Book Reviews

The Madness of Mary Lincoln

By Jason Emerson

ISBN:  0809327716

Southern Illinois Press, 2007

272 pages

A Book review by Donna D McCreary

Jason Emerson has accomplished what most historians fail to do when writing about Mary Lincoln.  And that is to write about her with critical but understanding insight.

In 1875, Robert Lincoln, Mary’s eldest and only surviving son, had insanity charges brought against his mother.  She was arrested and brought to the Cook County Court House where she faced a judge, jury, witnesses, and a team of doctors who were all present at Robert’s request.  Many thought the entire trial was a horrid example of a kangaroo court, and historians have debated the motives and means of the trial ever since.  (Based on current publications, the debate will continue for many more years.) The jury found Mary guilty of insanity, and she was deemed a person fit for confinement in the state hospital.   Of course, Robert did not place his mother in a hospital for the “insane.”  She was a lady of station and he was a Victorian gentleman.  Robert did what he considered the proper thing for his mother and had her confined to Bellevue in Batavia, Illinois.  Under the care of Dr. Patterson, Mary could calm her nerves and find the rest and peace that she so desperately needed.

However, Mary did not find peace and rest, for she did not believe herself to be insane.  At the trial, she had said nothing in her own defense; neither did her attorney who had taken the case at Robert’s request.  Now that she was confined, she had one mission – to be released.   It would be a private fight which would become public – a fight between a mother and son – a fight for a widow’s rights – and the entire world watched because that widow was the widow of Abraham Lincoln.

The Madness of Mary Lincoln describes the trial and the fight.   Using previously unpublished letters between Mary Lincoln and the Blackwell family and many other original sources, Emerson explains the struggles between mother and son.  Robert was a proper Victorian gentleman.  Mary was a middle-aged woman who had lost her husband and three of her sons.  She found comfort in one vice – shopping.  She made purchases for items she did not need and stored them in trunks and closets.  Mary feared fire, often thought she was going to be forced into poverty, and often lashed out at her son.  There were many problems, and Mary’s behavior was at times erratic. Robert often feared that his mother would hurt herself, or maybe even someone else.  He also faced his own problems.  He had a young family and was trying to build his own law career. His time was torn between spending time with his wife and tending to his mother.  Robert and Mary argued over money; and Robert feared that she was not capable of handling her own financial affairs.  Mary trusted mediums, attended séances, conducted a publicly embarrassing sale of her clothing, and was constantly asking politicians and family friends to help her secure a large government pension.  For Robert, it was too much. He was an extremely private individual, but his next course of action forced him into the public’s eye.   After discussing the situation with family members, trusted friends, and several physicians, Robert believed that the insanity trial was in his mother’s best interest.

Emerson agrees. I do not.

And that is okay.  The fact that I disagree with Emerson’s conclusions is not a judgment on his writing or his book.  He is the type of writer that historians adore – he uses documentation.

One of the joys from the study of history is to read the same sources, and develop your own conclusions.  This is the fun part of history.  For those interested in reading about Mary’s insanity trial, I suggest reading this book, looking at the sources, and developing one’s own conclusions.  Was Mary insane?  Or was there a medical, organic reason for her behavior?  Was Robert truly a proper gentleman, or a money hungry son?  Was Mary the victim or the villain in this saga?

Read the book, and then come back and visit our message boards.  We would like to hear what you think.


My Personal Recollections of Abraham & Mary Todd Lincoln

By Eugenia Jones Hunt

Published by Helen A. Moser, 2705 N. E. Madison, Peoria, IL


Reviewed by Donna McCreary

When Mrs. Hunt was a young girl, she often helped her mother prepare meals for company.  Their home was called “Red Brick.”  As the attorneys were “swinging around the circuit,” of the Eighth Judicial District in Illinois, they were frequent guests at the Red Brick.  Among these attorneys were David Davis, Leonard Swett, Stephen A. Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln.

Mrs. Hunt’s book tells tales about meals served at the Red Brick; Lincoln’s great ability to tell stories; Mary’s kindness towards a neighbor woman; political rallies; the joy of friends when Lincoln was elected President, and the sorrow they felt when he died.  It is a delightful memoir told by a woman who knew Lincoln.

Her memory had faded somewhat when she wrote her story. She was 97 years old at the time and lived to be 101.   Several historical facts are incorrect, in some places her story moves forward and backward in time, and many of her stories are second hand information.  These are all easily forgiven as we read the narrative of her story told in memoir.  For what she did accomplish was give the reader an insight into Lincoln’s personality and share positive stories of Mary which otherwise would not be known.


Four Marys and a Jessie: The Story of the Lincoln Women

Four Marys and a Jessie

By CJ King

Published by the Friends of Hildene

Reviewed by Sharon Wood

Author C. J. King traces her family back to Mary Harlan Lincoln, Robert’s wife. Her book, a delightful combination of familiar historical research and obscure family stories, is a wonderful tribute to her family heritage. As I began to read, I was prompted to run to my computer to buy copies of “Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters” by Turner & Turner and Neely & McMurtry’s “Insanity File,” because of the many footnotes referencing them. The early chapters on Mary Todd Lincoln (King’s Mary #1) were well- researched, and I enjoyed reading her account of the Mary I’m most familiar with.
Marys #2, 3 and 4 are Robert’s wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln; their oldest child, Mamie; and Peggy, daughter of Robert and Mary’s second daughter, Jessie. Several chapters are devoted to the life of each “Lincoln woman.” King’s writing style made for fascinating reading, and I was enthralled by the many personal anecdotes that brought these women to life.
One of the family stories that King used in her presentation tells of Hildene’s head gardener complaining to Robert Lincoln that his granddaughter, Peggy, had picked some of the prize roses in his formal garden. Robert’s reply was, “Well, I don’t know who has a better right.”
Another feature of the book that I especially enjoy are the many family photos, including one of an elderly Robert holding his newborn granddaughter, Peggy; young Peggy and her cousin, Linc Isham, sailing toy boats in a reflecting pool at Hildene; and family portraits of Peggy; her brother, Bud; and their mother, Jessie. Born Mary Lincoln Beckwith in 1898, Peggy was the last female descendent of Abraham Lincoln to live at Hildene, Robert Todd Lincoln’s home in Manchester, Vt.

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