— PLEASE PRACTICE HISTORICISM —
THE INTERPRETATION OF THE PAST IN ITS OWN CONTEXT.
The name Bellevue Place, when used by American newspapers in 1875, referred not to a fashionable hotel but rather to an exclusive sanitarium or, to use the language of the day, an insane asylum.
Built in 1856 for the Batavia Institute at 333 South Jefferson Street, Batavia, Illinois, a private academy soon superseded by public schools and taken over in 1867 by Dr. Richard J. Patterson who was a specialist in mental and nervous disorders. Patterson renamed the building "Bellevue Place Insane Asylum."
Dr. Richard J. Patterson, formerly the medical superintendent of the Indiana and then the Iowa state hospitals for the insane, had several years earlier purchased the building and grounds of a private academy in Batavia, Illinois, thirty-five miles west of Chicago, for use as a sanitarium. There, in June 1875, Dr. Patterson was caring for approximately twenty patients, all women. One was Abraham Lincoln's widow.
Earlier in 1875, Mary Todd Lincoln is known to have vacationed on Spengler Island, Florida, staying for a short time in the John F. Whitney, (friend of Abraham & Mary Lincoln and grandson of cotton-gin inventor Eli Whitney), Mansion, after the president had been assassinated and before she was committed to the Bellevue Place Sanitarium.
On March 12, she telegraphed the Lincoln family's Chicago physician, Dr. Ralph N. Isham, that she believed her sole surviving son, thirty-one-year-old Robert Todd Lincoln, to be ill and in need of his mother. Several hours later, she was on a train bound for Chicago. But it was the mother, not the son, who was ill. Indeed, Mrs. Lincoln's "mental impairment" was probably to the assassination of her husband, and her illness became even more pronounced after the death of her son Tad in 1871.
Her condition continued to worsen after she arrived in Chicago in March 1875. Because of a misunderstanding with her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Lincoln refused to go to her son's home and went instead to the Grand Pacific Hotel. Robert also took a room there to be able to watch after his mother — no easy task. Although Mrs. Lincoln slept well her first evening, she subsequently grew more and more restless. Clearly, she was in need of rest and protection, if not medical treatment.
|The Grand Pacific Hotel II where Mrs. Lincoln stayed during the spring of 1875 before her confinement at Bellevue Place, Batavia. The hotel, located in the block bounded by Clark, Quincy, and La Salle streets, and Jackson Boulevard, was opened in June 1873; it had been built after the original structure was destroyed in the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. The six-story building was the city's second-largest hotel - the Palmer House was larger.|
Robert Lincoln, with his own family as well as his legal practice to look after, could not give his mother the attention she required. At first, he tried to solve the problem by hiring a woman from the hotel to act as a companion. In late April, he employed a Pinkerton detective to look after her when she went out of doors. Robert also had to worry about his mother's financial welfare, for she had begun going out on extravagant shopping expeditions, during which she carried on her person securities valued at $57,000 ($1,422,000 today), nearly all of her assets.
NOTE: In an act approved by a low margin on July 14, 1870, the United States Congress granted Mrs. Lincoln a life pension of $3,000 a year ($63,000 today).
By mid-May, Robert was in a delicate position. He had obtained medical advice from a group of six physicians, including Doctors Isham and Patterson, who met privately and unanimously agreed upon a statement pronouncing Mrs. Lincoln insane and recommending her confinement.
As an attorney Robert Lincoln was aware that Illinois statutes made legal proceedings unnecessary in cases of voluntary admission to mental institutions. But he also knew that if a prospective patient was likely to complain of being wrongfully deprived of liberty, as his mother would surely do, it was essential that a county court issue a judgment of insanity.
|Mary Todd Lincoln, circa 1875.|
"Although there was no doubt of the fact of the insanity," wrote Leonard Swett in a twenty-three-page letter to Associate Supreme Court Justice David Davis, "Robert was so careful to keep within the truth that the physicians doubted whether we would be able to make out a case sufficiently strong to satisfy the general public, and perhaps not strong enough to secure a verdict." Swett, who was the mastermind of the Mary Todd Lincoln insanity trial, was confident of a conviction. He advised Robert Lincoln to write letters to the involved physicians, asking them for their written opinions of Mrs. Lincoln's condition. He further suggested that Robert write for advice to Judge Davis, who had served as executor of the Lincoln estate and was regarded by Robert as a second father.
Originally Swett had intended to let matters rest until replies to these letters were received, but Mrs. Lincoln's case required immediate attention. The Pinkerton man reported on May 17 that she was being visited by suspicious-looking persons. "She was also known at that time to have about $1,000 ($25,000 today) in cash which must have come through the sale of some of her bonds. She was also contemplating leaving town for parts unknown."
Under these circumstances, Swett urged Robert Lincoln to undertake the necessary legal action. Swett promised that he would take responsibility for Mrs. Lincoln's appearance in court. At last, Robert was convinced that he should delay no longer, and on May 19 a petition for an insanity hearing was filed in Judge M.R.M. Wallace's Cook County Court.
The trial, held that very day, was completed with a minimum of difficulty. Mrs. Lincoln was forcibly taken to the courthouse by Leonard Swett from her hotel, and Isaac N. Arnold (who believed Mrs. Lincoln to be insane and thus doubted the propriety of being her lawyer) reluctantly agreed to be her defense attorney.
Seventeen witnesses were called by the prosecution. Of these, five were members of the staff of the Grand Pacific Hotel, one was an agent for the United States Express Company, five were tradesmen or jewelers, four were physicians, and one was the defendant's son. Dr. Isham stated that he believed Mrs. Lincoln to be "insane and a fit subject for Hospital treatment." Three of the physicians with this opinion, one would go only so far as to say that he did not regard it safe for her to be left alone. The various hotel personnel and local merchants described Mrs. Lincoln's recent behavior and usually ended with their testimony with the judgment that the defendant was insane. Robert Lincoln, the chief prosecution witness, painfully told of his mother's actions since her arrival in Chicago from Florida.
Nothing was said in Mrs. Lincoln's defense. Although she was present in the courtroom for the three-hour trial, she was not placed on the stand. Arnold did not contest the case and allowed seventeen witnesses to testify to her unstable condition, while not calling any witnesses of his own.
"There seemed to be no other course than for the jury to find the lady guilty as charged," recalled one of the jurors a half-century later. After the testimony had been concluded, the twelve jury members deliberated for a few minutes and then delivered the insanity verdict. That night Mrs. Lincoln managed to elude the three persons Robert had secured to watch over her and obtained a prescription that contained a lethal dose of laudanum (an alcoholic solution containing morphine used as a painkiller). She drank the medicine, but the druggist had recognized her and omitted the laudanum.
|Bellevue Place as it appeared in 1864; the main part of the building had been changed only slightly. Wings were added in the 1880s or 1890s on both sides.|
On the following morning, Mrs. Lincoln was taken to Dr. Patterson's sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois. On June 14, Robert Lincoln, who had assumed charge of his mother's assets at the close of the insanity trial, was formally appointed conservator of her estate.
The selection of Bellevue Place as the institution for confinement was a sound one, for Dr. Patterson was a believer in "the modern management of mental disease by rest, diet, baths, fresh air, occupation, diversion, change of scene, no more medicine than absolutely necessary, and the least restraint possible." The sixteen-acre estate, located on the southwest outskirts of the town, was in some respects a small plantation. The sanitarium proper, a massive three and one-half story limestone building, was surrounded by landscaped grounds, with walks laid out amid flower beds, evergreens, and shade trees. One of Mrs. Lincoln's visitors observed:
... a fine green house is nearly completed which will have a capacity for 6,000 plants, and has already nearly a thousand winter roses budded. This will connect by steps and an ornamental porch, with the first hall, so that patients can visit the greenhouse under cover. Pleasant lawn seats, rustic chairs and croquet games for those who wish are added to the comfort for inmates.
A barn with horses, pigs, cows, a carriage, two buggies, and two sleighs stood directly behind the hospital.
Although the "retreat" was equipped for twenty-five to thirty patients, only twenty persons were there during Mrs. Lincoln's stay. Admission was restricted to "a select class of lady patients of quiet unexceptionable habits." Sleeping rooms, whose barred windows commanded sweeping views of the countryside, opened onto spacious, well-ventilated halls. Maintenance of the hospital was very much a family occupation. Dr. Patterson's wife acted as matron; his son, also a physician, served as a medical assistant. In addition, there were a dozen attendants and nurses.
Mrs. Lincoln's sojourn at the sanitarium was from May 20, 1875, to September 10, 1875. The experience was humiliating but not overly restrictive. She was assigned a private room and given her own attendant. Her doors "leading to the outer world" were "never locked during the daytime," and the hospital staff constantly encouraged her to go outside. Often she did take long walks on the garden paths surrounding the building. A horse and carriage were always at her disposal. Only at Lincoln locked in. Then the key to her bedroom was kept by her attendant, who slept in an adjoining room. No other patient received such favored consideration.
In a number of ways, Mrs. Lincoln was treated as a guest of the Pattersons. Frequently she would leave her second-floor room and go downstairs to pay her respects to the superintendent's family, who lived on the ground floor. Mrs. Lincoln usually took her meals either with them or alone in her room. The former first lady evidently had little desire to enter into the social life of Batavia; indeed, her sole contact with the community seemed to be through association with a local dressmaker.
Mrs. Lincoln's confinement at Bellevue was more complicated than it might seem on the surface, however. At first, she appeared to be "well and contented," but soon, she began experiencing periods of melancholia and depression. On some days, she refused to go riding and kept close to her room. Repeatedly she postponed riding appointments made only a few hours earlier. She came to be regarded as "frequently untruthful in her statements, and exceedingly deceitful." When a Chicago Post and Mail correspondent, with Dr. Patterson's permission, interviewed Mrs. Lincoln at Bellevue in early July, the reporter noted that "no encouragement is held out that Mrs. Lincoln will ever become permanently well." At the time of her insanity trial in May, one of the physicians had privately told a jury member that her case was one of dementia, or degeneration of the brain tissue.
Robert Lincoln made a practice of seeing his mother weekly. During his first visit, Mrs. Lincoln was "comparatively cheerful" in his presence. Several weeks later, he observed that she was "not quite so cordial toward him." When, on July 15, he brought along his little daughter Mary, the fifty-six-year-old grandmother expressed great joy in talking with her namesake. Following their departure, Mrs. Lincoln had a long talk with Dr. Patterson and, for the first time, mentioned a desire to go and live with her sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Edwards, in Springfield. Was it not "the most natural thing to wish to live with her sister, who had reared her and whom she thought of as "a sort of mother?"
For two weeks, nothing more was said of Edwards. Then Robert and his daughter returned. After they left, Mrs. Lincoln asked to ride to the post office to mail a letter, which, at the suggestion of her son, she had written to her sister. At the post office, she carriage and deposited the letter herself.
She actually posted more than one letter. The next day General John Franklin Farnsworth, a former congressman from the area, came in answer to a note of the preceding day; Mrs. Lincoln had written that she desired her liberty and wanted his help. Before leaving the sanitarium, General Farnsworth spoke briefly with Dr. Patterson. The general conceded that Mrs. Lincoln did not talk like a sane woman, but he insisted that "she would hardly be called insane by those who used to know her."
Judge and Mrs. James B. Bradwell, too, had received an invitation similar to the one sent General Farnsworth. Late that same afternoon, they arrived from Chicago and conferred briefly with Mrs. Lincoln. The Lincolns had long been intimately associated with the Bradwell's. After the murder of her husband, Mary Lincoln had gone to Chicago and sought out her former friends. Upon advice from the Bradwells, she had purchased a house close to them and had made it her home for several years. The July Post and Mail story had reported that Mrs. Lincoln "alluded very feelingly to her attachment to Judge Bradwell's Family." The Bradwell's were not without influence in Chicago. A former county judge, Bradwell was a prominent attorney as well as a member of the state legislature. His wife Myra, also a lawyer, was the editor of Chicago's foremost legal newsletter.
There is some discrepancy in Mrs. Bradwell's accounts of her friend's mental fitness. She informed Dr. Patterson that although there was "no doubt that Mrs. Lincoln was insane and had been so for some time," propriety required that she be removed from the asylum. Mrs. Bradwell also urged that Mrs. Lincoln be taken to her sister's home in Springfield, where she would receive "tender loving care." Mrs. Bradwell told a reporter for the Chicago Times, however, that she had been "inexpressibly shocked" to hear of her close friend's "alleged insanity." When asked by the newsman if she thought Mrs. Lincoln to be insane, Mrs. Bradwell bluntly replied: "She is no more insane than I am."
Upon her return from the initial visit with Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Bradwell called on Robert Lincoln. She pleaded that he, as Mrs. Lincoln's conservator, allow his mother to live with her sister. According to Mrs. Bredwell, Robert answered that if his aunt would receive Mrs. Lincoln, he would himself go to Batavia and conduct her to Springfield, provided Dr. Patterson would sign a "certificate of her recovery." He added that he was sure that Mrs. Edwards would not consent to the plan."
A week later, Mrs. Bradwell went back to see Mrs. Lincoln and was permitted by Dr. Patterson to spend the night with her. The next morning Mrs. Bradwell quietly left the hospital. Three hours later, she came back, accompanied by a "Mr. Wilkie of Chicago." Mrs. Lincoln came downstairs, met her guests, and conducted them up to her room, where the three of them remained in conference for two hours. Afterward, Mrs. Bradwell and Mr. Wilkie bade goodbye to Mrs. Lincoln and left for Chicago.
The hospital administration was soon to find out that "Mr. Wilkie of Chicago" was none other than Franc B. Wilkie, editorial writer for the Chicago Times. He had been introduced to Mrs. Lincoln "not as a newspaperman but as a gentleman who knew her history and who took a friendly interest in all that pertained to her welfare." His interview consisted of a long probing conversation, during which he quickly ascertained that there was "not a sign of weakness or any abnormal manifestations of mind." He described her physical health as "superb."
The account of the interview did not appear in the Times, however, until Mrs. Bradwell thought it would be helpful in stirring up public opinion on behalf of Mrs. Lincoln's release. Dr. Patterson, meanwhile, seemed to be voluntarily moving toward that goal. Despite the fact that Mrs. Lincoln continually put off writing a reply to Mrs. Edwards (who at the beginning of August had tentatively invited her sister to live with her), Dr. Patterson and Robert Lincoln were giving careful attention to the original request. Although Dr. Patterson still considered Mrs. Lincoln to be insane, notwithstanding her improved condition, he saw no reason to prevent her from going to Springfield as long as she would do so in good faith. Yet, in a letter of August 9, he cautioned Robert was that this advice was subject to change if his mother's condition were to turn for the worse.
If Robert Lincoln ever felt that Mrs. Bradwell was working in Mrs. Lincoln's best interest, his endorsement was short-lived. When he visited Batavia on August 13, Robert informed Dr. Patterson that he regarded Mrs. Bradwell as "a pest and a nuisance." He termed her introduction of Wilkie as an outrage. Robert's presence seemed once again to put his mother in a letter-writing mood, for after his departure, she wrote to her sister and also to Mrs. Bradwell.
Evidently, there was some connection between the two letters. Almost immediately, Mrs. Bradwell went to Springfield to see Mrs. Edwards. Mrs. Edwards's home met Mrs. Bradwell's approval. The house, surrounded by lawns and flowers, was "just the place for a sorrow-burdened heart like Mrs. Lincoln's to find repose and peace." Without consulting her nephew, Mrs. Edwards sent a letter "by the hand of Mrs. Bradwell" formally inviting her sister to visit her.
By this time, Dr. Patterson was having second thoughts about Mrs. Lincoln's proposed visit. He wrote to Judge Bradwell that he could see "no good to her, but harm only" in discussing with his patient the question of her removal from Bellevue. Since Robert Lincoln was to be gone on a two-week trip to the East, Dr. Patterson urged that in his absence, Mrs. Lincoln be let alone and not subjected to "unnecessary excitement." In any event, no action could be taken without Robert's concurrence.
Judge Bradwell refused to be silent. How could Dr. Patterson not see that confinement at Bellevue was extremely injurious to Mrs. Lincoln and "calculated to drive her insane?" If the doctor had Mrs. Lincoln's true interest at heart, he would see to it that she was taken to her sister. If Dr. Patterson was unwilling to act, the judge, as Mrs. Lincoln's legal adviser and friend, would see if a writ of habeas corpus could not "open the door of Mrs. Lincoln's prison house."
On August 21, 1875, the Chicago Post and Mail published an article written by the same correspondent who had interviewed Mrs. Lincoln in July. The half-column story told of the reporter's conversations with Caroline Howard of St. Charles, Illinois, who said she had been a spiritual medium for Mrs. Lincoln during the Mary Lincoln's residence in that community in 1871.
NOTE: Caroline Howard, a well-known Spiritualist, with her husband Leonard, owned "The Howard House Hotel" at 123 South 3rd Street, at the corner of Illinois Street (now condominiums), in St. Charles, Illinois. Mrs. Lincoln, suffering from the loss of her husband and two of her boys, Eddie and Willie up to this point in May of 1871, when she came to St. Charlesto have Caroline Howard preform séances in an attempt to communicate with her family's spirits. Caroline consulted with Mary at her house, 516 South 6th Avenue, while Mary stayed at Howard's hotel, using the alias, "Mrs. May."
The article concluded with a rather startling paragraph announcing that Mrs. Lincoln had been pronounced well enough to leave Bellevue Place and visit her sister in Springfield. The next day this news was reprinted on the front page of the New York Times.
On August 24, the Chicago Times printed in the full account of Franc Wilkie's talk with Mrs. Lincoln. For some reason, Wilkie did not identify himself as the author. Nor did he state that the "mutual friend" who had introduced him to Mrs. Lincoln was Mrs. Bradwell. The report was followed by a summary of Mrs. Bradwell's efforts on behalf of Mrs. Lincoln. If the former's assertion that she regretted "the publication of anything concerning this matter at the present time" was true, one wonders why she gave the newspapers the account of her endeavors.
Mrs. Bradwell's association with the Chicago Times raises a question, for of all major Chicago English-language dailies it was considered the least respectable. Its columns were generally well filled with material concerning the confinement of the insane. A scandal involving the government insane asylum in Washington had recently been handled in serial form. Three days before Wilkie's interview appeared, the paper had published a lurid description of a visit to the Indiana Insane Asylum; and the same edition that told of Mrs. Lincoln's stay at Bellevue carried a feature headed "Inhuman Abuse of Patients in the Kings County (New York) Lunatic Asylum."
The Times report on Mrs. Lincoln did not go unchallenged. A Chicago correspondent for the Boston Daily Globe telegraphed his paper that a certain newspaper in the city was attempting "to work up a sensation in regard to Mrs. Lincoln." The reporter was indignant over the allegation that Mrs. Lincoln was perfectly sane and that she was being imprisoned at Batavia. He emphasized that these statements "were known to be utterly untrue by those familiar with the circumstances." He concluded, however, that Mrs. Lincoln would probably be allowed to visit her sister.
Other newspapers were also ready to support Dr. Patterson. The Illinois State Journal commented that he was best qualified to judge what Mrs. Lincoln's needs were. One paper ridiculed Judge Bradwell as "a Mr. Paul Pry greatly agitating other people's affairs." In a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune Dr. Patterson denied that he had ever issued a statement certifying Mrs. Lincoln's mental recovery.
On his return, Robert Lincoln thought that he could do nothing except acquiesce in his aunt's invitation. Between September 6 and 9, he conferred with several doctors as to the propriety and safety of the proposed visit. Finally, on the morning of September 10, 1875, Mary Todd Lincoln, escorted by her son, left Batavia for Springfield. The Bradwells' objective — and Mrs. Lincoln's —was accomplished. Mary Lincoln wrote:
When all others among them my husband's supposed friends, failed me in the most bitter hours of my life, these loyal hearts, Myra Bradwell and her husband came to my assistance and rescued me, and under great difficulty secured my release from confinement in an insane asylum.
Mrs. Lincoln's release from Bellevue did not release her from the Cook County Court's judgment of insanity. Legally, she had only exchanged custodians. Robert tried as best he could to make his mother's "visit" with her sister and brother-in-law enjoyable. Less than a week after she left the sanitarium, he made arrangements for "Amanda from Batavia" to serve as her attendant in Springfield. In December, at his mother's request, he petitioned Judge Wallace for permission to send her nine of her trunks, principally containing wearing apparel. Altogether, during Mrs. Lincoln's nine-month stay in Springfield, Robert sent fifteen checks, totaling $4,599.28 ($114,685 today), to Ninian W. Edwards to pay for his mother's expenses.
All had not gone well in the Edwards' household after Mrs. Lincoln's arrival in September. For one thing, she had not lived as frugally as she should have. In a letter of November 16, 1875, Robert Lincoln told Judge Davis that Mrs. Edwards, despite instructions to the contrary, insisted on getting his approval for each of his mother's expenditures. Since his mother was with Mrs. Edwards, Robert thought that Mrs. Edwards should accept the responsibility for overseeing her purchases. Robert was rather upset at the news of the purchase of a new bonnet, and he complained to Judge Davis, "I merely mention it to you to say that one of the last deliveries of goods to her before she went to Batavia was four new bonnets all of which are in her trunk at Mrs. Edwards and none of which she has ever worn. It is an indication to my mind that no radical change has taken place since last Spring, but only opportunity is wanting to develop the same trouble."
Robert was also disturbed at how poorly his aunt misjudged on the general subject of his mother's "devotion to spiritualism." "She hardly thinks of anything else, and almost her only companions were spiritualists," he confided to the judge.
Both Robert Lincoln and Leonard Swett regarded Mrs. Lincoln as "unsound in mind and not to be trusted with the power of impoverishing herself." Nevertheless, for the sake of harmony between the Edwards' and Mrs. Lincoln, and also to prevent possible adverse publicity, they thought it advisable to have the restrictions lifted. Robert, in asking Judge Davis for counsel, listed several alternative courses of action:
- I shall remove all restraints upon travel and residence.
- To pay to her to be expended by herself without scrutiny of any kind her whole income in monthly installments. At the present rate of gold and including a payment from me to her of $125 ($3,100 today) per month which will end April 1881. This monthly income will be about $700 ($17,460 today).
- To have a competent person make an estimate on the annuity principle of what monthly sum can be paid her during her life so as to leave nothing at her death and if Judge Wallace will consent, to pay such sum to her monthly.
- In addition to 1 & 2 or to 1 & 3, to deliver to her as being necessary for her comfort all of her personal effects which consist of clothing and Jewelry.
Judge Wallace had stated that under Illinois law, he could not "entertain an application for relief from the disability" until the expiration of one year from the date of the appointment of the conservator. This suited Robert Lincoln, for he was aware that his mother's "course since the Inquisition has shown that in general, she is able to control her impulses if she has an object in doing so." He thus felt that the intervening time would give her full opportunity "to develop her vagaries if she still has any" under the watchful protection of the Edwards.
Mary Lincoln's petition asking that "the management and care of her estate be restored to her" was heard in Judge Wallace's Cook County Court on Thursday afternoon, June 15, 1876. The trial was even more perfunctory than the earlier hearing had been. Mrs. Lincoln was represented by Leonard Swett, and Ninian Edwards appeared as the only witness. He stated that in his opinion, Mrs. Lincoln was able to conduct her own affairs. Robert raised no objections. The jury deliberated briefly, just "long enough to attach their respective signatures to a verdict," and announced: "Mary Lincoln is restored to reason and is capable of managing and controlling her estate." If either Judge Bradwell or his wife was present, newspaper reports fail to mention it.
One sad note was Mrs. Lincoln's estrangement from her son. Two days after the second sanity trial, she sent him a brief message requesting the return to her without the least delay of all her paintings, her silver set, and other articles that she accused Mrs. Robert Lincoln of appropriating. Apparently, Robert and his aunt were also on mutually bad terms, for Mrs. Lincoln added: "Trust not to the belief, that Mrs. Edward's tongue, has not been rancorous against you all winter and she has maintained to the very last, that you dared not venture into her house and our presence." "You have injured yourself, not me," she concluded, "by your wicked conduct."
Mrs. Lincoln remained with the Edwards' until autumn. Then she left Springfield for Europe. For the next four years, she traveled on the continent, from Le Havre to Marseilles, from Naples to Sorrento. Often she would return to the little city of Pau in southern France near the Pyrenees. Although she was "in almost weekly cordial and intelligent correspondence with her friends," she did not communicate with Robert.
Mary Todd Lincoln returned from France in late 1880, on the same ship with the actress Sarah Bernhardt. The rest of her life was anticlimactic. In May 1881, Robert visited his mother in Springfield and gained her forgiveness. She died fourteen months later.
The matter of Mrs. Lincoln's insanity remains as much a question to later generations as it was to her contemporaries. Today juries no longer return verdicts of insanity; instead, they render decisions of mental incompetency. The form has changed, the substance remains. In the mid-1880s, Dr. Charles F. Folsom, writing for his students at the Harvard Medical School, stated:
The term insanity conveys quite different meanings to the community, to lawyers, and to physicians. The popular idea of insanity is a wild, incoherent, or crazy conduct. To the lawyer insanity means only a condition of mind with reference to certain conduct. An insane man is simply non compos mentis. The whole question to the lawyer is with regard to a certain act or series of acts. The lawyer's definition is narrower than that of the physician. It is impossible to give a satisfactory definition of insanity [medically speaking], to draw any hard and fast line on one side of which we should put all the sane, and on the otherall the insane.
Mrs. Lincoln's financial irresponsibility in 1875 was simply one manifestation of her unstable mental condition. An examination of her life during the decade prior to her insanity conviction indicates that she was indeed incompetent. She had been prostrate in grief for weeks at a time following the deaths of her son Willie (1862), her husband (1865), and her son Tad (1871). And she had been physically ill as well. After Tad's birth in 1853, she had been subject to a complaint "of a womanly nature." In 1872 she spent the summer at the mineral springs of Waukesha, Wisconsin, hoping to obtain relief for "a dropsical condition." In November of the next year, she was in Chicago undergoing treatment for "fever and nervous derangement of the head."
|Bellevue Place as it appeared at about the time Mrs. Lincoln was there. This drawing was used on the sanitarium's letterheads during the 1880s.|
Emotional distress caused by an argument with Herndon over her husband's religious beliefs evidently produced a physical collapse in March 1874. forth, who had cared for Mrs. Lincoln, the resumed daily calls. During the course of continued through September, he diagnosed her condition as "debility of the nervous system" — nervous exhaustion. He further observed:
She complained that someone was taking steel springs from her head, and would not let her rest; that she was going to die within a few days, and that she had been admonished to that effect by her husband. She imagined that she heard raps on a table conveying the time of her death, and would sit and ask questions and repeat the supposed answer the table would give. Her derangement was not dependent on the condition of her body or arising from physical disease.
At the time of the first sanity trial, it was predicted that Mrs. Lincoln would die within a year or two. Yet, she lived an additional seven years. In Mrs. Abraham Lincoln: A Study of Her Personality and Her Influence on Lincoln, Dr. W. A. Evans expressed his belief that Mrs. Lincoln's basic "personality deterioration" never changed:
After 1876 Mrs. Lincoln's mind undoubtedly was just as much disorganized as it had been in 1875, and in 1882 it was more so. But in spite of that, she so conducted herself as to justify the course her friends had taken. She carried out her resolution in spite of her personality deterioration.
Although Mrs. Lincoln's stay at Bellevue was not marked by miraculous cures, the rest and watchful supervision certainly resulted in marked improvement. Perhaps she was prematurely declared sane in June 1876, but if insanity can be judged by actions, time demonstrated that that verdict was no less correct than the earlier one.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.
Contributor Rodney A. Ross
Notes from Mary Lincoln's Doctor and Staff During Her Stay at Bellevue Place.
During the period of Mrs. Lincoln's stay at Bellevue Place, Insane Asylum in Batavia, Illinois, records on the patients were kept, in a bound 9 by 12½ inch volume, which was titled "Patient Progress Reports for Bellevue Place." Only those entries which mention Mary Lincoln are included. Punctuation and spelling have been copied exactly.
Entries in "Patient Progress Reports for Bellevue Place," were made in ink by two people, although one hand predominates — probably that of a nurse or attendant since there are frequent references throughout the volume to "Dr. Patterson" and "Mrs. Patterson."
May 20, 1875: Mrs. Mary Lincoln admitted today — from Chicago — Age 56 — Widow of Ex-President Lincoln — declared insane by the Cook County Court May 19, 1875. Case is one of mental impairment which probably dates back to the murder of President Lincoln — More pronounced since the death of her son, Tad, but especially aggravated during the last 2 months.
May 21, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln slept well last night — today her pulse is 100 but she has no fever.
May 22, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln has seemed cheerful and is apparently contented — She took a long walk this morning — Sleeps well at night.
May 23, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln out riding today — seems well and contented — quite talkative.
May 24, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln as usual — went to ride today — sleeping well.
May 25, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln rather depressed — went out to drive as usual.
May 26, 1875: Mr. Lincoln came to see his mother — She was comparatively cheerful — Went out in the evening for a drive to Geneva.
May 27, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln as usual Went to ride in evening.
May 29, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln out walking today She did not wish to ride.
May 30, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln out riding today — very melancholy.
May 31, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln as usual — Did not ride today.
June 1, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln not out today.
June 2, 1875: Mr. Lincoln came to see his mother today. She did not go out doors at all today. She seems pleasant at all times but quite restless and uneasy.
June 4, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln has not been riding today — She keeps [to] her room quite closely and refuses to ride.
June 5, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln out walking today.
June 7, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln keeps her room today.
June 8, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln the same as she has been — Will not ride.
June 9, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln same.
June 10, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln same — tries to pack a trunk of things to send back to her son — but fails to complete it.
June 11, 1875: Mrs. L. same.
June 12, 1875: Mrs. L same will not ride or walk out.
June 13, 1875: Mrs. L. same.
June 14, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln complains some of neuralgia (intense, typically intermittent pain especially in the head or face) and gives this as a reason for not riding out.
June 17, 1875: Mr. Robert Lincoln came to see his mother — He thought her not quite so cordial in her manner toward him as at previous visits. He insisted on taking her trunk back with him — and she finally got it packed and he took it — She did not care to ride.
June 19, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln's trunk sent home — She unwilling to go out to ride.
June 20, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln sam
June 21, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln sam
June 22, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln went out for a ride today — She went to the dressmaker and ordered a lawn dress — She said that she would like to ride out every morning.
June 24, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln did not go out today — no change.
June 25, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln the same.
June 26, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln did not go out today.
June 27, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln as usual today — Did not ride or go out though asked to do so.
June 29, 1875: Mr. Robert Lincoln came to see his mother went out riding in the forenoon.
June 30, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln as usual today — Very quiet and inclined to stay in bed a good part of the time. Did not ride today.
July 2, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln habitually makes an appointment to ride in the morning — When the time comes she puts it off until night — then delays until next morning and so on.
July 3, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln was up 4 or 5 times during the night last night.
July 4, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln as usual today — Lies in bed much of the time — does not complain.
July 5, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln had a fit of crying today — Went out for a ride in the afternoon — a good many persons being out driving also She insisted on coming home as soon as possible.
July 6, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln in her room all day — Does not say much of anything.
July 7, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln came down and sat on the front steps for a while this morning — She also made a call on Mrs. Patterson — said "good morning" to J.P. 2 or 3 times in 5 minutes — The rest of the day she staid in her room — she complains of nothing except perhaps, a slight annoyance from the noise of carpenters now working on the building.
July 8, 1875: Mrs. Rayne a correspondent of the Chicago Evening Post & Mail was here today — She was acquainted with some of Mrs. Lincoln's friends and wishing very much to see her sent up her name. Much to our surprise and contrary to her usual custom Mrs. Lincoln consented to see her. She made a short call — Mrs. Lincoln seemed to be glad to hear of her Chicago friends.
July 9, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln did not go to ride today but came down and sat on the steps awhile in the morning — Very pleasant in her manner.
July 10, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln same as before. Keeps her room today.
July 11, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln sent down word after dinner that she would like to ride, and in about 15 minutes sent word again that she would ride in the morning as she would rather sleep in the afternoon.
July 12, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln came down and sat on the doorsteps this morning — though it was hot and sunny — called on Mrs. Patterson twice — Slept in afternoon — says very little — Did not ride in the morning as she appointed.
July 13, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln down this morning to sit on front steps — called on Mrs. Patterson — Did not ride today — has promised to give Mrs. Wilmarth's little boy some stockings which she says she bought especially for him. (These stockings she bought in Chicago before she had ever seen Mrs. Wilmarth or her boy.)
July 14, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln down stairs today — seems as usual.
July 15, 1875: Mr. Robert Lincoln and daughter came to see Mrs. Lincoln — She was very glad to see the little child — After her son went away she had a long talk with Dr P. about going to live with her sister — This sister we understand she might have lived with anytime but has not even felt kindly toward her — Mrs. Lincoln said — "It is the most natural thing in the world to wish to live with my sister — She raised me and I regard her as a sort of mother" — The next moment she complained of her getting so agueish [?] in Jacksonville Florida and forthwith wanted to get immediately to St. Augustine, Florida to live etc.
July 16, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln down to call on Mrs. Patterson today — As usual.
July 17, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln arguing today — and low—spirited — Sleeps almost always in afternoons.
July 18, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln out walking — This morning — More cheerful than yesterday.
July 19, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln moved temporarily to the East side of house. She admired the new rooms very much and wished to keep them — cheerful and pleasant.
July 20, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln same as yesterday — came down to walk in morning.
July 21, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln came down to call on Mrs. Patterson this morning — Only talks in the manner of an ordinary ceremonious call. Does not seem willing to ride though continually making appointments to do so.
July 22, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln came down to the office this morning and made quite a long call. She talked better and with more force of mind than at any time she has been here. Spoke of Mr. Motley whom she knew very well — talked of her travels — made an agreement to ride in the evening but did not keep it.
July 24, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln down stairs on front steps this morning — very pleasant — She talks very little and on only ordinary subjects — Seems to be abstracted in her manner.
July 26, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln same as yesterday.
July 27, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln same as yesterday.
July 28, 1875: Mr. Robert Lincoln and daughter came to see Mrs. Lincoln. She was very glad to see them. Aft[er] they had gone she asked to ride to the Post Office to deposit a letter which she had written to a sister in Springfield, at Mr. [Robert] Lincoln's suggestion — At the P.O. she got out and deposited her letter herself — spoke of the ride as a very pleasant one.
July 29, 1875: General Farnsworth has just been to see Mrs. Lincoln — Says she wrote him a note yesterday asking him to come — (This note she must have put in the office yesterday when she claimed to have written only to her sister) Gen. F. says she wants her liberty and she wanted him to help her — She makes no complaints — Says she feels under some restraint — Looks better than when he saw her last — he thinks she does not talk like a sane woman but still she would hardly be called insane by those who used to know her — He thinks she has been on the border of insanity for many years — He thinks that if she were free and her property still under the control of Mr. Robert Lincoln she would not do much harm, but would do many outrè [?] things — She asked the General to bring his wife to see her which he promised to do.
She wrote a letter today purporting to be to her old washerwoman but which evidently contained letters to others — We sent it in care of Mr. Robert Lincoln.
7:30 p.m.: Since writing the above Mr. and Mrs. Bradwell of Chicago have called to see her in answer to a similar invitation to the one sent to Gen. Farnsworth. They made quite a long call — Mrs. B. thought that Mrs. Lincoln right, but that she still ought to be at home and have "tender loving care."
July 30, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln very much afraid that Dr. P would not trust her again because of her deceit in the matter of letter writing — wanted to write to Mrs. Bradwell about her washerwoman who she says has some clothes of hers. She had a long talk with Dr. P. in the morning and he told her that she was at liberty to write where she pleased and to whom she pleased — but that she ought to be open about it — He also told her that as Mr. Lincoln was her legal conservator he should think it proper in case he did not know the person written to by Mrs. Lincoln to send the letters under cover to him (Mr. Lincoln) — Mrs. Lincoln thought this fair and right.
July 31, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln did not come down stairs today — otherwise as usual.
August 1, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln did not come down stairs today — Gave her a letter, which came last night from Mrs. Myra Bradwell, who also wrote the Doctor telling him of the letter.
August 2, 1875: Nothing new in regards to Mrs. Lincoln today.
August 3, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln this morning asked the Dr. if she might write to Mrs. Bradwell and Mr. Stuart. He told her she might. He being away at Chicago — Mrs. Lincoln was very anxious to ride — She took a long ride and talked much as usual until coming home. She wanted to go to the [Post] Office to mail some letters. As I had previously told her that any letters would be sent direct, I told her that I did not think she was treating us fairly, and offered to take them to the office. She finally gave them to me and I sent them. She made a call on Mrs. Patterson.
August 4, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln came down to visit Mrs. Patterson — Did not ride today — Sleeps a good deal of the afternoon — her conversation is usually of the most commonplace character and there is much repetition — Gave her a letter.
August 5, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln came down stairs and made her usual call on Mrs. P. seemed cheerful and pleasant — Did not ride today.
August 6, 1875: Mrs. Bradwell of Chicago came to see Mrs. Lincoln today — Had a long conversation with Mrs. B. in the office — She told the doctor distinctly that she had no doubt that Mrs. Lincoln was insane and had been so for some time — but she doubted the propriety of keeping her in an asylum for insane — staid with Mrs. Lincoln over night — Mrs. Lincoln as usual — Mrs. B. thought she (Mrs. L.) was very much better — She advised her removal to Springfield to her sisters' house.
August 7, 1875: Mrs. Bradwell went down in town this morning about 10 o'clock — At 1 o'clock p.m. (the senior Doctor being in Chicago) Mrs. B. came back attended by "Mr. Wilkie of Chicago") — Mrs. Lincoln came down to meet them. After being introduced to Mr. Wilkie she invited him up to her rooms and the 3 staid there in conference for 2 hours. The visitors then returned to the city — Mrs. Bradwell told Mrs. Lincoln that she would come and see her again soon.
August 8, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln as usual today — quite cheerful — Says she wants very much to go and live with her sister — Mrs. Edwards — She has however not yet answered a letter which her sister wrote her, inviting her to live with her, a week or more ago — She promises to write soon.
August 9, 1875: We wrote to Mrs. Bradwell today protesting against her bringing strangers to see Mrs. Lincoln in the absence of the senior doctor — Copied letters —
Moved Mrs. Lincoln back into her old rooms today — She was very unwilling to have any furniture changed for better — very unwilling to have different bed springs though of the same pattern after she had gone to bed at night she got [up] and called the doctor and wanted a third mattress on her bed because it was not high enough — Seems pleased with her rooms.
August 10, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln as usual — Cheerful today — Gave her 2 letters.
August 11, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln came down to the office this morning to mail some letters — has not yet written to Mrs. Edwards yet, though continually promising to do so. For the last few days has shown a little more capriciousness.
August 12, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln made a visit to the office this morning — She seemed cheerful — She has not yet written to Mrs. Edwards.
August 13, 1875: Mr. Robert Lincoln visited his mother today — He said that in regard to Mrs. Bradwell that she was a pest and a nuisance. He characterized her introduction of Mr. Wilkie on Saturday last, as an outrage. Mr. Wilkie, we have since found to be the one editor of the Chicago T+imes. Mrs. L. seemed glad to see her son. She also wrote today to Mrs. Edwards and to Mrs. Bradwell.
August 14, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln took a ride this morning — She also sent another letter to Mrs. Edwards and one to Hon. John T. Stewart — She was quite cheerful.
August 15, 1875: Nothing different in case of Mrs. Lincoln — Asked her if she expected Mrs. Bradwell tomorrow she said "no certainly not." She had shown a letter from Mrs. B. the day previous which made it probable that she was to be here — Shown more discontent during the last week.
August 16, 1875: This morning Dr. P. said to Mrs. Lincoln — "Then you expect Judge Bradwell to see you today" She replied — "Not at all — not at all" "But" said the doctor — "you showed me a letter from Mrs. Bradwell saying that the Judge would be here today" — She replied that "Mrs. Bradwell was a very singular woman and that it was not probable that Judge Bradwell would be here today" She remarked that "Judge Bradwell had an important paper that belonged to her and which she had been trying to get for some time — She desired very much to see him about it." She has made the same remark at various times before. Mrs. Lincoln is frequently untruthful in her statements, and exceedingly deceitful. Her lying and deceit should be put down to insanity.
(The medical assistant who usually makes these entries is absent for one or two weeks.)
August 17, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln rec'd letters today from R.T. Lincoln and one mailed at Oxford O. Author not known. Judge Bradwell and wife think Mrs. L. should be allowed to go to her sisters and that her health is suffering in consequence confinement on 7th inst. Mrs. Bradwell said Mrs. L. so well. Mrs. Lincoln does not much She could live out of doors if she would. Her doors are never locked only at night. We often urge her to go out but have not thought it best to compel her to go out.
So much discussion with the patient about going away, tends to unsettle her mind and make her more discontented and should be stopped. She should be let alone and this I have told Judge Bradwell. She should never have been subjected to this unnecessary excitement. It is now apparent that the frequent visits of Mr. & Mrs. Bradwell and especially the letters of Mrs. B. have tended to stirr up discontent & thus do harm. Mrs. Lincoln has shown Dr. P. some of Mrs. Bradwell's letters
August 18, 1875: Mrs. L. seems more capricious and a little tendency to irritability — She insists upon corn bread every morning — leaves them untouched and calls for rolls — griddle cakes are ordered for every supper which [she] does not eat but calls for rolls.
August 19, 1875: Mrs. L. in a perturbed state of mind generally — Rode out in carriage. Was aske[d] if in presence of Mrs. Patterson if she had ever since her residence at my house been unkindly or improperly treated by her attendant or others — Whether the least impropriety had been shown her and she said "no" — "not [at] all." Shows great capriciousness about her food and her washing
September 6, 1875: Mrs. Lincoln's Pulse 90 today.
Following the last entry that deals with Mary Lincoln is a long account of the June 16, 1876 hearing that legally restored Mrs. Lincoln's sanity. That account is in the handwriting that predominates in the volume. Daily patient progress reports for the other patients are resumed following the account of the trial.