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The Madness of Mary Lincoln

3.71  ·  Rating details ·  445 Ratings  ·  66 Reviews
In 2005, historian Jason Emerson discovered a steamer trunk formerly owned by Robert Todd Lincoln's lawyer and stowed in an attic for forty years. The trunk contained a rare find: twenty-five letters pertaining to Mary Todd Lincoln's life and insanity case, letters assumed long destroyed by the Lincoln family. Mary wrote twenty of the letters herself, more than half from t ...more
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published September 25th 2007 by Southern Illinois University Press
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Heidi Mann
Jun 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I read The Madness of Mary Lincoln after visiting the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, IL, earlier this summer. While there, I learned, for the first time in my 43 years, about Mrs. Lincoln's apparent struggles with mental illness. I was incredulous! How could it be that I had come up through the U.S. public school system in the 1970s and '80s, learned much, certainly, about President Lincoln, but never been told a thing about this aspect of Mary Todd Lincoln's life?? And how ...more
Jodi Jacobson
Feb 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is a detailed but highly readable analysis of the purported insanity of Mary Todd Lincoln which was written as a rebuttal to prior historical analyses of both Mary Lincoln and her son Robert Lincoln. I did not know this previously, but apparently much of the history written about both Mary Lincoln's mental illness(es) (which have variously been diagnosed both during her lifetime and posthumously as insanity, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and potentially a reaction to either chronic spina ...more
Jun 04, 2015 rated it liked it
Somewhat dry and dense--190 pages plus endnotes took me 4 days to read--but interesting. I noticed that Mary Lincoln's reaction to her husband's assassination was quite similar to Victoria's reaction to the death of Prince Albert. We would certainly consider it excessive--as did many contemporaries--and at least borderline psychotic, but I would postulate that among well-bred, well-off women of the time it was not so far out of the ordinary. The cult of sensitivity and sentimentality was at its ...more
Sep 15, 2012 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: People interested in history and mental illness
The first thing I want to make clear is that if you are looking for a biography on Mary Todd Lincoln, this isn't it. You need to read one of the other many books that have been written about her. This book is completely about the different thoughts on her supposed insanity and the controversy about what her son, Robert's motives were in having her declared insane and institutionalized (actually for a very short time and in what appears to really be just a rest home).
I was in Springfield doing th
Marjorie Clayman
This book's title is a little misleading. It's not so much about Mary's mental illness as it is about Robert Todd Lincoln, which is great because he doesn't really get much attention. The book details how he was in an impossible situation with his mother. Her actions and the public attention they drew must have been kind of like how we view the Kardashians today. Everyone was waiting for poor crazy Mary to make another mistake. As the man of his family, Robert had to try to keep her in check, no ...more
Becky Loader
Sep 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
I have read a lot of books on Mary Lincoln, and I just finished Emerson's book on Robert Todd Lincoln. Emerson is a formidable editor, and as this book deals with the section of Mary Lincoln's life when her sanity was being questioned, I feel that he really emphasizes his theory that she was bi-polar. As with anything we examine from history, we must rely on what was written (and possibly edited)to draw conclusions. I am not convinced irrevocably about the bi-polar diagnosis. Mary Lincoln experi ...more
Apr 26, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: reviewed
The story of Mary Lincoln and the insanity trial she faced at the instigation of her surviving son is interesting but the style of the author made it difficult to plow through. The writing is dry and textbook like and so not terribly engaging. It was easy to put down and leave for other more interestingly written books. Nevertheless, because of the subject matter, and the fact that I've been to Springfield and the Lincoln home, as well at Robert's Vermont home, Hildene, I felt compelled to finis ...more
Aug 23, 2011 rated it really liked it
Well-researched, well-written! Emerson certainly had an agenda to redeem Robert Lincoln, which concerned me at first as I thought he would ultimately have to villainize Mary Lincoln to make his case. He might have easily fallen into that old trap of portraying women as hysterical creatures. However, Emerson's treatment of this highly difficult subject is tactful, and the argument he presents is not only convincing but clearly supported. The reader is forced to look at the Mary Lincoln "instituti ...more
Dawn Pedersen
Interesting, analysis of Mary Lincoln's mental issues. This research is based on some lost letters. It does a good job of comparing all research on this subject.

I am going to read the Insanity Files next. Research for this book is earlier than the The Madness of Mary Lincoln.
Glenn Robinson
Aug 13, 2015 rated it liked it
I think most who know the American presidents know Mary Lincoln from her time at the White House: a mean spirited spendaholic drama queen. This part is true. After the death of Abe, this behavior came back to bite her. This book is about her fall from any level of sanity into the depths of insanity and recovery. It is well known of her commitment to seances and spiritualists who came to her in droves and sold her a bill of goods well into the many thousands of dollars. She took these events to h ...more
Tracy King
Mar 19, 2013 rated it did not like it
Was very excited to start this book because I didn't know anything about the mysterious Mary Lincoln. I still don't know anything after getting 3/4 of the way through the book before I stopped reading it! Boring, repetitive... did I mention boring....

Here is the review from my book club that met on 4/22/13:

Book Club met tonight to discuss The Madness of Mary Lincoln, by Jason Emerson. In 2005, historian Jason Emerson discovered a steamer trunk formerly owned by Robert Todd Lincoln's lawyer and s
Dec 02, 2008 rated it liked it
Independent historian, Jason Emerson (which I think is code for "my wife works while I fart around in a library all day doing research") reexamines the mental illness of Mary Lincoln based on letters that were recently discovered in a steamer trunk once owned by her son Robert Todd Lincoln. Some of the letters were written by Mary Lincoln herself while confined in the asylum (albeit a gilded cage) to which Robert had her committed after taking her to court. Emerson believes that Mary suffered fr ...more
The Book Maven
Accessibly and competently-written, if not particularly riveting, Emerson's work is a contribution to the scholarship pertaining to Mary Todd Lincoln's mental illnesses.

In 2005, the author came across a cache of letters that had been lost for 80 years. Because of this discovery, Mr. Emerson was able to catch more of a glimpse not just into Mary Lincoln's life and struggles with what Emerson asserts was bipolar disorder, but also the trials of her son Robert as he struggled with society's pressur
Apr 29, 2009 rated it really liked it
This book was very interesting. I had always heard that mary Lincoln had mental problems. The author speculates through letters found recently that Mary was bi-poplar. She seemed to be to mostly be in the dpressive side of the disease most of the time. She could be warm and inviting, but was many times eccentric; buying myriads of things she didn't need and having a terrible fear of fire.

Part of the book is about her insanity trial, which lasted three hours and found her needing to be sent to a
Ginta Harrigan
Mar 27, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: biographies
I just finished reading "The Madness of Mary Lincoln" and I found it less than satisfying. There was much information in the book I did not know. For example, I did not know Mrs. Lincoln had two friends who advocated for her release (Myra and James Bradwell) and went to great lengths to get her out of the sanitarium where she was committed. Also, as Emerson stated in the book, historically Robert Lincoln has been made to be a villain for committing his mother, therefore, I did not know the other ...more
Jul 30, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
This is a very good book about Mary Todd Lincoln's likely mental illness, before as well as during and after her institutionalization. Emerson's writing is clear and easy for a layman to read, without getting bogged down in academia. He does a good job of describing not only the events, but also their historical context to help the reader with a casual interest understand how actions were perceived in their own time. I do wish he'd gone into more detail on why he was rejecting some of the other ...more
Jul 21, 2009 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: people interested in history
Recommended to kelley by: book club reading assignment
This book examines the life of Mrs. Mary Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln. The book is based on letters that Mrs. Lincoln wrote to her friend that were discovered long after her death. Mr. Emerson writes in an aloof and analytical manner. He examines the tragic life of Mrs. Lincoln bringing out the fact that she more than likely suffered from some form of mental illness. He suspects if she were diagnosed today it would probably be bi-polar illness along with some anxiety disorders. ...more
Apr 19, 2008 rated it really liked it
I saw the author of this book on C-Span's BookTV. He was giving a presentation about this book at last year's Lincoln Forum in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I promptly checked this book out from the library and signed up for this year's Lincoln Forum. In 2005, the author discovered a series of letters that were believed to have been lost. They were letters between Mary Todd Lincoln and her friends, James and Myra Bradwell, who were instrumental in getting Mary Lincoln released from a mental institut ...more
Mar 07, 2009 rated it liked it
An examination of Mary Lincoln's mental illness, focussing mainly on her life after Abraham Lincoln's death, including a period where she was institutionalized. The author takes great pains to restore son Robert Lincoln's reputation -- evidently he's been demonized by the press and historians for generations. I knew nothing about this topic before I picked up this book (motivated by the promise of lurid mad scenes, I suppose), so the emphasis on Robert Lincoln was a miss for me. Otherwise, thoug ...more
Sep 24, 2012 rated it liked it
I read Emerson's well written, detailed and fair minded account of the incarceration of Mary Lincoln after reading a fine biography of her. It confirmed two things for me. First the narrative of a whole life is more interesting than a narrowly focused chronicle of someone's idiosyncrasies. And second, that giving a twentieth century psychiatric diagnosis to a nineteenth century person is a pointless exercise. That Mary Lincoln was an odd duck cannot be doubted. Putting this odd duck in a larger ...more
Jun 19, 2008 rated it really liked it
I knew nothing about the Lincoln family and through reading this book became so intrigued by Mary Lincoln, her insanity trial, and public perception of this first lady. It's especially poignant in light of today's celebrity-obsessed culture - hello, madness of Britney Spears! What I most enjoyed was the illumination of exactly what might have been ailing this person, with the advances of modern medicine... however, at the end of the last page, I had to realize that anyone who lost her parents an ...more
Jul 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
Emerson is a wonderful researcher and a clear writer. This book makes MTL's pattern of mental illness perfectly clear, leaving me with no doubt the poor thing had bipolar disorder. That, in addition to the multiple tragic losses in her life, make her story almost unbearable. My only concern with this book is that it claims Emerson discovered an unknown trunk of documents and letters pertaining to the Lincoln's and Mary's insanity trial. It seems to me the man who owned them discovered them and r ...more
Jessie Omer
Jan 19, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Jason Emerson's book give a new view on Mary Lincolns insanity trial based on letters newly discovered that were written by Mary Lincoln herself. until recently there were large parts of Mary Lincolns life during and after the insanity trial that remained a mystery. however recently descendants of lawyer Frederic Towers who was Mary Harlan Lincoln's Lawyer at that time were in possession of a number of copies of the letters that Mary Lincoln had written during the Insanity years. with the help o ...more
Maryann Jorissen
May 19, 2013 rated it really liked it
Scientifically explains how Ms. Lincoln suffered from what we know now to be bipolar disorder. She was unfortunate in so many ways. She had an illness in a time when few would have knowledge or sympathy for the signs/ symptoms. Instead her historical significance was diminished by the disparaging term "insanity". Within that backdrop, she suffered the loss of three of her four children. As though that wasn't enough, her beloved was shot while he was sitting by her side! The fact that Ms. Lincoln ...more
Carol Ann
May 18, 2008 rated it really liked it
Poor Mary, poor Abraham, from prior study I knew that Mary Todd suffered from mania. This rather factual book deals with this mental illness, now called bi-polar, with sympathy and understanding. The death of three of her young sons compounded by the assassination of President Lincoln pushed her into madness. Her remaining son Robert was left to deal with his father's legacy, his mother's illness and life in the Victorian era was no piece of cake

Jun 07, 2013 rated it liked it
I bought this on a trip to Springfield, IL as I had no idea that Mary Todd Lincoln was CAH-RAZY. This book is chockablock full of citations, notes, letters, media reports, and theories to back up Mary Lincoln's madness. It also details Mary's sad life, many periods of grief, erratic behaviors, insanity trial, spending habits, and estrangement with her only surviving child. Sheds new light on Myra Bradwell also.
Jan 18, 2009 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: all Lincolnophiles
This is an important work because the author has access to new letters which shed a clearer light on the mental health of Mary Lincoln and the "insanity" trial and confinement. While I agree with the thoughts of the consulting psychiatrist in Appendix 3 "should we even attempt to diagnose someone out of the past?", I think the evidence collected here is strong enough to make the case for Mary's mental health issues.
Sep 04, 2008 rated it really liked it
A fascinating read into the life of Mary Lincoln, her personal struggles and life securitized by the media. Also, intriguing is the interaction of Mary, her son Robert, Doctors, lawyers, friends and family as things swing out of control for Mary with the press and public opinion always present.
This is not a lighthearted read but an interesting historical review of letters and facts that had not been put together before.
Dec 21, 2012 rated it liked it
Very interesting and readable (yet still a scholarly, annotated) account of Mary Todd Lincoln's early quirkishness, her insanity episode, and all of the subsequent family drama that ensued. Goodness knows how I made it through so many years of formal education and vociferous reading without having been aware that any of this even happened.
Jul 01, 2008 rated it really liked it
Not sure if I completely agree with the clinical interpretations in this book, but it was fascinating. I did have a hard time putting the book down and to me that's always a measure of a good book.

Reading this book so soon after Lincoln's Melancholy worked very well too, though the counselor in me appreciated the Melancholy to the Madness.
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