Kane County History: Mary Todd Lincoln, Batavia Resident

Kane County History: Mary Todd Lincoln, Batavia Resident

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was contributed by Jennifer Putzier, director of the Batavia Depot Museum.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s story has been discussed and dissected by the American public, by lawyers, by doctors and by historians for more than a century.


She was deemed legally insane by a jury of her peers on May 19, 1875. Mary herself did not believe she was insane (though she did admit to bizarre behavior).

Her son Robert, on the other hand, did believe she was mentally ill, and not capable of caring for herself responsibly. Modern doctors, using psychiatry’s multiaxial framework for diagnosis, have concluded that Mary may have been bipolar.

Instead of being sent to the Northern Illinois Hospital for the Insane in Elgin, it was arranged for her to get treatment under Dr. Richard Patterson at Bellevue Place in Batavia.

While many point to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln as the beginning of her troubles, there was a pattern of unstable behavior back further, even noting Lincoln himself was aware of her moods. This was most clearly illustrated in Elizabeth Keckley’s tell-all memoir — “Behind the Scenes; Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.”

Keckley was Mrs. Lincoln’s seamstress, and witness to many private moments between the President and his wife.

One of the most clearly telling was, in the deepest throes of grief after the death of their son Willie in 1862 from typhoid, Lincoln told Mary, “Try and control yourself, or it will drive you mad, and we may have to send you there” as he gestured out the window, to the asylum that was in view.

Mary’s nearly overwhelming grief fed into her established fear of loss. She was afraid of fires, burglars, heavy storms, and of being alone. With the loss of her parents, husband and three of her four children, by 1875 Mary had became more unstable and emotionally volatile, and without Lincoln to protect her, her privacy was less respected.

Mary sought comfort in shopping, and had done so her entire life. She was known for spending excessively, and was considered “penny wise and pound foolish.”

For example, when given $20,000 by Congress to refurbish the White House, she managed to overspend by $7,000. This was during the Civil War, when the country was having trouble supplying its troops — so it quite an embarrassment for Lincoln.

Even after Lincoln’s murder, she bought furnishings for homes she didn’t have, jewelry and clothes she never wore, and memorably, on the way to the sanitarium, insisted on bringing bags of carpet-covered foot stools.

Though it was not a place Mary would have chosen to go, Bellevue Place was an ideal location for Mary’s rest and recuperation.

Bellevue place was founded in 1867 when Dr. Richard Patterson purchased the defunct Batavia Institute, which still stands on the corner of Union and Jefferson in Batavia. Here he created his ideal mental institution. He was a respected doctor in the field of mental health; he had been the medical superintendent for the Iowa State Hospital for the Insane, and five years before that ran the Indiana State Hospital for the Insane.

Batavia at the time had about 3,000 residents, and was considered a picturesque country retreat from the hustle and bustle of Chicago. Beyond the modern facilities, Dr. Patterson developed the grounds to be idyllic, with landscaping, walking paths, outdoor seating and even a 40,000 square foot greenhouse that grew the doctor’s prized roses.

Patients could “ramble at leisure, in sunshine, and protected by the cold of winter.” He believed in the “modern management of mental disease by rest, diet, baths, fresh air, occupation, diversion, change of scene, no more medication than absolutely necessary, and the least restraint as possible.”

His family joined him in this work; his wife was the matron of the institution and his son was also a physician.

The sanitarium flourished, and 1871 Dr. Patterson added the wings, which increased the hospital’s capacity to 25 to 30 patients. Bellevue Place was the place for “a select class of lady patients of quiet unexceptional habits.”

Mrs. Lincoln was definitely of that select class, and was treated more like an honored guest rather than patient. She was given a private suite of rooms, with her own personal attendant, and had free use of a carriage whenever she wished. She had her own private dining arrangements, but was also invited to dine with the Pattersons in their apartment in the building.

For the first two weeks, Mary seemed in good spirits. She would go for walks and take carriage rides according to the patient records. After that, she started to withdraw, refusing the rides she had arranged and asking to be released to her sister in Springfield.

Because of the way the law was written in Illinois, Mary could not have her sanity retried until one year after the first trial. It was intended that she spend that year under the care of Dr. Patterson. Trying to gather support for her case that she was not insane, Mary contacted her old friends the Bradwells, and any reporters that would listen.

Judge and Myra Bradwell, lawyers and early feminists as well as old friends of the Lincolns, rallied support for Mary’s release. They built a case of injustices against the institution — claiming that Mary was behind bars (she was not), that the conditions were inhuman (they weren’t) and though she was sane, she would be driven insane by keeping company with the other patients (which she hadn’t been socializing with).

Instead of directly confronting Robert with these accusations, not surprising since he was considered a very sympathetic public figure, the Bradwells attacked Dr. Patterson. His professional reputation was at stake.

JBradwell published an open letter in the paper about Mary’s situation to Dr. Patterson; Dr. Patterson answered in kind with his own rebuttal. Mary’s case was being played out in the court of public opinion, with little regard to the law or medical opinion.

Mary was relentless in her campaign for her freedom, granting interviews to more reporters, pleading with her sister Elizabeth to let her come live with her, and encouraging the Bradwells to continue their fight on her behalf.

Robert saw little choice other than allowing his mother to go live with his Aunt Elizabeth. The medical prognosis was not good, but keeping her in Bellevue would not have done any good either – Mary had a single minded goal of being released. She was released and moved to Springfield with her sister September 10, 1875.

This is a highly abbreviated version of the events surrounding Mary’s admittance to Bellevue Place and her short stay in Batavia. If you have interest in learning more, I highly recommend reading the “The Insanity file” by Mark E. Neely Jr and R. Gerald McMurtry, following it up with “The Madness of Mary Lincoln” by Jason Emerson.

The first book is considered the definitive reader on the subject, published in 1986, and the second examines 25 new letters that were discovered by Emerson in 2005.

Also, please join us on March 29 at 1pm when we will have Marlene Rivero portraying Elizabeth Keckley, Mary’s dressmaker and author of the autobiographical book “Behind the Scenes; Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.”

The program is free, and will be at the Civic Center in Batavia. You can register online or call the Batavia Park District at 630-870-5235 to reserve your seat!

About the Batavia Depot Museum

The Batavia Depot Museum opened in 1975 as a partnership between the Batavia Park District and the Batavia Historical Society. The Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad Depot was the first of its kind built in 1854, and is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.

Inside, the city’s past comes alive through exhibits detailing the history of rail transportation, manufacture of windmills, agriculture, banking, commerce and a brief stay by Mary Todd Lincoln at Bellevue Place. Open seasonally, from March to mid-December.

The Depot will reopen for the season March 2, 2020 and feature the new exhibit “Community, Culture and Conversation; African American Heritage in Batavia.”

Hours are 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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