The Madness of Mary Lincoln

Article excerpt

THE MADNESS OF MARY LINCOLN Jason Emerson Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007, 272 pp., $29.95 (hardcover)

On a small mountaintop and commanding a view of Manchester, Vermont, rests Hildene, the home of Robert Lincoln and a must-see destination for those interested in Lincoln family history. In a steamer trunk at Hildene, copies of letters by Mary Todd Lincoln and by some of her correspondents were discovered in 2005. Jason Emerson, a historian and student of Lincolniana, has inserted the information and content of the Hildene letters into the standard biographical material regarding Mary Lincoln to enlarge and to an extent clarify the details of the latter half of her life, including most notoriously the matter of her sanity. The Madness of Mary Lincoln concerns itself as much with Robert as with his mother. Robert is the child who survived to adulthood and who came under the obligations of the head of the Lincoln family after the murder of his father. Using the letters, Emerson argues that the insanity trial and commitment of Mary resulted from her son's acceptance of the difficult responsibilities of assuring her safety and the containment of her estate.

The importance of the Hildene letters is underscored in this thoughtfully organized volume by literal quotations from the letters. "Without doubt," Mary writes from the sanatorium to her friend and ally Myra Bradwell, "you will not forget me. God will not fail to reward you if you do not fail to visit the widow of Abraham Lincoln in her solitude . . . Come, come, is the watchword." Such pleas and promises were not infrequent (Mary was famously prolific in letter-writing), and led to a public campaign by Myra and James Bradwell to liberate Mrs. Lincoln from what they perceived as wrongful detainment. Robert's response to the Bradwells is excerpted: "What trouble Mrs. Bradwell may give me with her interference I cannot foretell. I understand she is a high priestess in a gang of Spiritualists and from what I have heard it is to their interest that my mother should be at liberty to control herself and her property."

The Madness of Mary Lincoln fulfills the requirements of good storytelling: It is intriguing to follow Mrs. Lincoln from the president's funeral to the White House, where she was secluded for a full five weeks before quitting Washington for Chicago and beginning a life of wandering and of relentless and lengthening bouts of emotional distress. …