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Mary Todd Lincoln Insanity Trial: 1875

A Long Line Of Tragedies

Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln were married in 1842. Wedded for 22 years before the president's assassination, they had four sons. Tragically, three of their sons died young. Mary Lincoln was particularly affected when her third child, 12-year-old William ("Willie"), died in 1862 from typhoid fever. She was never the same again. For months, the mere mention of Willie's name would cause a sudden and violent outburst of tears and she never reentered the room where he died. Once in love with the receptions regularly held at the Executive Mansion, the first lady did not resume any social activities at the White House for over a year, and she wore black mourning clothes the rest of her life. Convinced that her son's death was a punishment from God for her being "so wrapped up in the world," Mary Lincoln consulted mediums who had messages from her dead son, held seances in the Red Room of the White House, and once told her sister that Willie visited her at night. Furthermore, Mary's spending, which constantly swung from miserly to lavish ever since her husband was sworn into office, became even more irrational.

Abraham Lincoln's murder in 1865 plunged Mary further into grief. Her share in the president's estate, combined with an annual pension granted by Congress, made the former first lady rich, but she had an increasingly great fear of poverty. She begged for money from her husband's friends and, in 1867, went to New York City under an alias to sell her old clothes. Mary Lincoln also continued to meet with spiritualists. Finally, she developed such an obsession for privacy that when she went to Florida in November 1874 for an extended visit, she pulled down all the shades in her suite, kept her boardinghouse room dark, and, believing that gaslight was a tool of the devil, used only candles to brighten her quarters.

When Mary Lincoln met her son in Chicago on March 15, 1875, she claimed that someone on the train had tried to poison her. That night, she restlessly wandered about in her nightdress until Robert had her sleep in his room. Soon thereafter, Robert hired Pinkerton detectives to follow his mother. The agents saw the former first lady leave her hotel suite once or twice every day on spending sprees that included $450 for three watches and $600 for lace curtains. Mary told the hotel manager that someone was speaking to her through the walls of her room, and she insisted that part of Chicago was afire. Robert also found out that, since 1873, his mother had been under a doctor's care for "nervous derangement and fever in her head." According to the physician, Mary Lincoln believed that somebody was removing wires from her eyes. She also supposedly attributed her headaches to an Indian spirit who occasionally lifted her scalp and replaced it. Finally, the doctor said that, in March 1874, the former first lady reported that her late husband had told her that she was going to die the following September (when she would reach the same age that President Lincoln was when he was shot).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Mary Todd Lincoln Insanity Trial: 1875 - A Long Line Of Tragedies, Robert Lincoln Begins Insanity Proceedings, A Civil Jury Hears The Case