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?

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.

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."

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."

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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