Skip to comments.Letters tell of Mary Todd Lincoln's fight for release from asylum
Posted on 08/07/2006 3:37:10 AM PDT by lunarbicep
The portrait of Abraham Lincoln hanging in the entranceway is one of the only hints of the building's lost history.
Bellevue Place, a grand structure with a limestone facade and towering windows, was once a sanitarium for women - and in the summer of 1875 a Cook County jury declared Mary Todd Lincoln insane and sent her here against her will.
The building is now an apartment complex, and the details of Lincoln's stay have been lost in the passage of time. But current residents say they often wonder about the former first lady.
"To think she walked up these stairs," said Candace Broecker, 62, who once owned the building. "I just wonder what she was feeling and thinking."
Such questions might soon find answers. Recently discovered letters written by Lincoln while she was in Batavia could lend new insight into the little-known history.
Descendants of a Lincoln family lawyer found a dusty trunk while cleaning out their attic last summer in Chevy Chase, Md. Inside, they found copies of 25 letters - including 20 written by Lincoln, 11 of which were written from Batavia. The full text of the letters will be released next year in a book by history writer Jason Emerson.
"This is a significant cache," said Jean H. Baker, author of the book "Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography."
News of the discovery has stirred excitement among Batavia residents, who have for decades searched for information about Lincoln's stay in town.
"The legend has grown with the passage of time," said Jeffery Schielke, 57, mayor of Batavia. "Still, there's not a lot of stories about her stay here. I'll be anxious to peruse these letters."
Few today realize that, after Abraham Lincoln's assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln moved to Chicago.
She first lived at the Tremont House, a posh downtown hotel, then moved to Hyde Park and eventually bought a house at 1304 W. Washington St., still there today.
The insanity allegations surfaced in the spring of 1875, when Lincoln's behavior had grown increasingly erratic. She walked the streets with $56,000 sewn into her petticoat, visited clairvoyants in attempts to communicate with the dead, and at one point became convinced that someone on a train had slipped poison into her coffee.
By May, Lincoln's son, Robert - then a prominent Chicago attorney - initiated court proceedings to have her involuntarily committed. After a three-hour trial, a Cook County jury found the former first lady to be insane. The next day, Mary Todd Lincoln was taken to Bellevue Place in Batavia.
At the time, Bellevue was an asylum that catered exclusively to wealthy women. The hospital took a modern approach, advising bed rest and fresh air, and offering activities such as piano and croquet. An advertisement for the hospital called it: "For the Insane of the Private Class."
The newly discovered letters show that Lincoln considered it a prison.
In August 1875, according to one of the recently found letters, she wrote: "It does not appear that God is good, to have placed me here. I endeavor to read my Bible and offer up my petitions three times a day. But my afflicted heart fails me and my voice often falters in prayer. I have worshiped my son and no unpleasant word ever passed between us, yet I can not understand why I should have been brought out here."
Historians have long known that Mary Todd Lincoln lobbied for release and grew increasingly incensed at Robert for having her sent to Batavia. But the letters add new detail.
They show her questioning her religion, pleading for assistance from friends and furiously denouncing Robert, according to Emerson, who is writing the book.
In the end, Lincoln's efforts succeeded. She marshaled the support of powerful friends, who helped her gain release Sept. 10, 1875. After leaving Bellevue, Lincoln moved to Springfield, Ill., to live with her sister. She traveled for a time in Europe, and eventually returned again to Springfield, where she died July 16, 1882. She was 62.
Today visitors to Batavia's Depot Museum can see the bed and dresser Lincoln reportedly used at Bellevue, or flip through a transcript of the hospital ledger that includes notes on Lincoln's moods and activities.
(A notation from May 20, 1875: "Case is one of mental impairment which probably dates back to the murder of President Lincoln - More pronounced since the death of her son, but especially aggravated during the last 2 months.")
Residents at Bellevue Place point to two second-story windows that mark the rooms where Lincoln is believed to have stayed.
The space is now apartment 2A. The current resident is Chris Johnson, a 56-year-old real estate agent. Johnson sometimes looks out his window and thinks of the former first lady. "I wonder, `Maybe she enjoyed the sparrows,'" Johnson said.
The building is set back from the main road and marked with a plaque in the front garden and a small brown sign on U.S. Highway 31. Though the sprawling grounds have been sold for condominiums and housing, there is still a garden out front, carefully clipped hedges lining the front walk and lilies blooming by the front door. On a recent day, a white butterfly flitted along the hedge and a black cat ambled across the yard.
Residents hope that Lincoln found comfort at Bellevue.
"I've always had a warm sense that the women who were there were sitting out under trees and being tended to and drinking tea," said Broecker, the former owner. "I would think back and wonder, `When she left, did she feel better?'"
Mary Todd Lincoln has long been a complex and controversial figure. She was hot-tempered and high-strung, an unpopular first lady who was criticized for excessive spending sprees and the lavish parties she threw during the Civil War.
But time has lent perspective. Lincoln had lived through multiple tragedies; three of her four sons died before reaching full adulthood, and she was at her husband's side when he was assassinated April 14, 1865.
Historians have long argued about Lincoln's sanity. Some believe she suffered from serious mental illness. Others argue that she was the victim of an unloving son, who sent her to an asylum to gain control of her money.
"Was she really crazy? I don't think so," said Dottie Fletcher, 51, of apartment 1B. "Did she have a nervous breakdown? Probably." As for the letters, Fletcher said: "I can't wait to see them."
Well America had ONE more opportunity between January 20, 1993 and January 20, 2001 for history to repeat itself, but it looks like that chance was blown.
An interesting read. Thanks for posting it.
1840 ... William Henry Harrison
1860 ... Abraham Lincoln
1880 ... James A. Garfield
1900 ... William McKinley
1920 ... Warren G. Harding
1940 ... Franklin D. Roosevelt
1960 ... John F. Kennedy
1980 ... Ronald W. Reagan
2000 ... George W. Bush?
Sorry, I meant to say "died in office". Not every one was shot, some died of illness.
Considering this is about $900k in today's money, this can't be considered fully normal.
And except for Jefferson (1800) and Monroe (1820) as well. And three of those weren't killed but died of natural causes.
I'm sure watching her husband and three of her four children die didn't help her stability any.
Every time I take a sip of Starbucks coffee, I feel the same way. Bad stuff.
moonbat stuff here?
She was probably right..her son wanted the money and everything else. Lincoln had married well!!
Mary Todd....The loss of one child is enough to upset one's mind. The loss of my brother in a car accident at age 24 destroyed my father.
She would have had to have been a wacko to marry that incredibly ugly SOB.
US 31 is half a state away from this place. State 131 and US 30 are adjacent to Batavia.
Couldn't blame her for being crazy after what she endured throughout her life (lost 3 children, saw her husband murdered beside her, lost her brother in civil war and had to endure taunts of "peace activists" blaming it on God's vengeance for her husband's decisions.
Plus living with melancholy Abe was probably no picnic. He is the one who had his 11 yr old son Willy's body disinterred 3 times to view the boy again after his death.
Doesn't look like she was any prize either.
Not that I believe this or know it to be true, but an interesting comparison of the lives of Abe Lincoln and John Kennedy.....coincidences.
My great grandmother was in an asylum for a while. I don't know why. She was about the same generation as Mary. Strong assertive women had few outlets. Also, Mary was the product of what was called a "braided family" which is a euphamism for cousins marrying cousins over several generations. (I just checked, at least four generations of cousins marrying cousins who were themselves the products of etc you get the picture.
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