Justice  /  Narrative

The Insanity Trial of Mary Lincoln

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

Mary often experienced migraines, but the most recent one, which struck while she was wintering in Florida before the trial, felt altogether different. It was accompanied by a nightmare too terrible to ignore. In them, Robert, her only surviving son, had fallen terminally ill. To dissuade her fears, Mary telegrammed him, but she couldn’t wait for an answer. Mary took the next train bound for Chicago and went straight from the station to Robert’s law office. 

Mary must have made a scene upon discovering her son was in good health—or it was simply notable that Lincoln’s widow made an unexpected visit. Witnesses had much to report about it. Her hair and dress were disheveled. She described the migraine in Florida as “Indian spirit….removing the bones of her face and pulling wires out of her eyes.” She asked Robert to accompany her to a hotel and, as Chicago had been ravaged by fires, check the smoke alarms in every room. 

Robert was mortified. Power brokers who had already warned him that Mary was a problem, and now, on the anniversary of the assassination, she would distract attention away from him. If Robert was going to run for office, people needed to remember that he was the son of Abraham Lincoln. But if his mother was going to dominate the headlines, all would be ruined. He needed to silence her, and the easiest way to do that in the 19th century was to declare her insane. 

Mary had no idea Robert was involved with the trial. He had stopped by to visit her that very morning and promised to see her that afternoon, which was technically true—he was at the courthouse, waiting to testify against her. The trial, Swett told her, lest there be confusion, had been Robert’s idea, but he had not wanted to deliver the news. That he left to Swett, who had grown impatient with Mary’s resistance. Before long, he began to threaten her. Mary could put on her “widow’s weeds”—the heavy black dress and “weeping veil” she’d worn every day since Lincoln died—and walk with him to the courthouse, or he would have a policeman put her in manacles. The press, he informed her, would be waiting. 

During a three-hour, well-planned courtroom performance, everything was taken away from Mary Lincoln. Eighteen witnesses, including Robert, testified to her mental state. Issac Arnold, Mary’s appointed lawyer, didn’t call a single witness in her defense. He asked a few of the doctors to confirm their credentials and, satisfied they were indeed experts, had no other questions. Mary, much to the frustration of journalists desperate to see some indication of her madness, sat quietly, shocked into silence.