I love PR. I also love history (nerd alert!). So imagine my delight when I found this article a few weeks ago. While the article itself is interesting from a historical perspective (a group of preservationists and lawyers serving as judges will get together next month to retry Abraham Lincoln’s widow for insanity using today’s standards), what struck me was the extensive background about how Mary Todd Lincoln actually ended up in an insane asylum about 10 years after the President’s assassination—and the efforts she undertook to get herself released.
You see, depending on your perspective and who you believe, Mary Lincoln was either an eccentric woman prone to odd but harmless tendencies, or she was crazier than a teenybopper at a Justin Bieber concert, a hypochondriac, spendthrift and hoarder who heard voices . Personally, given that she witnessed her husband’s assassination and outlived three of her four sons (two of whom died as children), I’m willing to cut her a little slack, but what do I know?
So here’s the story: after a series of increasingly strange behaviors, which included walking around with $56,000 in government bonds sewn in her petticoats, making up a story about her pocketbook being stolen, and almost jumping out of a window to escape a nonexistent fire, Robert Lincoln, Abe and Mary’s eldest son, sought to have her committed. While on the surface his actions may have seemed altruistic, there was some speculation that he did it in order to gain control of his mother’s money (having lobbied Congress to receive a $3,000 annual widow’s pension along with the family’s accumulated resources, Mary Lincoln was considered relatively wealthy at the time). You see, she was also quite the shopaholic, periodically going on spending sprees and buying large quantities of frivolous items she never used. Robert, the only surviving Lincoln heir, may have been worried she was squandering his rightful inheritance.
Declaring Mary Lincoln legally insane was a pretty cut-and-dried process (the all-male jury heard only three hours of testimony before issuing their verdict); I suspect the status of women at the time had something to do with it. However, just four months after entering Bellevue Place sanitarium in Batavia, Ill., Mary Lincoln was a free woman. How did she do it? Well, apparently Mary was a prolific letter writer, had friends in all the right places, and knew how to use the media to leverage public opinion in her favor.
Upon first entering the asylum in May 1875, Mary began a fervent letter writing campaign, enlisting the help of her sister Elizabeth and lawyer James Bradwell and his wife Myra, with whom Mary had forged a close friendship. Through the Bradwells, Mary smuggled letters to friends and politicians, who visited her at the asylum and tried to convince the facility’s head doctor that she should be under the care of family or friends, not committed against her will. To Robert’s credit, Bellevue Place wasn’t the stuff of horror movies. Mary Lincoln’s treatment was relegated to “rest, diet, baths, fresh air, occupation, diversion, change of scene, no more medicine than … absolutely necessary, and the least restraint possible.” Mary Lincoln had her own suite of rooms, her own key and could go for walks and carriage rides whenever she liked. However the Bradwells fed stories to the media about Mary’s unjust, prisoner-like treatment, gave interviews on her behalf and even brought a reporter (historians later found out this was at Mary’s request) from the Chicago Sun Times to visit and interview Mary at the asylum. The resulting article in August 1875 was headlined, “Mrs. Lincoln: Her Physicians Pronounce Her Entirely Sane.” The Chicago Tribune published a reactionary editorial calling the Bradwells “over-officious and intermeddling mischief-makers, who interfered in a matter which did not concern them, for purposes of sensation.”
Eventually all of the bad publicity worked in Mary’s favor because she was released into her sister’s care in September, and at a second insanity trial in June 1876, she was declared “restored to reason” and capable of managing her property. Although Robert was publicly branded as the villain and his relationship with his mother was strained for the rest of their lives, in fact, Mary’s estate accrued $4,000 in interest while he was in charge of her finances and he accepted no compensation for his stewardship, although he was entitled to it. Mary still harbored deep resentment for her only son, continuing to encourage the media to write derogatory articles about his treatment of her until she left for Europe in 1876, returning to the States in 1880. She and Robert eventually reconciled not long before her death in 1882.
When it came to her trial and legal status, it appears that Mary Todd Lincoln was “crazy like a fox.” While we’ll have to wait until next month to see if she’d be declared legally insane in 2012, the PR practices she implemented in 1875 hold just as true today. She had a story to tell, told it clearly and articulately to the right influencers, and got her message to resonate with her target audience.