While President Abraham Lincoln’s legacy looms large, his wife remains a maligned, one-dimensional figure and has been considered “one of the most detested public women in American history,” according to biographer Jean H. Baker. I recently became fascinated by Mary Todd Lincoln quite by accident, when a friend gave me a book about her. And now Mary appears in a minimal supporting role in Stephen Spielberg’s new film Lincoln—although in real life, Mary and Abe were partners in every sense of the word. As much as Sally Field’s portrayal attempted to humanize her, Mary’s lesser angels are all too obvious on screen as seen through that director’s lens.
Many of us know that the former First Lady was convicted of lunacy, instigated by her eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln. She spent almost four months in an insane asylum until she was able to enlist support for a retrial, at which she was declared sane once more.
What we don’t know much about is what led to the behavior that was considered lunacy in the court of public opinion and a court of law. After extensive reading and my own writing about grief, my assessment is that Mary Todd Lincoln suffered innumerable losses in her life and had few socially acceptable means of expressing her sorrow. Such bottled-up sadness resulted in acting out behavior that was interpreted as insanity.
Mary lost her mother when she was only six. She desperately tried to please her stepmother but was rejected soundly and sent to boarding school. Upon marrying a poor country lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, she gave birth to Robert Todd, who was a cold, judgmental and unaffectionate son.
She birthed three more sons over the years, two of whom died prior to her husband’s assassination. Several of her relatives were killed fighting for the Confederacy, and her Southern family disowned her. Both sides accused her of being a traitor, leaving her with few confidantes. And she was holding her husband’s hand in Ford’s Theater when John Wilkes Booth shot him in the back of the head, exploding his brains all over her dress.
There was no provision for a pension for presidential widows, and she was soon evicted from the White House with no money and nowhere to go. She moved to a boarding house and was never again able to live with her two surviving children under one roof. Her son Tad became her constant companion until he, too, died a few years later at the age of 18. And a woman she considered her closest confidante betrayed her by writing a public expose.
Not only was there little time to grieve between incidents and duties, but women of Mary Todd Lincoln’s time were afforded little opportunity to do so. She was often shooed away from her children’s sick beds by the male doctors because she was too emotional. She was discouraged from attending the funerals, as it was considered unseemly for women to be seen grieving openly in public. (Women were expected to be the ones to give consolation, not to need consolation.) She desperately tried to stay with her dying husband, but her wailing and pleading with him not to die were unnerving to the attendants, so she was removed from the room, unable to say goodbye to the man she deeply loved.
That seems more than enough to make anyone go crazy! And while it is generally agreed that Mary was eccentric, neurotic and narcissistic, she tried to manage her grief just like so many of us. She shopped excessively, finding comfort in possessions while going deeply into debt. She sought mediums to help her communicate with those who had passed. (President Lincoln participated as well when their first son died, and Abe himself was subject to prolonged dark moods.)
She indulged in self pity and anger, enlisting anyone to listen to her tale of woe. She wore black from the time of her husband’s death until her own. She vacillated between wanting to be alone and wanting to be with friends. She couldn’t sleep and was sometimes delirious as a result. She had panic attacks and took drugs for anxiety. She became greatly despondent on the anniversaries of her loved ones’ deaths. She couldn’t face returning to Washington, D.C., where her husband had been murdered and was fearful that harm would come to her and her surviving children so she chose to live overseas for several years. And when it took too long to settle the estate, she took action unbecoming a woman by making a public case out it. She also actively and successfully campaigned for a presidential widow’s pension, again stretching the boundaries of acceptable female behavior.
As my own book illustrates, there are physical manifestations of sadness and grief as well. A study conducted at Johns Hopkins has proven that a broken heart can kill you, a condition known as stress cardiomyopathy. Neuroscience has demonstrated the neurological changes that can take place during prolonged grieving and how our emotions influence our brain function. Mary suffered migraines, backaches and a neurological condition. She sought alternative medical treatments, like spas, tonics and mineral waters.
These are very common behaviors for someone trying to bear up under sorrow. Robert claimed he sought asylum for his mother to save her any further public embarrassment, to get her out of the limelight as the crazy widow of Abraham Lincoln. Others think he was financially motivated or trying to preserve his own social standing. Whatever his motivation, it is possible that had Mary been given permission to openly grieve, a willing ear and physical comfort, the Lincoln family, and the nation as a whole, could have been spared much embarrassment.
From my work with bereavement groups, I would further clarify that prolonged sorrow does not typically cause insanity but rather can present as insanity. How many of us have forgotten to take a turn on a well-known route when preoccupied with our own emotional upheaval? How many of us might have been “put away” if we demonstrated the same supposedly irrational behaviors as Mary–such as compulsive shopping or sleeplessness or repetition of our traumatic stories? That’s why it’s so important to grieve our losses in healthy ways and not bury the sorrow deep within ourselves. And to help others do the same.
I recently gave a keynote address on grief and loss in Lexington, Ky., and so I visited Mary’s childhood home there. I sent healing energy to her, as crazy as that may sound to some.
Photo of Mary Todd Lincoln by Matthew Brady from Wikimedia Commons.