A new exhibit at Louisville’s Frazier History Museum includes documents that recall a turbulent chapter in the post-Washington life of Mary Todd Lincoln.
It’s the first public display of the papers related to the former first lady’s commitment to an Illinois mental institution, an action initiated by her son.
Frazier Curator of Collections Kelly Williams Wilkerson says the documents were purchased at auction last year from descendants of the family that once owned Bellevue Place, the sanitarium where Mary Todd Lincoln was sent for treatment.
“We have a court proceeding document, where Mary Todd was legally declared insane, and that gives way to a warrant that we have for her arrest and commitment at Bellevue Place. And we also have a ledger for Bellevue, where she’s signed into the institution, she said.
In the spring of 1875, Robert Lincoln, a 31 year old Chicago attorney, was at wit’s end about his mother. Mary Todd Lincoln, also living in Chicago, was suffering from hallucinations and delusions, shopped compulsively and walked around with thousands of dollars sewn into her petticoat.
Having lost three of her four boys to illness over the years, she lived in constant fear that something would happen to her eldest and only surviving son, although he was in no danger. A telegram she sent to Robert was recounted in the PBS documentary “Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided.”
“Rouse yourself, and live for my sake. All I have is yours from this hour. I am praying every moment for your life to be spared to your mother,” Mary wrote.
“Robert consulted with seven of the best doctors in the Midwest, and they all told him that if he did not act, something horrible was going to happen,” says historian Jason Emerson, author of The Madness of Mary Lincoln.