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Robert McNamara

Mary Todd Lincoln's Mental Health

By November 26, 2012

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The new film "Lincoln" does not evade the issue of the perceived mental instability of Abraham Lincoln's wife. In a brilliant portrayal by actress Sally Field, the first lady's personality quirks are evident, and mentions of her mental state appear in the dialogue by screenwriter Tony Kushner.

And over many decades, the one thing everyone seems to have known about Lincoln's wife is that she was insane. But is that true?

There's no question that Mary Lincoln could be difficult, as her husband was known to tell people. But some of her well-publicized behavior would likely be considered, in today's world, annoying but generally harmless. Indeed, in today's press, her compulsive shopping or fascination with spiritualism might raise eyebrows or inspire gossip, but it wouldn't necessarily be evidence of insanity.

It was different in Mary Lincoln's time. A decade after President Lincoln's death, Robert Todd Lincoln, having lost patience with his widowed mother, arranged to have her taken — by surprise — into a courtroom in Chicago.

After a rushed and peculiar trial, at which the evidence consisted of such things as tales of her notoriously excessive shopping, she was judged to be insane. She spent three months in a mental institution.

Mary Lincoln was able to gain her freedom, and later had a court reverse its opinion. But she never recovered her reputation. And to this day questions remain about her mental condition.

More: Was Mary Todd Lincoln Mentally Ill?

Illustration: Mary Todd Lincoln/Library of Congress


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