Was Mary Todd Lincoln Insane? The Trial of Abraham Lincoln's Widow

02/08/2009 03:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

As the nation celebrates the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth this week, it is worth remembering another extraordinary milestone in the Lincoln family saga. Just ten years after President Lincoln's assassination, his widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, was charged with insanity and put on trial in Chicago. The accuser was her only surviving son, Robert Lincoln.

The trial was held on May 19, 1875 - and one of the many startling facts about this strange court proceeding was that Mary Lincoln did not even know it was about to take place.

Mary Lincoln was living at the Grand Pacific Hotel when, in the early afternoon, there was a knock on her door. It was a Leonard Swett, a prominent Chicago lawyer who had been a manager at the Republican national convention in 1860 working to secure the presidential nomination for Lincoln. Mary let Swett in and then he got right to it.

"I have got some bad news for you," he told her. (The dialogue that follows is from Swett's account of the day). "Mrs. Lincoln, your friends have with great unanimity come to the conclusion that the troubles you have been called to pass through have been too much and have produced mental disease."

Mary asked Swett whether he was insinuating that she was crazy.

"Yes," he told her. "I regret to say that is what your friends all think."

"Where is my son Robert? I want him to come here." Swett answered that she would soon see Robert in court. Then he told Mary that he had a warrant for her arrest - taken out by Robert, and signed by a Cook County judge. Two Chicago police officers were waiting in a carriage outside the hotel to take her to court. If she did not accompany him voluntarily, Swett said he would be forced to order the officers to "seize" her.

It was a short ride to the Cook County Courthouse. When Mary Lincoln entered the courtroom she faced one of the strangest proceedings in American trial history. Judge Marion Wallace was waiting for her. A twelve-man jury had already been impaneled. The witnesses prepared to testify against her were all assembled. The insanity trial of the former First Lady of the United States was ready to begin.

Mary found Robert in the well of the courtroom. Every feature of his face seemed to be marked with sadness. Mary was taken to a seat next to him, but no words passed between them. She was introduced to her lawyer, Isaac Arnold, a former Chicago congressman. She had taken no part in the hiring of her own attorney.

It is worth noting the makeup of the jurors. Judge Wallace had chosen them, and it was quite a distinguished panel. The foreman was Lyman Judson Gage, a banker and future secretary of the treasury. Seated next to Gage was Congressman Charles Benjamin Farwell. The other jurors came from equally impressive pedigrees, and included a wealthy factory owner, a real estate developer, a shoe manufacturer, and the wholesale grocery magnate Henry Durand, for which the Durand Art Institute at Lake Forest College is named. It was no accident that these were all gentlemen of the city's elite.

Think about it. Abraham Lincoln's widow was brought to court as a defendant in a trial for which she had received no prior notification. She had been given no opportunity to organize a defense. Nor was she present when the jurors had been impaneled. And her lawyer was in the pocket of opposing counsel.

The outcome of the trial was never in doubt.

The first witness called to the stand was Mary's gynecologist, Dr. Willis Danforth, who testified that she suffered from "nervous derangement" of the head. A maid from the Grand Pacific followed who said that Mrs. Lincoln had complained about hearing voices "speaking to her through the wall."

The star witness was her son, Robert, a future secretary of war, appointed by President Garfield. On the stand, Robert recited the litany of his family's tragic history: the assassination of his father, followed by the long and agonizing death in 1871 of his 18-year-old brother, Tad.

"She has been of unsound mind since the death of Father," Robert told the court.

Over the next three hours the jury heard from seventeen witnesses. When it came time to present the defense argument, Mary's lawyer stood before Judge Wallace and said he had no witnesses to call. He would not even call Mary to the stand to testify on her own behalf.

The jury deliberated about ten minutes before reaching a verdict. Mary listened with a vacant stare. Then she turned to Isaac Arnold and asked what it all meant. He told her that she would have to be institutionalized.

The next day, Mary was taken to the train depot for the 5:15 express to Batavia, Illinois. Robert Lincoln had arranged deluxe accommodations. The car she was riding in was reserved for the director of the railroad and available only to well-heeled passengers. Leonard Swett had come to see Mary off, and watching the train pull out of the station was, he later said, "painful beyond parallel." The mental asylum, Bellevue Place, was forty miles away.

Was Mary Lincoln insane? Was there any justification for sentencing the widow of the martyred President Lincoln to an indefinite term in an insane asylum? Historians have argued these issues for many decades. An essential fact that should put the debate in perspective is that Mary was released after less than four months. Robert Lincoln later came to regret his role in putting his mother away. It destroyed their relationship and they didn't speak for five years. They never truly reconciled.

I know something else, too. The trial that sent Mary Lincoln to an insane asylum was a national disgrace. That was no trial. It was a kangaroo court.