Mary Todd Lincoln: Theories About Mary’s Madness

“All anyone will remember about me was that I was crazy and ruined your happiness.” Mary Todd Lincoln to husband Abe, in the film Lincoln


Steven Spielberg‘s Lincolnwith script by Tony Kushner, who based it partly on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book Team of Rivalschronicles the President’s efforts in the mid-1860’s Civil War period to abolish slavery by passing the 13th Amendment. In the process, we’re let in a bit on the marital dynamics between him and Mary.

While Abe’s known struggles with bouts of melancholy aren’t emphasized, Daniel Day-Lewis‘s impressive portrayal includes one of his main coping mechanisms, a tendency to tell humorous stories in the midst of troubling matters.

And although wife Mary (Sally Field) isn’t a major focus, her role is strong and important nevertheless. Andrew O’HehirSalon, states that:

…Kushner presents her, in just two major scenes, as a woman of tremendous agony and pathos, sublimating all her ambition and desire into her husband and her sons. In our own age, Mary Lincoln could have been a politician herself, or almost anything else she could imagine; in Field’s ferocious portrayal, she is a feminist hero many decades before the advent of feminism, who made her own indelible contribution to American history.

Mary’s mental health issues are made blatant. From Drew Taylor, Indiewire: “If Lincoln has a foil, it’s not the Democrats who wanted to callously shoot down the Amendment, but rather his wife…a woman still mourning the loss of their young son and whose mental instability was the source of much speculation and gossip.”

Her personal problems, indeed, were significant, reportedly including depression, migraines, and significant grief.


Historian Jason Emerson, author of The Madness of Mary Lincoln (2007) and the recent Mary Lincoln’s Insanity Case: A Documentary History, summarizes pertinent historical details (New York Times) about her mental health, some of which is reflected in the film:

Mary Lincoln could be cheerful, graceful and loving, but also vain, arrogant, and jealous. This dichotomy won her many enemies. She is now believed to have suffered from bipolar disorder, the symptoms of which were evident in her early life and worsened over time. During the White House years she suffered from anxiety, paranoia, narcissism, mood swings and depression, and in later years her symptoms grew to include hallucinations and delusions. Mary’s mood swings and depression intensified in 1862, after the Lincolns’ 11-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever. Her grief was so pronounced that her husband actually warned her that if she did not overcome it, she would be driven mad and that he would be forced to commit her to an asylum.

In addition to the deaths of two sons and being reviled by many, stressors affecting Mary included a serious head injury from a carriage accident and the loss of three half-brothers and a brother-in-law to the war.

Ultimately, of course, in 1865 her husband was killed while she sat beside him at the theater. How much pressure did this add to her already burdened and troubled psyche?

Well beyond the time frame of the movie, remaining son Robert eventually believed his mother was so out of touch with reality as to be unable to handle her own affairs. It was 10 years after Abe Lincoln’s death that Robert petitioned to have Mary involuntarily committed to a mental institution.

By court order, Mary was confined for several months to Bellevue Sanatorium in Batavia, Illinois. Her sanity status was given back to her, however, in 1876 when a different jury decided in her favor.


When Mary Todd Lincoln died from a stroke in 1882, she had been living with serious physical deterioration that might have been caused by diabetes—though an autopsy found that she had a brain tumor as well. Could this have been the cause of her psychotic symptoms?

Or was it syphilis, as has been suggested by some? Another question unlikely to ever be answered.

1 visit(s) today

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *