1874-1875, 1933; 9 items.
Somewhere in the annals of ungrateful children, an entire chapter is devoted to Robert Todd Lincoln. The son of America’s most beloved president, an accomplished attorney and diplomat, Lincoln (his detractors say) earned his infamy in the mid-1870s when he committed his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, to an insane asylum. The incident quickly became a mainstay of the lore surrounding the Lincoln family, and ever since, Robert’s motives -- and Mary’s mental state -- have been doubted, debated, and derided.
Even prior to the Civil War, Mary was short on temper and long on eccentricity, displaying a strong tendency toward depression. To be sure, she had abundant reasons to be depressed: her husband’s death at an assassin's hand in 1865 and the early deaths of three of her four sons -- Robert being the exception -- would depress even the strongest. With the death of her youngest son, Thomas, in 1871, however, Robert complained that his mother’s grief had reached alarming levels. During a trip to Florida in March 1875, she was said to have become delusional, allegedly complaining to Robert that someone was trying to poison her and that she had been robbed. Equally alarming was the allegation that Mary was spending lavishly on clothing and household goods, none of which she needed, squandering the stipend that Congress had granted her and frittering away her savings. After Robert claimed that his mother suffered some kind of a fit, he said he grew concerned that she might take her own life and approached the court to have her institutionalized against her will. This remarkable collection of documents relates to this most salacious episode in the family history of our great martyr for liberty.
After obtaining a court order in May 1875, Robert had his mother taken to Bellevue Place, a private asylum in Batavia, Illinois, run by Richard J. Patterson. There, distraught, Mary allegedly made an attempt to commit suicide. Robert, meanwhile, was left in control of his mother’s finances. However disturbed she may have been, Mary maintained a correspondence with friends and supporters on the outside by sending letters through her attorney, James Bradwell, and his wife Myra, a feminist and (like Mary) Spiritualist. The public attention she soon attracted caused a great deal of embarrassment for Robert, and by September, Patterson declared that she was well enough to return home to live with her sister and Mary was released. The following June, she was found competent to resume control over her financial affairs and Robert was removed as her “conservator.” For four years after her release, Mary traveled in Europe, returning to the States after injuring herself in a fall. She died in 1882 without ever healing the rift with her son.
The heart of this small collection consists of the warrant for Mary Todd Lincoln’s arrest, the commitment decree, and the ledger book signing her in to Bellevue, along with a few supporting documents. A notarized letter accompanying the collection provides crucial details on the history of the nine items concerning Mary’s confinement and release. The writer states that she is the great-granddaughter of Frederick H. Daniels (1860-1928), who purchased Bellevue from Patterson and operated it until his death. The operation was then taken over by the writer’s grandfather, and during his stewardship of the institution, the writer’s mother located these documents in the asylum basement and “these items have been in my families possession and passed down since their discovery in the 1930s.” Together, these provide a brief, but relatively complete summary of the sordid affair from beginning to end, answering nothing about the mysteries of Robert’s motivation or Mary’s mind, but framing the falling out with a clear paper trail.
The first document is the warrant for Richard J. Patterson (founder of the Bellevue Place Sanitarium at Batavia and a family friend of the Lincolns) to arrest Mary and convey her to Bellevue, May 19, 1875, which is followed by an official document by the County Court¸ Cook County, Ill., certifying that Mary Todd Lincoln had been declared insane and found so by a jury of her peers and examination by several physicians, May 19, 1875, bearing the embossed seal of the County Court. The document orders Mary committed to the state hospital. To document this sad event, the collection includes the actual register in which Mary Lincoln was recorded upon her arrival, with a notation added upon her release, classifying her as “I” (presumably “Insane”).
As news of the confinement leaked out, one can only imagine the intense public interest and the pressures that must have been felt by all parties. With the clamor for her release rising, Dr. Andrew McFarland writes from the Sanitarium to recommend against allowing Mary to travel except under close supervision, adding: “I am pained to add that there are features of her case that give me grave apprehensions as to the result unless the utmost quietude is observed for the few ensuing months, beyond which all hope of her real restoration must be abandoned, unless success within that period is achieved.”
A letter Mary received at the asylum on July 15 gives a flavor of what McFarland and Patterson (not to mention Robert Lincoln) had to contend with. From Springdale (Cedar County), Iowa, Elasha Tod [sic] wrote: “Dear Sister, We hav hurd of your arest and incarceration flee strate to us if you feele as tho you hav bun justly delt with was ar Spiritaless and fear thare hav bin some foul play. Speak out planely. Let us hear from you soon.” The term sister here appears to have been applied loosely, and it is unclear whether the Todds were related or whether he was addressing Mary as a brother Spiritualist: Todd was born in Ohio in 1806 and may have been a distant relative at best.
The collection also includes a photograph of Dr. Frederick Daniels and his daughters; a copy of letter from board of commissioners appointed by the Governor of Illinois to review the best site for the location of the new mental asylum, 1869; and an eight page minority report complaining that the site selected by the majority of commissioners (in Elgin) did not meet the essential criteria. Illinois politics: joy eternal. Finally, the collection includes a newspaper clipping from the Aurora Beacon-News, 1933, mentioning the discovery of the documents and citing some at length.
The infamy of Mary Todd Lincoln’s confinement in 1875 remained with her son throughout the rest of his life, and suspicions about his motives have never died. This collection, with exceptional provenance and in good condition, presents a unique opportunity to acquire a piece of one of the last tragedies to befall a tragic First Family.