Published to a flurry of praise--and consternation--from Lincoln scholars, Burlingame's book takes a hard and unsentimental look at, among other things, Abraham Lincoln's excruciating yet fruitful midlife crisis, his marriage to a dishonest woman who often embarrassed and sometimes physically abused him, his estrangement from his father, his explosive temper, and his aversion to women.
In 1875 Robert Todd Lincoln caused his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, to be committed to an insane asylum. Based on newly discovered manuscript materials, this book seeks to explain how and why.
In these documents—marked by Robert Todd Lincoln as the "MTL Insanity File"—exists the only definitive record of the tragic story of Mary Todd Lincoln’s insanity trial. The book that results from these letters and documents addresses several areas of controversy in the life of the widow of Abraham Lincoln: the extent of her illness, the fairness of her trial, and the motives of those who had her committed for treatment. Related issues include the status of women under the law as well as the legal and medical treatment of insanity.
Speculating on the reasons for her mental condition, the authors note that Mrs. Lincoln suffered an extraordinary amount of tragedy in a relatively few years. Three of her four sons died very young, and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. After the death of her son Willie she maintained a darkly rigorous mourning for nearly three years, prompting the president to warn her that excessive woe might force him to send her to "that large white house on the hill yonder," the government hospital for the insane.
Mrs. Lincoln also suffered anxiety about money, charting an exceptionally erratic financial course. She had spent lavishly during her husband’s presidency and at his death found herself deeply in debt. She had purchased trunkfuls of drapes to hang over phantom windows. 84 pairs of kid gloves in less than a month, and $3,200 worth of jewelry in the three months preceding Lincoln’s assassination. She followed the same erratic course for the rest of her life, creating in herself a tremendous anxiety. She occasionally feared that people were trying to kill her, and in 1873 she told her doctor that an Indian spirit was removing wires from her eyes and bones from her cheeks.
Her son assembled an army of lawyers and medical experts who would swear in court that Mrs. Lincoln was insane. The jury found her insane and in need of treatment in an asylum. Whether the verdict was correct or not, the trial made Mary Lincoln desperate. Within hours of the verdict she would attempt suicide. In a few months she would contemplate murder. Since then every aspect of the trial has been criticized—from the defense attorney to the laws in force at the time. Neely and McMurtry deal with the trial, the commitment of Mary Todd Lincoln, her release, and her second trial. An appendix features letters and fragments by Mrs. Lincoln from the "Insanity File." The book is illustrated by 25 photographs.
On 18 April 1861, assistant presidential secretary John Hay recorded in his diary the report of several women that "some young Virginian long haired swaggering chivalrous of course. . . and half a dozen others including a daredevil guerrilla from Richmond named Ficklin would do a thing within forty eight hours that would ring through the world."
The women feared that the Virginian planned either to assassinate or to capture the president. Calling this a "harrowing communication," Hay continued his entry: "They went away and I went to the bedside of the Chief couché . I told him the yarn; he quietly grinned."
This is but one of the dramatic entries in Hay’ s Civil War diary, presented here in a definitive edition by Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger. Justly deemed the most intimate record we will ever have of Abraham Lincoln in the White House, the Hay diary is, according to Burlingame and Ettlinger, "one of the richest deposits of high-grade ore for the smelters of Lincoln biographers and Civil War historians." While the Cabinet diaries of Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, and Gideon Welles also shed much light on Lincoln’ s presidency, as does the diary of Senator Orville Hickman Browning, none of these diaries has the literary flair of Hay’ s, which is, as Lincoln’ s friend Horace White noted, as "breezy and sparkling as champagne." An aspiring poet, Hay recorded events in a scintillating style that the lawyer-politician diarists conspicuously lacked.
Burlingame and Ettlinger’ s edition of the diary is the first to publish the complete text of all of Hay’ s entries from 1861 through 1864. In 1939 Tyler Dennett published Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay, which, as Civil War historian Allan Nevins observed, was "rather casually edited." This new edition is essential in part because Dennett omitted approximately 10 percent of Hay’ s 1861– 64 entries.
Not only did the Dennett edition omit important parts of the diaries, it also introduced some glaring errors. More than three decades ago, John R. Turner Ettlinger, then in charge of Special Collections at the Brown University Library, made a careful and literal transcript of the text of the diary, which involved deciphering Hay’ s difficult and occasionally obscure writing. In particular, passages were restored that had been canceled, sometimes heavily, by the first editors for reasons of confidentiality and propriety. Ettlinger’ s text forms the basis for the present edition, which also incorporates, with many additions and much updating by Burlingame, a body of notes providing a critical apparatus to the diary, identifying historical events and persons.