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Book and Media Reviews
June 11, 2008

The Madness of Mary Lincoln

JAMA. 2008;299(22):2688-2689. doi:10.1001/jama.299.22.2688

In The Madness of Mary Lincoln, Jason Emerson has created a detailed and compelling argument to convince the reader that the widow of Abraham Lincoln was mentally ill for years after 1864 and that her son, Robert, behaved in the noblest traditions of the post–Civil War United States. The sanity of Mary Lincoln and the conduct of her sole surviving son have been discussed and debated with varying degrees of seriousness since Lincoln's assassination. In various newspapers both lurid and serious and in historical texts and essays the argument has been parsed, pursued, and dissected. What distinguishes this effort from other recent serious works is that the author had access to a treasure of personal correspondence that was presumed either lost or destroyed. The story of how Emerson was given access to these documents by the family of Robert Lincoln's attorney is one of several sidebars within this book that makes it all the more interesting. As a reader without a special curiosity for these arguments or for this era of US history, I found this book precise, detailed, well annotated, and quite convincing. As a physician and psychiatrist, I was more interested in the idea of diagnostic certainty regarding these historical personages and the state of medical-legal processes of the day.