Everybody is familiar with the tragic fate of President Abraham Lincoln, but what about that of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln? For those of you who don’t know what happened to our nation’s sixteenth first lady after her husband’s assassination, she was brought to court by her only living son, Robert, and committed to a sanitarium for her “eccentric behavior” and “excessive spending habits”  in 1875.
Though the court deemed her sane a year later and allowed her to regain control of her assets, her initial sentencing was still a topic of controversy:
Before her first hearing, Mary Lincoln had been experiencing problems with her mental health, but the rushed hearing with a limited defense implied a prejudiced judgment against her. Scholars today continue to debate whether Mary Lincoln truly was insane or whether she was railroaded by a thoughtless son .
Here was a woman who had dealt with the immense pressure of being a first lady for four years of divisive national conflict, only to have that role abruptly finalized with the murder of her husband (which she witnessed). Additionally, one of her sons died during Abe Lincoln’s presidency, and another son died only six years after Lincoln’s assassination. Given the emotionally traumatic context of this time of Mary Todd’s life, was it actually reasonable to proclaim her as insane?
The Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum seek to further explore Mary Todd’s sentencing by staging a realistic “retrial” more than 130 years after the fact. The trial will be conducted in costumes appropriate for the 1870s, but will use contemporary law. Actors will play Mary Todd Lincoln and her son, Robert Todd Lincoln, but certified lawyers and judges will oversee the trial. And adding more theatricality to the performance, members of the audience will reportedly serve as jury .By organizing this trial, the public will be able to learn about more facets of Mary Todd Lincoln’s life, United States history, and the evolution of mental health care. Until the retrial, however, the question still remains: would Mary Todd Lincoln still be considered insane in the eyes of contemporary law? After I attend the trial in Chicago on September 24, I’ll be sure to let you know the answer to this question.
The History Blog