Was Mary Todd Lincoln bipolar?

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Feb. 14 2010 7:24 AM

Shopaholic at the White House

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

Mary Todd Lincoln. Click image to expand.
Mary Todd Lincoln

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.

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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.

Her treatment in the press was a preview of the way modern first ladies are criticized: Like Nancy Reagan, who consulted an astrologer during her years in the White House, Lincoln was fascinated by faddish spiritualism. Like Michelle Obama, her bold fashion choices—colors too bright, necklines too low—drew constant commentary. ("She had her bosom on exhibition, a flower pot on her head," one snide critic wrote after a White House party.) And like Hillary Clinton, she was said to meddle in her husband's political affairs.

Unlike the criticism of her grieving style or her cleavage, the rumors about Mary Lincoln's improprieties with money were not always unfair. When her husband was an Illinois lawyer and the couple lived in Springfield, gossips said she haggled with the fruit peddler in the market with unladylike ferocity. In Washington, she began what sympathetic recent biographer Jean Baker calls "the painful personal battle between spending and saving." Spending usually won. She was excoriated in the papers for embarking on an insensitive shopping trip to New York and Philadelphia during the earliest days of the Civil War. She used up her congressionally allotted, four-year, $20,000 decorating budget within the first year of her husband's presidency. She spent $3,195 on china alone (echoes of another Nancy Reagan scandal). Her debts mounted with astonishing speed, and soon she was begging for extended lines of credit, often ordering more merchandise at the same time.

Mary was mostly able to hide her serious debts from Honest Abe while he lived, but after his assassination, she was understandably terrified about her finances. The "Harrison precedent," named for William Henry Harrison, established that a presidential widow would receive her husband's salary only for the remainder of the year of her husband's death. Abraham Lincoln left an estate of $85,000, but since he hadn't written a will, his wife would only receive a third of that—the customary "widow's portion."

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