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Madness of Mary Lincoln

Madness of Mary Lincoln

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Jason Emerson


Paperback (Other formats: E-book)
272 pages, 6 x 9, 17 illustrations


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About the Book

WINNER, Russell P. Strange Memorial Book of the Year Award from the Illinois State Historical Society, 2007!
University Press Books for Public and Secondary Schools 2013 edition

In 2005, historian Jason Emerson discovered a steamer trunk formerly owned by Robert Todd Lincoln's lawyer and stowed in an attic for forty years. The trunk contained a rare find: twenty-five letters pertaining to Mary Todd Lincoln's life and insanity case, letters assumed long destroyed by the Lincoln family. Mary wrote twenty of the letters herself, more than half from the insane asylum to which her son Robert had her committed, and many in the months and years after.

            The Madness of Mary Lincoln is the first examination of Mary Lincoln’s mental illness based on the lost letters, and the first new interpretation of the insanity case in twenty years. This compelling story of the purported insanity of one of America’s most tragic first ladies provides new and previously unpublished materials, including the psychiatric diagnosis of Mary’s mental illness and her lost will.

Emerson charts Mary Lincoln’s mental illness throughout her life and describes how a predisposition to psychiatric illness and a life of mental and emotional trauma led to her commitment to the asylum. The first to state unequivocally that Mary Lincoln suffered from bipolar disorder, Emerson offers a psychiatric perspective on the insanity case based on consultations with psychiatrist experts.

            This book reveals Abraham Lincoln’s understanding of his wife’s mental illness and the degree to which he helped keep her stable. It also traces Mary’s life after her husband’s assassination, including her severe depression and physical ailments, the harsh public criticism she endured, the Old Clothes Scandal, and the death of her son Tad.

          The Madness of Mary Lincoln is the story not only of Mary, but also of Robert. It details how he dealt with his mother’s increasing irrationality and why it embarrassed his Victorian sensibilities; it explains the reasons he had his mother committed, his response to her suicide attempt, and her plot to murder him. It also shows why and how he ultimately agreed to her release from the asylum eight months early, and what their relationship was like until Mary’s death.

This historical page-turner provides readers for the first time with the lost letters that historians had been in search of for eighty years.


Jason Emerson is an independent historian who lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He has worked as a U.S. National Park Service historical interpreter at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Gettysburg National Military Park, and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and also as a professional journalist and freelance writer. His articles have appeared in American Heritage, American History, and Civil War Times magazines, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Lincoln Herald, Lincoln Forum Bulletin and online at the History News Network ( He currently is preparing a biography of Robert T. Lincoln, to be published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2011.


“Emerson’s outstanding detective work has uncovered documents that are indispensable to an understanding of Mary and Robert Todd Lincoln. . . . In telling this story with compassion and understanding, Emerson has made an important contribution to a subject too often presented in rigid and absolute moral categories of good and evil."—Gerald N. Grob, The Journal of American History

"At long last the definitive work on Mrs. Abraham Lincoln's oft discussed mental state has been published based on recently discovered 25 long lost letters by her and associates from the asylum where she had to be incarcerated and from elsewhere. Actually the letters were with the descendants of the Lincoln family attorney. With the help of officials at Hildene, the Robert Todd Lincoln Vermont estate of the President's son, independent historian Jason Emerson, formerly of the National Park Service, was able to uncover this treasure trove."—Steven Lee Carson, Lincoln Herald

"Emerson looks upon this trunk and these letters as a priceless treasure-trove, and so will all of us who are interested in Abraham, Mary, Robert, medicine in general and the treatment of those mentally ill during the last of the nineteenth century."—Ray B. Browne, Journal of American Culture

“Jason Emerson's The Madness of Mary Lincoln will become a classic of American history. It has everything—a compelling story; a fascinating cast of characters; the thrilling discovery of long-lost documents; shrewd analysis of the people, the period, and the sources; and it's a pleasure to read. Here is a model of the historian's art.”—Thomas J. Craughwell,American Spectator

"The Madness of Mary Lincoln will be greatly appreciated by history buffs and serious historians for its thoughtful and detailed look at some of the great personages of the Civil War era. Others will enjoy the glimpses of the past that foster appreciation of how US society arrived at its current condition."—Mark H. Fleisher, MD, JAMA 

"Not only does Emerson clarify many facets of the trial and the institutionalization of Mary, but he also rescues Robert from historical victimization and obscurity in the Lincoln literature. Emerson successfully captures Robert's character and worldview, and even though Robert's actions may appear cold to the modern observer, his familial devotion to his mother was unfailing. . . . Emerson's intrepid study of this critical period in Mary's life will be a lasting contribution to the scholarship on the Lincoln family. It will surely stimulate new studies on her life and the Lincoln family, and as scholars, we must be thankful for the discovery of these letters."Matthew C. Sherman, H-Net Reviews

"The Madness of Mary Lincoln is a well written and intriguing work. Emerson’s appendices are a wonderful addition to his study, containing transcriptions of the twenty-five previously unpublished Mary Todd Lincoln letters, the legal documents pertaining to the sale and destruction of the correspondence, and a short essay on the psychiatric illness of Mary Lincoln by Dr. James S. Brust. In all, Jason Emerson should be congratulated for both his detective work and his historical analysis which have culminated in a groundbreaking study on the life of this complex and troubled woman."Giselle Roberts, Civil War Book Review

". . . a comprehensive, sympathetic retelling of Mary Lincoln's life in the years following her husband's assassination. Emerson weaves together the social, legal, and psychological factors that shaped Lincoln's lifelong struggle with mental illness as well as how those around her perceived her erratic behavior. In particular, he persuasively argues that Robert Lincoln's decision to commit his mother to an asylum was motivated by deep affection and concern, not the self-serving impulses to which other observers and scholars have alluded. Finally, Emerson's fascinating account of how Lincoln's 'insanity' letters were originally lost and then rediscovered offers a useful reminder that what is known about the past can depend as much on sheer luck as on careful detective work. Emerson's concise, engrossing book will be of interest to students and scholars. Summing Up: Recommended." M. Puskar-Pasewicz, Choice

“Jason Emerson has written the definitive work on Mary Todd Lincoln’s mental health in general and her insanity problems in particular. Written with verve and complete understanding of the subject, The Madness of Mary Lincoln is a masterpiece.”Wayne C. Temple, author of Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet

The Madness of Mary Lincoln is precise, documented, and detailed. . . . Every word counts and every word adds up to a riveting and until-now neglected chronicle begging to be told.”—Carl Sferrazza Anthony, author of First Ladies 

“A judicious, convincing analysis. . . . Emerson's new evidence demonstrates that Mary Todd Lincoln deserves to be pitied more than censured, but also that she behaved very badly indeed.”—Michael Burlingame, author of The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln

“Jason Emerson's heroic efforts to uncover new material on Robert Lincoln have paid off handsomely with this engaging interpretation of Mary Lincoln’s later years.”—Catherine Clinton, author of Fanny Kemble’s Civil Wars

“Jason Emerson is a very, very good writer and a superior historical detective. This is a most original book, taking new evidence to new heights of sophisticated analysis.”—Harold Holzer, author of The Lincoln Family Album