Mrs. Lincoln acquired a spotty public image early on, partly due to a scandal over lavish White House expenses and partly due to her Southern roots. (Born in Kentucky, she had family in the Confederacy.) The term First Lady was not yet in wide circulation when the Lincolns reached the White House, and no previous president’s wife had stirred such controversy, according to Harold Holzer, a leading Lincoln historian based at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even so, contemporary media portrayals were fairly restrained, just as they were, Holzer says, for “all ‘the ladies,’ as they called them.” After President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and the loss of a third son in 1871—two others died in 1850 and 1862—Lincoln’s emotional state deteriorated until, after some erratic behavior, the two police officers showed up at her door. She was institutionalized, released months later, and lived out most of her remaining years overseas.
After her death in 1882, historians—all of them initially male—began to mine her legacy, advancing a questionable theory of lifelong mental illness that remains hotly debated today. “This is a really gendered subject, I’ve discovered—there weren’t a lot of women who wrote about her,” said Jean Harvey Baker, author of a 2008 biography. “She got an utterly raw deal.” Early portrayals of Mrs. Lincoln as unhinged and volatile were followed by claims that she suffered from bipolar disorder, a diagnosis which, of course, did not exist in her lifetime. (Read entire article.)