Ruth Graham: Was President Lincoln's Wife Bipolar or Just Ahead of Her Time?
[Ruth Graham is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn.]
As we are enjoying a day off of work in honor of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, it's worth revisiting Lincoln's troubled wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Most Americans think of Mary—if they think of her at all—as crazy. In 1875, she was publicly tried for insanity by her only living son and found guilty. Then she spent months in an asylum against her will. As one contemporary summed it up, "She was not like ladies in general."
Was she actually mentally ill or merely an eccentric with an ahead-of-her-time independent streak? The latter would be a tidy 21st-century conclusion, but the real answer is not so pat. Her supporters, including W.A. Evans, the author of the 1932 biography Mrs. Abraham Lincoln: A Study of Her Personality and Her Influence on Lincoln, being reprinted later this month, would say that Mrs. Lincoln was unfairly maligned. Many of her most serious troubles were financial, not emotional. Evans, Chicago's first public-health commissioner and a longtime columnist for the Chicago Tribune, was no Lincoln-loving patsy: At the end of his life, he moved back home to Mississippi and aided the movement to turn Confederate President Jefferson Davis' home into a historical shrine. But there is also an opposing and equally provocative view. Some modern biographers like Jason Emerson diagnose her with bipolar disease, others, like Jean Baker, believe Mary had narcissistic personality disorder.
There is evidence to support the notion that Mary was not quite so straightforwardly batty as those diagnoses suggest. Part of her bad reputation was the result of truly terrible luck. Perhaps because of her liberated behavior, the press was never willing to cut Mary any slack during these hard times. While her husband, Abraham, served as a wartime president, she was rumored to be a Confederate spy, an unloved bride, a neglectful mother, and a frivolous fame-seeker. Three of her four sons died prematurely, and her husband was assassinated in front of her on Good Friday. Even in her grief she received less sympathy than other presidential widows: Critics sniffed that she sobbed too loudly and wore black too long....
Lincoln never reconciled with her son. In 1882, Congress finally passed a bill, in response to her strenuous lobbying, to increase her pension to $5,000 a year, plus $15,000 in back payments. She died of a stroke that summer before she could collect a penny of it. She had once apologized for "managing my money with the dullness of a woman," and on that matter, like in so many others, she was not quite correct: There was nothing dull about Mary Lincoln.
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