibratory conditions, as water is changed into steam, conveyed them into the room, altering the vibration back to the primary stage, thereby restoring the flowers to their original condition and color.

“At other times when alone with Mrs. French,” Randall continued, “I have been told to take both her hands and to hold them firmly, during which time spirit people have come in full physical form, stood beside me, and put their hands on my head.  Their hands are warm and firm, but the touch is strange because they are in a state of intense vibration; they do not tremble or shake, but they seem to pulsate with a rapidity that I have no words to describe.”

Randall heard from many apparently advanced spirits, naming them as Channing, Beecher, Talmage, Ingersoll, Hough, Dr. Hossack, Segoewatha, and others.  While Mrs. French, a widow living with her daughter, was a frail, meek, uneducated, and somewhat deaf woman, the words that came through her mediumship were sharp, vibrant, and eloquent.  “Lectures from such men, speaking in their own independent voices, materialized for the time, leaves no doubt as to what follows death,” Randall wrote.  “I have never heard such matchless oratory, such sermons, such thoughts expressed by the living as I have from the so-called dead.”

Over those 20 years of sitting with Mrs. French, Randall asked many questions of the spirits.  Here is a little more of what they had to tell Randall, as set forth in The French Revelation, Riley Heagerty’s anthology of Randall’s five books about his experiences.

God:  “A God whom limited intellect could comprehend would not be a God; the intellect would be the greater.”

Subconscious Mind: “The sub-conscious, or super-sensitive, mind, which so many people know not, although they possess it, is a fourth dimensional mind, or the mind of the astral body, contained within your three-dimensional physical body. ...The subconscious mind is always right.  From the subconscious mind comes the ‘still small voice,’ that thing which people know as the conscience.  The conscience is a definite manifestation of the subconscious mind, trying to dictate to the conscious mind that it is in some way or other in error.” 

Grief: “I will give you a description of the place in which I found myself when I awoke after what you call ‘death.’ It took me some time to realize the beauty of my surroundings, as my eyes were blinded by the sorrow which my going had caused on earth.  The grief of my people kept me so sad at first that I was not able to see or think of anything but earthly sorrow.  That is why grief for departed friends and relatives is so wrong, and is so harmful, both to those on earth and to those who come over. The longer the grief continues and the more hopeless it is, the more those mourned for are kept to earth. ...Fortunately, the grief of my people on earth was not of this desperately hopeless variety, and I was enabled in time to rise above it and get on with my work of helping others.”

Spirit World: “The realities of the spirit world are beyond description.  I might spend hours telling you of it and not reach your minds with any conception of its glory, its greatness, its grandeur.  It is so vast in extent, so marvellous, that any attempt to give you more than a faint idea would be futile.  Not until you get here and see for yourself can you have any conception of the home of the soul.  We have our mission – to try to get knowledge through to the shore line of your earth.  We are working our best to enlighten the world and prepare its people for the death change.”

The Spheres: “In the lower sphere one sees much suffering among those still earth-bound.  They, too, are busy working out past faults and they are often heavy-hearted.  Generally speaking, the first sphere is the one where restitution must be made, and where the final wrenching away from earth conditions takes place. The second is one of instruction, a period of study, during which the spirit gains knowledge of self and natural law.  The third is one of teaching those in the lower spheres, as I have said.  The fourth sphere is one of trial and temptation.  The fifth is truth, where error and falsehood are unknown.  In the sixth, all is harmony.  In the seventh, the spirits reach the plane of exaltation and become one with the great spirit that rules the universe. ...We are told that the spirits in the sphere of exaltation do not even there lose individuality.  They are embodied in all the beauty and good of the universe. ...It is difficult to understand or appreciate what this last sphere is, the development is so beyond our comprehension.”

Religious Beliefs:  “In the lowest of the spheres, that is, in the earth-bound spheres sectarian strife and religious movement are just as strenuous among the people as they were before these persons left the physical body.  That state of transition is but little removed from the physical, for, while the majority there knows they have left the body, others have such an imperfect appreciation of the change, or have led such immoral lives that they are not conscious of the fact. Here the dogmas of orthodoxy are dominant, and the old religious teachings are promulgated, and the priesthood still holds power.  One would think that an individual having passed through the portal called death and finding nothing as he had been taught, or as he had believed, would give up old notions and try to comprehend the economy of the natural law under which he continued to live; but, strange as it may seem, many even then cling to the old beliefs as if in fear, as if to doubt it were sacrilege, and in many ways excuse their failure to find what they expected.  They go into your churches and mingle with other people, a great invisible host, hear the same old teachings, say the same creeds and continue in the same mental attitude until some condition is brought about them that guides them into the avenue of knowledge, and as time goes on, one by one they break the shackles about their mentalities…”

Other Planets:  “Some of the planets are much higher in vibratory action than in your earth, and if you were to go to them, and could still retain the earth conditions surrounding you, as usual you could not see any life because your vibration would be so much lower.  The need of this condition is so apparent when once one grasps the immensity of the universe and the harmony of its laws.  If you were able to see all the conditions and people beyond you, life would be chaos and confusion – each sphere mixing with another – with no regulation or harmony anywhere.  As it is, each has its own place in the scheme of progression, and this visible wall of vibratory force is the safety guard to continued rational living.”

Living for Today:  “It is well that mortals should live the earth-life in accordance with the laws of nature, and not spend too much time in speculative thought as to the why and wherefore of his being; but good being the desire of all, of the necessary condition of all for achievement, a true knowledge of the future state of the spirit is necessary that errors of life may not occur, through your own unguided actions.”

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.

Next blog post: July 13

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Fallen Soldier Convinces His Famous Father of Life After Death – On September 14, 1915, Second Lieutenant Raymond Lodge, the youngest of six sons of Sir Oliver Lodge, a distinguished British physicist and pioneer in electricity and radio, as well as the former president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, was killed in WWI action in Flanders. Read here
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