Illinois Oddity: Mary Todd Lincoln’s Sanitarium Bed
By Jennifer Young
There are all sorts of American relics related to Presidents and First Families collected all over the country. George Washington’s comfy leather and white oak chair is displayed at Mount Vernon as is his wife’s initialed ‘tea china’ covered cup. The Smithsonian Institute is home to Abraham Lincoln’s famed top hat and Jackie Kennedy’s 1961 silk chiffon inaugural gown is showcased at the National Museum of American Art.
A rather more unusual artifact associated with Mary Todd Lincoln can be viewed at the Batavia Depot Museum located in Batavia, Illinois. If you’re in the area, stop in to check out the former First Lady’s sanitarium bed, where she slept when her son had her committed for what was described as erratic behavior.
On May 19, 1875, Robert Todd Lincoln, the eldest son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, had his mother forcibly taken to a courthouse in Chicago where she was declared to be “insane.” She was then committed to Bellevue Place, a mental institution and private rest home for women. Mary spent a few months in the Batavia sanitarium before she was released into her sister’s care in Springfield, IL–against the advice of her sanitarium doctor. The bed and dresser that Mary used during her sanitarium stay are now showcased at the Batavia Depot Museum.
Was Mary Todd Lincoln, widow of an assassinated American president, insane? That question continues to be debated among historians. Some suggest she suffered from narcissistic personality disorder. Others believe she suffered from a painful malady that was misinterpreted as madness. Others believe she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder related to the death of her husband and other traumatic events that occurred in her life. Only one of her sons outlived her and he, Robert, was the one who had her involuntarily committed.
After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Mary traveled to Chicago to live with her son Robert, a practicing attorney. It was clear to many that Mary suffered tremendous grief at the loss of her husband and sons. Over time, some of her behaviors became erratic. She exhibited an intense fear of poverty in spite of the presidential widow’s pension she was awarded. As a result, she sewed government bonds into her petticoats. Her son reported that she experienced delusions, stormy moods, paranoia, and depression.
After the trial, she procured a large amount of laudanum and it’s believed that she intended to kill herself. Historians suggest that she began to craft an escape plan from the sanitarium as soon as she arrived. It appears that she was allowed some freedom there, in any case. She visited homes near the asylum and took meals with the sanitarium’s director and chief mental health exert, Dr. Richard J. Patterson, and his wife.
With the help of her sister, Mary was able to leave the sanitarium after a four-month stay. She traveled to Springfield to live with her sister Elizabeth and remained estranged from her son Robert until shortly before her death in 1882. Mary remained angry and saddened that her son took her to trial and committed her to the asylum. While in Springfield, Mary was declared mentally fit and was able to manage her own affairs once again.
It seems clear that Mary did suffer, but the true diagnosis remains elusive . Fibromyalgia, menstrual problems, tachycardia, even lyme disease have all been suggested as the genesis of her cognitive problems. Unfortunately, the nineteenth century is not much revered for its understanding and treatment of mental illness. Mary’s bed, in that light, represents what so many men and women must have endured when involuntarily committed to an asylum for treatment of what few “experts” could understand.
If you wish to see the bed and dresser used by the former First Lady, you can visit the Batavia Depot Museum, which is open daily (except for Tuesdays and Thursdays) from 2 PM to 4 PM.