Family  /  Explainer

The Insanity Trial of Mary Lincoln

How the self-proclaimed "First Widow" used her celebrity to influence public opinion.

At one o’clock in the afternoon on May 19, 1875, an unexpected visitor knocked on the door of Mary Lincoln’s hotel room. It was Leonard Swett, one of her late husband’s law associates. The self-proclaimed “First Widow” had just arrived in Chicago ahead of the ten-year anniversary of the assassination of her husband. She assumed Swett, having learned she was in town from the local papers, had come to pay his respects. He had not. 

Swett told Mary she had one hour to dress for a court date she didn’t know she had. She would be tried for insanity, a charge she didn’t know had been leveled at her. She would hear testimony from a dozen male doctors, some of whom she’d never met. She would recognize a few, perhaps, who she had met briefly when they attended to her family in the midst of crisis and loss. In 1850, when her son, Eddy, 3, died from an unknown disease; in 1862, when Willie, 11, died of typhoid; and in 1871, when Tad, 18, died from lung disease. Swett knew the details well because, as he informed her, he wasn’t just an escort. He was the lead prosecutor, determined to prove her insanity. She would have representation, too. He had chosen Isaac Arnold, a local lawyer, to lead the defense.

This was not why Mary had come to Chicago. Her presence was supposed to remind people of her great loss—and, just as much, the way she had been mistreated in the aftermath. It began the night of the assasination, when Lincoln’s Cabinet banished Mary, still wearing a blood-soaked dress, from her husband’s bedside. The day had started out better than most in the White House;  it was six days after the Confederacy had surrendered. Lincoln had sent his wife a note requesting permission to accompany her, as if they were courting, on an afternoon carriage ride, and then to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. The driver had been surprised to overhear Lincoln, only 42 days into his second term, talking about the couple’s future: a rain ride across America, all the way to California, and then a steamer to Europe. Lincoln hoped to make it to Jerusalem. He promised Mary a different life, and hours later, it was.