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Letters Shed Light on Dark Time for Lincoln's Wife

First lady's newfound missives lament her confinement in an Illinois sanitarium.

September 03, 2006|Colleen Mastony | Chicago Tribune

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

Bellevue Place, a grand structure with a limestone facade and towering windows, was once a sanitarium for women. In May 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. 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 in recently discovered letters written by Lincoln while she was in Batavia.

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 by Lincoln, 11 of which were written from Batavia. The full text of the letters will be released next year in a book by historian 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 to find information about Lincoln's months in town.

"The legend has grown with the passage of time," said Jeffery Schielke, 57, Batavia's mayor. "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 Abraham Lincoln's 1865 assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln moved to Chicago, where her only surviving son, Robert, was a prominent attorney. (Three other sons had died.)

She first lived at Tremont House, a posh downtown hotel, then moved to Hyde Park. Eventually, she bought a house on Washington Street that is still there today.

The insanity allegations surfaced earlier 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, Robert Lincoln 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, she 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 said it was "For the Insane of the Private Class."

The newly discovered letters show that Mary 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 cannot understand why I should have been brought out here."

Historians have long known that Lincoln lobbied for her release and grew increasingly incensed at Robert. But the letters add new detail.

They show her questioning her religion, pleading for assistance from friends and furiously denouncing Robert, according to historian Emerson.

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, at age 63.

Today, visitors to Batavia's Depot Museum can see the bed and dresser Lincoln reportedly used at Bellevue, and 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 two months."

Residents at Bellevue Place point to two 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, 56, a Realtor.

Johnson sometimes looks out a window and thinks of the former first lady. "I wonder, 'Maybe she enjoyed the sparrows,' " he said.

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