Thursday, February 9, 2012

Mary Lincoln's Finest Hour

History and public opinion have given Mary Lincoln the backs of their hands for her sometimes batty and bizarre behavior, but Mary possessed the keen mind to match the many treacherous opponents she faced. One of her finest hours was her escape from the mental institution in which her “monster of a man” son placed her.

Mary could be her own worst enemy. Her bumptious and abrasive personality made her many enemies who were only too happy to assist in her undoing. Her most erratic and bizarre behaviors occurred after the death of her son Tad in 1871.

The Evidence of Insanity

The many allegations and facts against Mary made her an easy target. She spent substantial sums to make contact with her dead husband through the agency of spiritualist mediums. She told the Grand Pacific Hotel manager, Samuel Turner, at which she was staying, that men were trying to molest her. She was afraid to sleep alone. She had premonitions of her death and that of her son. For example, during her stay in Florida she sent frantic telegraphs to her son warning of his impending death. Return telegrams from him did not assure her.

She related that her coffee had been laced with poison but ordered a second cup in order to vomit out the toxic beverage. She also spoke to Robert of a “wandering Jew” in the hotel who was trying to return her stolen purse. Finally, Mary accused Robert of attempting to murder her.

The final straw was probably the financial indiscretions of his mother who was reportedly walking around with 1000 dollars in cash and 56,000 dollars in bonds. With her legendary shopping feats still looming large, Robert was afraid that she would squander her inheritance and be left destitute. As evidence, he pointed to the many costly but unopened items she stored in her closet, many of which had no practical use.

These were the allegations, some of which have no witness aside from Rober whom, we shall see, was a deceitful liar, while others, such as the poisoned coffee, have multiple attestations. It was thus reasonably easy to craft a prima facie case of insanity, which Robert pursued with dispatch.

The Plot To Incarcerate
Fearing the unwanted attention that his mother’s erratic behavior brought, and still reeling from the clothing scandal of a few years earlier, Robert decided to put a permanent end to his mother’s freedom by forming a posse with his well connected legal contacts to have his mother institutionalized.

He hired Pinkerton guards, who also followed her on her return trip from Florida, to spy on her at the hotel to document her behavior and track witnesses for a trial.

Robert hired the prestigious legal firm of Ayer & Kales to handle his lawsuit against his mother, whose case was lead by Leonard Swett who was a leading legal expert on insanity law and also a friend of the family. This heavyweight cabal consisted of unimpeachable characters including Supreme Court justice David Davis, the executor of Abraham Lincoln’s estate. They all agreed to proceed with the lawsuit and planned how the evidence, jury, prosecution, judge, and defense would be selected for a fait accompli.

They dispatched Dr. Willis Danforth, Mary’s gynecologist, to visit her in her room to make a judgment of insanity, which she helped along with the coffee story noted above. Otherwise, Mary displayed fine social and conversational graces for the occasion.

Once he reported back to the legal cabal, Robert made the decision to file formal papers requesting the incarceration of his mother and the conservatorship of her estate. All six men of the team agreed that she was insane based solely upon the testimony of her gynecologist.

Robert filed papers in court on May 19, 1875 which immediately resulted in a trial scheduled for that very afternoon. A police officer went to Mary's room to haul her to court where a waiting court greeted her. The jury was selected from prominent men, whose integrity was not reproachable, of whom one was a doctor as required by Illinois law. Swett, who was organizing the show trial, had selected the defense attorney, Isaac Arnold, who tried to resign but returned to his post when ordered to do so by Swett.

The trial commenced immediately with the prosecutor calling Mary’s gynecologist, Dr. Danforth, and 16 other witnesses, including her son. The hand selected defense attorney followed with nominal cross examination and presented little or no closing arguments. Within minutes after their release to deliberation, the jurors returned a verdict of guilty which meant that Mary would be immediately taken to a women’s sanitarium, Bellevue Place, in Batavia, about 40 miles outside Chicago. Its owner was Dr Patterson who was quite enlightened for the times regarding insanity treatment but had assured Robert that she would never be judged sane.

Round one went to Robert, but Mary accepted her defeat with resignation. While at the sanitarium, she was given considerable latitude to do and come and go as she pleased provide that she was under proper supervision. She would even dine with the resident doctor’s family from time to time. However, Robert refused to allow her to have guests or to correspond with friends. While Mary at first displayed model behavior, she soon sunk into a depressed funk lasting about 6 weeks during which she was rather disagreeable, trying the staff’s patience as only she knew how.

The Great Escape

Mary’s luck began to change when a newspaper reporter, Martha Rayne, from the Chicago Post & Mail, hearing of Mary’s incarceration, visited the asylum unannounced. She requested an interview with Mrs. Lincoln in order to assess for herself her mental state and the progress she was making towards recovery.

The reporter discovered that Mrs. Lincoln, far from being insane, was quite in control of her senses and a very agreeable conversationalist. Mary coyly greeted the Bradwells, which would initiate a cascade of events leading to her release. The reporter returned to write an article whose publication infuriated Robert and caused considerable alarm to Dr Patterson. One of the readers of the article was Myra Bradwell, a would-be female lawyer who, due to denial of a license to practice law, published the Chicago Legal News, a well respected and read journal covering important legal cases. Her husband, James, was a lawyer with whom she often collaborated on various projects.

Mrs. Bradwell was an old friend, through her husband, who had known each other from at least Lincoln’s presidency. When she saw Mary's reference to her in the paper, she sensed that Mary needed her help. She dropped in unannounced at the asylum where Dr. Patterson, though initially cordial, curtly sent the prying publisher away. Not to be deterred, she returned with her husband who the doctor reluctantly granted access to Mrs. Lincoln. After a long visit they hatched a plan to free her.

In the meantime General Farnsworth, a Civil War hero and Congressman, visited Mrs. Lincoln. He became aware of Mary’s plight through a letter she had surreptitiously sent to him against Robert’s orders and right under the nose of Dr. Peterson and his very nosy staff. Although he was now under strict demands from Robert to forbid Mary from receiving any visitors, Patterson felt that denying Farnsworth would entail more publicity than his denial would be worth. So up he went to her second floor room.

After their pleasant visit, Farnsworth informed the doctor that Mary would like her freedom, which Patterson promptly but diplomatically denied.

Mrs. Bradwell visited Mary’s sister to arrange for her to take custody of her sister. She then visited Robert to inquire under what terms he would release his mother. He informed her that if Elizabeth Edwards, Mary’s sister, would receive his mother, and a doctor certified her as cured, then he would grudgingly grant her custodial freedom. Patterson had previously assured the legal cabal that insanity is rarely, if ever, curable.

Myra returned on a Saturday with her husband James to Bellevue Place where a petulant Patterson had no choice but to grant them a visit with Mary. The Bradwells departed for a short time after their visit with her in order to bring back Mr. Franc Wilkie of the Chicago Times, one of the city’s top reporters.

His visit resulted in a very favorable article in the paper which caused a furor among Robert and the doctor. With headlines blaring that the fallen President’s wife was declared sane by Patterson and a story making it impossible to construe insanity, the tide had turned sharply against Robert's band.

Patterson had indeed sent a note to Robert certifying her sanity but he persuaded the doctor to retract it. The doctor realized that the costs of handling a high profile patient like Mrs Lincoln were not helping him manage costs at his struggling enterprise and ruefully wished to be rid of the whole affair.

Robert planned a counter attack but inexplicably relented to free his mother to the care of Elizabeth. So after about 11 weeks’ incarceration, Mrs. Lincoln headed for Springfield. But the saga was not over.

Sanity Found

Under the terms of the agreement struck between Elizabeth, Mrs. Bradwell, Dr. Patterson, and Robert, Mary’s release was contingent upon her maintaining sane behavior. Elizabeth wrote her nephew that Mary had fulfilled the terms and that she wanted full custody of her property. He would have none of it. 

Robert had only granted freedom; he retained conservatorship over her money which Mary desperately demanded. She soon hired an attorney, a former governor of Illinois, to have the courts return her legal sanity and custody of her money. Robert planned a counter attack to have her returned to Bellevue Place.

However, before the plot could succeed – which included a deceitful and mendacious campaign by Robert against his aunt’s judgment of her sister, Elizabeth’s husband Ninia, a prominent citizen in his own right, prevailed upon justice Davis to call off the attacks. Davis realized that he was getting deeper into a tar pit and consequently asked Robert to relent on the understanding that Robert would grant his mother full release from custody and relinquish the conservatorship of his mother’s property. There apparently was no discussion about granting Mary full recovery from her legal insanity. When Robert realized the full verdict of the trial he was furious with Ninia but it was too late.

When the trial occurred, Ninia provided the only testimony to her sanity and all parties had agreed to return Mary her property. She placed it in the custody of James Bunn who managed her financial affairs with an estate estimated to be 81,000 dollars - a very cushy sum in those days.

Thus Mary, with a little help from her friends, had outmaneuvered a highly sophisticated legal team, medical doctors, their deceits, and malice in institutionalizing her. The battle scars never healed, with Mary leaving the country a second time on a self imposed exile in France.

Some writers have argued that the Bradwells were not true friends and that they had merely used Mary to further their own personal interests. Even if true, it was of little consequence to Mary because in the end she was a free woman.

In my own assessment of Mary, I find that she suffered some bizarre and scary behavior which might lead one to conclude her insane, but in the end the evidence is not persuasive. There are numerous explanations, which should have been pursued by a competent defense attorney, for her behavior not the least of which were her many bereavements and loss of position following her husband’s murder. In addition, her doctors had prescribed chloral hydrate to which Mary became addicted. This drug was widely prescribed throughout the 19th C. but it is not harmless with prolonged usage having psychological counter-indications. Tad, who had been her lone companion on her first trip to Europe, died upon return to Chicago in 1871 – another hard blow to a woman of many sorrows.

So Mary suffered severe post traumatic stress syndrome exacerbated by a bad drug. Under most circumstances she deported quite well and could be most charming when so moved. If she was paranoid, she had good reason. Her son constantly berated her and hired spies to monitor her every move once she returned from Florida.

We are also aware that James Emerson is releasing his magnum opus on Robert Lincoln this March which may shed some new light on this affair. The book has been advertised as his rehabilitation by showing him as a kinder and gentler person than is commonly understood. I doubt that such a project is possible without resort to the deceits and lies he used against his mother. We shall report more when the book is available.

Regarding Robert's motives, we are decidely partisan to Mary. His ostensible reason for intervening was concern for her money. She was a burden to his marriage and truly tried his patience. But the main motive, we believe, is that he was more concerned about his reputation and rise in plutocratic America, than he was of his mother. He was embarrassed by her to no end. Such was true of his regard for his family. He referred to his magnificent mansion Hildene as his "ancestral home" which was utter rubbish and a reflection of his disdain for his parents' beginnings.

On the other hand, we do not believe that he was after her money. He had received a portion of the estate, was a successful attorney, and did not take any of hers, although he was not shy about buying her first class accomodations when she travelled because he took the expense from Mary's account.

Mary is an acquired taste of which I shall have second helpings in this blog. She was a plucky woman and in the end is a sympathetic character with wit and wiles – and innumerable faults - to make for interesting reading.

The Last Lincolns, Charles Lachman
Copyright 2010-12 Tony Bonn. All rights reserved.

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