Letters from Mrs. Lincoln

A newfound cache should cast light on her time in a sanitarium

August 12, 2006|By COLLEEN MASTONY | COLLEEN MASTONY,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BATAVIA, Ill. -- The portrait of Abraham Lincoln hanging in the entranceway is one of the only hints of the building's lost history.

Bellevue Place, a grand structure with a limestone facade and towering windows, was once a sanitarium for women - and in the summer of 1875 a Cook County jury declared Mary Todd Lincoln insane and sent her here against her will.

The building is now an apartment complex, and the details of Lincoln's stay have been lost in the passage of time. But current residents say they often wonder about the former first lady.

"To think she walked up these stairs," said Candace Broecker, 62, who once owned the building. "I just wonder what she was feeling and thinking."

Such questions might soon find answers. Recently discovered letters written by Lincoln while she was in Batavia could lend new insight to the little-known history.

Descendants of a Lincoln family lawyer found a dusty trunk while cleaning out their attic last summer in Chevy Chase, Md. Inside, they found copies of 25 letters - including 20 written by Lincoln, 11 of them written from Batavia. The full text of the letters will be released next year in a book by history writer Jason Emerson.

"This is a significant cache," said Jean H. Baker, author of the book Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography.

News of the discovery has stirred excitement among Batavia residents, who have searched for decades for information about Lincoln's months in town.

"The legend has grown with the passage of time," said Jeffery Schielke, 57, mayor of Batavia. "Still, there's not a lot of stories about her stay here. I'll be anxious to peruse these letters."

Few today realize that, after her husband's assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln moved to Chicago.

She lived at the Tremont House, a posh downtown hotel, then moved to Hyde Park and eventually bought a house at 1304 W. Washington St., still there today.

The insanity allegations surfaced in the spring of 1875, when Lincoln's behavior had grown increasingly erratic. She walked the streets with $56,000 sewn into her petticoat, visited clairvoyants in attempts to communicate with the dead, and at one point became convinced that someone on a train had slipped poison into her coffee.

By May, Lincoln's son, Robert - then a prominent Chicago attorney - initiated court proceedings to have her involuntarily committed. After a three-hour trial, a Cook County jury found the former first lady to be insane. The next day, Mary Todd Lincoln was taken to Bellevue Place in Batavia.

At the time, Bellevue was an asylum that catered exclusively to wealthy women. The hospital took a modern approach, advising bed rest and fresh air, and offering activities such as piano and croquet. An advertisement for the hospital called it: "For the Insane of the Private Class."

The newfound letters show that Lincoln considered it a prison.

In August 1875, she wrote: "It does not appear that God is good, to have placed me here. I endeavor to read my Bible and offer up my petitions three times a day. But my afflicted heart fails me and my voice often falters in prayer. I have worshiped my son and no unpleasant word ever passed between us, yet I can not understand why I should have been brought out here."

Historians have long known that Mary Todd Lincoln lobbied for release and grew increasingly incensed at Robert for having her sent to Batavia. But the letters add new detail.

They show her questioning her religion, pleading for aid from friends and furiously denouncing Robert, according to Emerson, who is writing the book.

In the end, Lincoln's efforts succeeded. She marshaled the support of powerful friends, who helped her gain release on Sept. 10, 1875. After leaving Bellevue, Lincoln moved to Springfield to live with her sister. She traveled for a time in Europe and eventually returned to Springfield, where she died July 16, 1882. She was 62.

Today visitors to Batavia's Depot Museum can see the bed and dresser Lincoln reportedly used at Bellevue, or flip through a transcript of the hospital ledger that includes notes on Lincoln's moods and activities.

(A notation from May 20, 1875: "Case is one of mental impairment which probably dates back to the murder of President Lincoln - More pronounced since the death of her son, but especially aggravated during the last 2 months.")

Residents at Bellevue Place point to second-story windows that mark the rooms where Lincoln is believed to have stayed.

The space is now apartment 2A. The current resident is Chris Johnson, a 56-year-old real estate agent. Johnson sometimes looks out his window and thinks of the former first lady. "I wonder, `Maybe she enjoyed the sparrows,'" Johnson said.

Mary Todd Lincoln has long been a complex and controversial figure. She was hot-tempered and high-strung, an unpopular first lady who was criticized for excessive spending and throwing lavish parties during the Civil War.

But time has lent perspective. Lincoln had lived through multiple tragedies; three of her four sons died before reaching full adulthood, and she was at her husband's side when he was assassinated April 14, 1865.

Historians have long argued about Lincoln's sanity. Some believe she suffered from serious mental illness. Others argue that she was the victim of an unloving son, who sent her to an asylum to gain control of her money.

"Was she really crazy? I don't think so," said Dottie Fletcher, 51, of apartment 1B. "Did she have a nervous breakdown? Probably." As for the letters, "I can't wait to see them."

Colleen Mastony writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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