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Mary Todd Lincoln Insanity Trial: 1875

A Civil Jury Hears The Case

Under Illinois law in 1875, the former first lady was entitled to a civil hearing where she could hear the charges, have an attorney, and defend herself before a jury. Indeed, Illinois offered at that time more legal protection to alleged lunatics than any other state. Most required only a document signed by two physicians, a formal request from a member of the defendant's family, and a court-issued certificate of lunacy before a person was involuntarily committed. In some jurisdictions, women and children had even less protection than that. Today, most states still do not allow for either a jury or for the accused to have a lawyer.

For three hours, 12 witnesses, including Robert, testified to the former first lady's bizarre actions and statements. Five doctors, none of whom ever examined Mary Lincoln, told the jury that based entirely upon statements made to them by Robert before the trial, the defendant was insane. Furthermore, the former first lady's lawyer was ex-congressman Arnold, an old friend of the Lincoln family who had been selected to act as Mary's attorney by Swett. At the beginning of the proceeding, Arnold had second thoughts about his role and was angrily told by Swett:

That means you will put into her head, that she can get some mischievous lawyer to make us trouble; go and defend her, and do your duty.

Arnold stayed on, but he did not cross-examine the witnesses nor call any (including Mary Lincoln) to testify on his client's behalf. As a result, it took only minutes for the jury to find Mary Lincoln insane. The former first lady was indefinitely committed to a private sanitarium known as the Bellevue Place in Batavia, Illinois, and, one month later, Robert was appointed the conservator of her estate.

Mary Lincoln was a model patient at Bellevue and, thus, was never subjected to any physical restraints or drugs. Still, the institution's superintendent reported that he could give "no encouragement that Mrs. Lincoln would ever be well." With her mail censored, the former first lady sought help by smuggling letters out to various influential figures. One of those letters went to Myra Bradwell, one of the first female lawyers in the United States and the wife of a local judge. The Bradwells knew Mrs. Lincoln since they were neighbors in 1867, and they believed that while Mary was eccentric and did not follow the dictates of the male-dominated Victorian society, she was not insane.

Myra Bradwell came up with a plan whereby the former first lady could leave Bellevue and live with Mary's sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth Todd Edwards and Ninian Edwards. Without first consulting Robert Lincoln, the Edwardses agreed. Robert was furious and took steps to prevent his mother's release, but when Judge Bradwell threatened to sue the sanitarium, Mary was released into her relatives' custody.

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