Friday, November 21, 2008

The Insanity File

I've become fascinated by Mary Todd Lincoln ever since reading this book. The last time I went to the library, I looked for a biography of her that looked good, but there were slim pickings. I did find The Insanity Files though, which was fascinating. Much of the book comes from Robert Todd Lincoln's personal files, which were found in his home long after his death by his grandson, Robert Lincoln Beckwith.

The files detail Mary Todd's deteriorating emotional state, including her conviction that her son was on death's doorstep even though he was just fine and her hallucinations of Chicago being on fire. It also gives detail on her spending sprees - buying trunkloads of curtains for houses she didn't own, boxes and boxes of gloves that were never worn. Today, she would probably be diagnosed as having bi-polar disorder.

Over the years, Robert Todd was blamed for his mother's institutionalization, unfairly. This book goes a long way toward proving that Mary Todd was ill and needed help.

Insanity Files does a good job of detailing the mental health system of the late 1900s - which was basically non-existent. People deemed insane were confined to state hospitals, which were nothing more than holding pens. The lucky, and the wealthy, could opt for private institutions, which is where Mary Todd ended up, but they were basically nice holding pens.

Mary Todd's story is such a heartbreaking one - losing three sons and a husband. I still want to find a good biography of her.

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