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Review: “The Dark Days of Abraham Lincoln’s Widow As Revealed by Her Own Letters by Myra Helmer Pritchard, Edited and Annotated” by Jason Emerson

Photographs, maps, annotations, notes, bibliography, index, 186 pages, Southern Illinois University Press, 2011.

Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) lived a sad life.  Whenever I read about Mrs. Lincoln, I become sad and to read her letters is to bring the reader one step closer to her tragedy.  The pain and anger in her voice is clearly heard.  There were so many negatives in her life which belie her achievements:

  •  an unhappy childhood with an unsympathetic step-mother
  • the death of her first child Edward Baker Lincoln (“Eddie“) in 1850
  • loneliness when her husband was traveling the Illinois Law circuit leaving her to raise their children and care for the house
  • the loss of several of her half-brothers who served in the Confederate Army and were killed during the war
  •  false accusations of being a Confederate sympathizer
  • the assumption that she was a country bumpkin since she and her husband were “westerners
  • loneliness in the White House when her husband was overwhelmed and burdened with the war and other administrative duties
  • an inability to negotiate the dangerous political and social intrigue of Washington, D. C.
  • the suffering of severe migrate headaches and chronic depression
  • the suffering from a serious head injury in a carriage accident
  • the suffering from symptoms of bipolar disorder
  • the suffering from chronic and manic shopping
  • the death of her son William Wallace Lincoln (“Willie“) in 1862
  • the assassination of her husband at Ford’s Theatre
  • the perceived betrayal by her seamstress and confidant Elizabeth Keckly who wrote Behind the Scenes, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House
  • the death of her son Thomas Lincoln (“Tad“) in 1871
  • the perceived betrayal of her one surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who had her declared insane and committed to Bellevue Place Sanatorium in Batavia, Illinois near Chicago in 1875
  • her alienation from Robert until May of 1881.

Unlike her husband who also suffered from “melancholia” but was able to transcend that affliction making him more resilient and strong, the high-strung and sensitive Mary was a victim of the vicissitudes of her life.    Her often manic and obsessive behavior was highly criticized and condemned in the Victorian culture of her time.  After her death she was vilified for many generations as a horrible shrew that made her husband’s life miserable.  But, in her eyes, the ultimate betrayal was perpetrated by her oldest son Robert with whom she became very angry and whom she deeply feared.

The disturbing events of 1875 are detailed in The Dark Days of Abraham Lincoln’s Widow as Revealed by her Own Letters.  The book sheds some light on the messy and complicated relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her  son, Robert Todd Lincoln.  After her insanity trial and during her confinement in Bellevue Place Sanatorium from May to September of 1875, Mary wrote a series of letters to her friend Myra Bradwell and her husband Judge James B. Bradwell.  Myra was the first woman admitted to the Illinois Bar.

It was the Bradwells that kept the case of Mary Todd Lincoln before the general public after she was declared insane.  They were instrumental in her release after four months of confinement and were a great thorn in Robert’s side.  The Bradwell family preserved Mary’s correspondence to them.  After the deaths of both Robert T. Lincoln and Myra Bradwell, Myra’s granddaughter, Mary Helmer Pritchard, took those letters and in 1927 wrote a narrative intended to exonerate a severely misunderstood Mary T. Lincoln and intended to criticize Robert’s treatment of his mother. Controversy arose between Mary Pritchard and Robert’s widow, Mary Harlan Lincoln, who wanted to protect the memory and reputation of her husband.  She would not allow the publication of Mary Pritchard’s work and demanded the destruction of all Mary’s letters and her manuscript.  This was done except for the preservation of one copy of the manuscript unknown to Mary Harlan Lincoln.  This copy was discovered by scholar Jason Emerson in 2005.

Jason Emerson is the editor of the Pritchard manuscript which can be read on the left page of the book.  Emerson’s annotated notes are located on the opposite page.  His notes fill in the blanks in Pritchard’s narrative and also judiciously critiques her incorrect claims about her grandparent’s role in Mary’s exit from the sanatorium. His analysis of Robert is also balanced emphasizing a son’s heart-felt struggle to deal with his mother’s aberrations.  Emerson portrays Mary realistically but sympathetically.  Emerson dispels the old extreme stereotypes. Mary is not depicted as an unbearable shrew and Robert isn’t depicted as a cruel, unfeeling, and covetous son who pines to get his hands on his mother’s estate.  Mary’s anger toward Robert, however,  was real and prolonged.  She even forbade him to approach her and his father and brothers in the afterlife.   None-the-less, there was a reconciliation between them which happened in May of 1881 at the instigation of her sister Elizabeth, 14 months before Mary’s death on July 16, 1882.

Contemplating the extent of her suffering, Mary Todd Lincoln wrote to Judge Bradwell on November 11th, 1875:

The paths of life have become very rough to me since the most loving and devoted husband and children have been called from my side.  In the great hereafter when I am reunited to my beloved ones, we will then know why the gracious Father has caused such deep affliction.”

Jason Emerson is eminently qualified to edit the Pritchard text.  In 2008 he published his well-received book The Madness of Mary Lincoln (Southern Illinois University Press) and has recently finished his much-looked-forward-to book Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln which is scheduled for publication this fall of 2011. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Giant-Shadows-Life-Robert-Lincoln/dp/0809330555.

Jason Emerson is also the author of:

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