Was Mary Todd Lincoln bipolar?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Feb. 14 2010 7:24 AM

Shopaholic at the White House

Was President Lincoln's wife bipolar or just ahead of her time?

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She spent the last 17 years of her life in a constant struggle for cash, living in a series of boardinghouses on a stream of income that would have been enough for a more frugal widow. But Mary Lincoln was not a frugal widow. She barraged her financial manager with letters requesting her pension payments, which never seemed to arrive with enough speed, and her shopping continued unabated. Near the end of her life, she was known in Chicago as an oddball who would buy multiples of any item—10 pairs of gloves, 12 pairs of curtains.

One of Lincoln's most devastating scandals involved the public sale of her wardrobe in New York in 1867. Openly displaying used clothes was not something a respectable woman would do in those days. It was a humiliating disaster. One newspaper called her a "mercenary prostitute," and one reporter sniffed that some of the gowns were sweat-stained. Critics loudly suggested that she had offered access to her husband in exchange for her expensive stash of finery. The sale made Lincoln "one of the most unpopular women in America," according to Baker. "Only the advocates of free love, actresses, and Madame Restell, the Manhattan abortionist who dispensed French pills from her brownstone, were so notorious."

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And that was before her trial for insanity. While recent biographers have made the case that Lincoln was a quirky proto-feminist who did not behave the way women were supposed to in the 19th century, her pattern of manic shopping sprees, bizarre religious fervor, and prolonged depression tracks with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. In the period leading up to the trial, she became involved with a spiritualist sect known for inducing trances and hosting noisy seances. When she returned to Chicago after a chaotic period of travel, her purchases escalated.

At home one morning waiting for a delivery of eight pairs of curtains, a lawyer sent by her only surviving son, Robert, arrived bearing a writ of arrest and a demand to come immediately to the courthouse. The abrupt nature of her arrest adds to the contemporary impression of Robert as the villain of his mother's story. But Lincoln had exhibited genuinely troubling behavior in the months leading to her incarceration. One doctor testified that he had witnessed her "possessed with the idea that some Indian spirit was working in her head and taking wires out of her eyes," and she was paranoid that Robert was in mortal danger. In this light, it's easy to sympathize with his decision, even if he was also partly motivated by embarrassment and convenience.

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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Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.

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