Friday, November 16, 2012

Poor Mary Lincoln

Was she really bipolar? To quote:
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.)


Lisa Graas said...

Why would it be a "raw deal" for her to have Bipolar Disorder? I have it.

elena maria vidal said...

Only because they did not have any medication in those days, honey.

Dymphna said...

The memoirs of her housekeeper in Ohio show a highly sensitive, anxious woman who I think did get a raw deal. People attacked Mary becuase they couldn't bother Lincoln any other way. When the poor woman through a party people complained. When she refused to socialize after the death of her son people complained that Washington was too dull. Lincoln's generals and aides were openly rude to her because she was a Southerner and there was talk about her being a spy. Mary suffered greatly from people's malice.

Brantigny said...

Elana-Maria I do not agree with mary Todd being the first to generate controversy, you forgot perhaps Rachel Donelson Robards.

May said...

Hi EMV, thanks for posting this:) I've often wondered what Mary Lincoln was really like, because you get such clashing portrayals, many very negative but a few very positive and almost hagiographic (eg. Noah Brooks). Elizabeth Keckley's portrayal seems generally sympathetic but overall more neutral, which may mean it is more accurate (but not necessarily). So it is confusing.

I get the sense that Mary wanted to do the right thing and had many good qualities (loyalty to her husband, her country, her children) that were overlooked, as with a number of famous women through history. But she was definitely temperamental and perhaps had some moral "gaps" in there. Combine this with such high levels of stress and tragedy in her life, and one can understand
her problems.

It's interesting to contrast the harsh criticism of Mary even after her husband's murder with the outpouring of sympathy (and money) for Lucretia Garfield 16 years later. I think Lucretia's stoical grieving style made much of the difference. Americans seemed to admire this type of heroism very much, but it was just not something poor Mary could muster.

May said...

Dymphna, I wouldn't say that they couldn't bother Lincoln any other way. In his time he was also attacked in the press, often savagely and with impunity. There is even a whole book about these attacks. But I know what you mean, going after the wife is a standard tactic.