Dr. John Bromley Moses
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Moses vs Schreiner
The two sides to Mary Todd Lincoln's mental state

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(Moses vs) Schreiner

Was Mary Todd Lincoln insane or just 'high strung'?

From The New York Times OP-ED Monday, February 20, 2006

President's Day is generally reserved for honoring our Presidents. But how about the wives of our Presidents? And how about presidential wives who have been unfairly maligned over the years? In this regard, there is no better candidate for rehabilitation this holiday than Mary Todd Lincoln.

For years authors and scholars have claimed that Mary Todd Lincoln was insane. This is simply not true, and a file of documents found in 1975 in a closet in the Manchester, Vermont, home of Mary Lincoln's son Robert, proves it. In 1875 Mary Todd Lincoln was declared insane by a jury and was remanded to an asylum. The charge was brought by Robert and he must have nursed a guilty conscience about it to keep a file which reveals that the trial was a sham.

The proceeding was nevertheless an international sensation. Although another little noted trial a year later set that verdict aside and declared Mary Lincoln sane, the damage had already been done. A mad Mary Lincoln conveniently validated the tales circulated by her enemies and critics, mostly men, from the time she arrived on the national stage as the vivacious consort of a sorely tried president and on through her years as the neglected widow of a martyr.

Of course, the first lady was an emotional volcano, prone to fiery eruption at sometimes inappropriate moments. An attractive woman with expensive tastes she could be easy on the eye but hard on the budget. With a well-stocked mind and the nerve to speak it, she persuaded her husband to follow her advice in matters like coveted appointments, and this infuriated the men around the president.

Out of fear of or respect for Abraham Lincoln's power, comment on his wife was muted until the assassins bullet removed him from office and Mary Lincoln became fair game for the gossip mongers who claimed that Lincoln's bouts of depression were caused by a lost love and a miserable life with a crazy woman.

Creator of the miserable marriage myth was Lincoln's longtime law partner in Springfield, Illinois, William Herndon. In a lecture he gave shortly after the president's death Herndon said that Lincoln had never loved his wife because his heart belonged to Ann Rutledge, a neighbor who died at the age of 22 and whom some historians believe was courted by Lincoln. To claim however that her death would have rendered a man of Lincoln's will and intelligence unable to have a loving relationship with another person, is absurd. The untimely loss of loved ones was such a common fact of life in the 1800s that people simply had to learn how to cope with it to carry on.

In any event Herndon is not a believable witness to what went on between the Lincoln's. Because he was too fond of the bottle and in Mary Lincoln's view, too uncouth, he wasn't welcome in the Lincoln household. As a result he developed an abiding hatred and jealousy of Lincoln's wife.

Herndon was probably also put off by what he undoubtedly regarded as the unmanly ways by which Lincoln helped his wife. Lincoln was known to have greeted callers still wearing an apron and he was often seen shepherding a quartet of rambunctious young sons through the streets to his office to give his wife respite. Herndon found Lincoln's office visits with children in tow especially annoying. Lincoln let them get into everything, as he evidently did at home, and even Herndon would agree that the Lincoln marriage was compatible in one respect; neither husband nor wife believed in disciplining their children.

People who were intimate with the Lincoln's did not buy the Rutledge story or the rest of Herndon's charges. Emily Todd Helm, Mary Lincoln's half-sister, who lived for months in the couple's Springfield home while she was a teenager, considered them love birds. She reported that Mary Lincoln would run out into the street to greet her husband as he returned home and they would enter the house hand-in-hand. Their differences in temperament -she, for instance, was punctual and he careless of time - could lead to clashes but Helm was impressed by the way they were resolved. Once when Mary Lincoln let loose her anger at her husband arriving late for supper, he simply scooped her up in his arms and kissed her.

A frequent guest in the Lincoln's Springfield house was the Rev. James Smith, Mary Lincoln's presbyterian pastor. Although Lincoln was not a church goer, he and the minister would spend hours by the fireside discussing religion and everything else under the sun.

When Lincoln went to Washington, Smith was appointed to a consulate in Scotland where he read in a newspaper an account of Herndon's Rutledge lecture. Incensed, he wrote an open letter to Herndon that was published in the Dundee Advertiser. Reprinted in this newspaper and in the Chicago Tribune, the letter made the point that a law office was not a good vantage point from which to judge a man's home life. Declaring himself fortunate to have known the Lincoln's well, Smith wrote that the President was a "faithful, loving and affectionate husband" who "was utterly incapable of withholding" love from his wife.

Mary Lincoln's enemies may have discounted Smith's testimony on the grounds that he was paying off a debt or upholding the sanctity of marriage. They would have a harder time shrugging off an address by Charles Sumner, the worldly and sophisticated senator from Massachusetts, during a debate in Congress about Mary's pension. After establishing himself as well-acquainted with the couples home life in the White House, Sumner said, "Surely the honorable members of the Senate must be weary of casting mud on the garments of the wife of Lincoln." The president "had all her love," he continued, and Lincoln loved her "as only his mighty heart could."

Unquestionably high strung, Mary Lincoln was under a great deal of stress while she was living in the White House, especially when her son Willie died in 1862. After so many other stresses - the death of another son Eddie, 12 years earlier; attacks on her extravagance; doubts of her loyalty because she had relatives fighting for the Confederacy - Willie's death was almost more than she could take. According to people who question her sanity, she wailed so hard and so long that Lincoln led her over to a window, pointed out an insane asylum in the distance and threatened to take her there if she didn't stop.

The story is probably true and totally in character for Lincoln, who often tried to tease or startle his wife out of her funks. That it did no damage to the marriage was attested by a couple who took a carriage ride with the Lincoln's on April 14, 1865, just hours before their fatal visit to Ford's Theater. The War over, the President and the first lady were talking as happily as newlyweds of plans like trips together to Paris for her and California for him.

Lincoln's patience with his wife was apparently reciprocated by her patience with him when he slipped away from her into one of his periods of melancholy or preoccupation with affairs of state. Lincoln suffered recurring episodes of what would now be called depression from early childhood onward. In light of what we know today, an effort to link them to emotional disappointments rather than to a chemical imbalance seems quaint rather than scientific.

Mary Lincoln may have been difficult to live with, but she was not insane and the president loved her dearly. "My wife was as handsome as she was when she was a girl," Lincoln once told a reporter, "And I, poor nobody then, fell in love with her, and what is more, have never fallen out."

This President's day, lets finally acknowledge that truth.

Samuel A. Schreiner Jr. is the author of "The Trials of Mrs. Lincoln".

*****************

Moses (vs Schreiner)

A Letter to the Editor of the New York Times By Dr. John B. Moses dated 2/21/2006
in response to the above Article by Samuel A. Schreiner Jr

John B. Moses M.D.
1 Olde Nott Farm Road
Rexford, New York. 12148

2/21/06

To The Editor.

Re "Truly,. Deeply, Madly", Op Ed Page of 2/20/06

I find it interesting that my college classmate, Samuel A. Schreiner Jr. has written about the emotional and psychiatric health of Mary Todd Lincoln and has chosen to ignore the evidence that has been accumulated by numerous biographers of her frequent episodes of loss of touch with reality, paranoia, obsessions, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, fixations and extremely aberrant behavior. Son Robert Todd Lincoln had her committed to a rest home after her husband was shot, not to get rid of her but to protect her and her assets from herself and a hostile world. (Incidentally, Robert never showed any evidence of such vicious behavior as outlined by Sam and in fact, was a respected consultant and advisor in Washington, D. C. for many years.)

The term insanity has almost disappeared from psychiatric terminology and been replaced by aberrant behavior patterns. Mary Todd's aberrant behavior patterns have been documented by numerous biographers. Most of us, who have read about the Lincoln's have discounted Billy Herndon's writings and as Sam has said in his article, he was an alcoholic and had a driving hatred of Mary. Nicolay and Hay and Carl Sandberg who wrote multi-volume works about Lincoln, cannot be accused of the same sins.

Mary Todd Lincoln's psychiatric diagnosis is almost certainly schizophrenia, paranoid type. How else can one logically explain her ranting and ravings that made it impossible to get her out of the White House for weeks after her husband was shot? (The Johnson's showed admirable patience.) How else to explain the fact of her complaining of Indians inside her head pulling hot wires through her brain to give her those terrible headaches? Can the fact that she saw and talked with the ghosts of her husband and two dead children standing at the foot of her bed be explained by her life-long interest in the occult? (She could never entice her husband into joining the weekly seances in the White House where she heard tappings and the voices of her dead children.) Julia Dent Grant writes of being told to exit the room backwards after a visit with First Lady Mary Lincoln, just as one did after an audience with the Queen of England. (If that's not a delusion of grandeur, I don't know one.)

The most telling evidence for Mary Todd Lincoln's schizophrenia is her gradual change from a vivacious, active, intelligent, belle-of-the-ball young adult and mother to the person she became in her later years. Lincoln did threaten her with incarceration in a Washington hospital near the White House at one point, if she continued her rantings and ravings so he undoubtedly recognized her unusual emotional state. During his presidency and the Civil War, he became a wonderful care-giver for his increasingly psychotic wife.

After Lincoln's assassination, her symptoms of schizophrenia became even more evident. Her paranoia that the country and the Congress were against her pushed her to petition Congress for more money for herself time after time and eventually drove her out of the country to travel through Europe. Her hallucinations continued. She finally settled in the little spa village of Pau in the south of France near the Pyrenees to take the waters for her arthritic knees. By this time, she had acquired 67 steamer trunks full of the finest black, mourning materials that she could find to make drapes and curtains for the house that she did not have. Trunks were full of the finest black dress material that she had made into dresses by the best of seam-tresses. Trunks contained hundreds of pairs of black leather gloves. (When she returned to the United States with these trunks she held a tag sale in New York City to sell all of this as Lincoln memorabilia to raise money for herself. By this time the country was sick of her and she netted a cool 100 dollars while berating her friends for not buying.) She spent her last few years living with her sister Mrs. Ninian Edwards, in Springfield, Illinois, secluded in an upstairs bedroom with curtains drawn, surrounded by her 67 trunks, refusing to emerge into what she thought, was an increasingly hostile world.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, delusions, hallucinations and disordered behavior for a period of more than 6 months, are all that are needed for a diagnosis of schizophrenia, paranoid type. Mary Todd Lincoln had all of the above in spades.

Of course, being the man that he was, Abraham Lincoln loved his wife "truly, madly and deeply" but even this love cannot change a diagnosis of schizophrenia. That he was able to carry on a Civil War, address the slavery question and care for an 'insane' wife, makes him more, not less of an American Idol.

John B. Moses M.D.

John B. Moses M.D. is a retired internist who practiced Internal Medicine for over 50 years. He has been writing about the medical problems of persons in power for most of that time.