The Madness of Mary Lincoln

Southern Illinois University Press
304 pages, $29.95 cloth

Order now at

or buy direct from Southern Illinois University Press.

Awarded 2007 BOOK OF THE YEAR
by the Illinois State Historical Society

A History Book Club and Military History Book Club selection

The Madness of Mary Lincoln was excerpted in the 2008 Collector’s edition  of U.S. News & World Report, “Secrets of the Civil War,” pp 52-53.

The Madness of Mary Lincoln
has been included in the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop’s list, “The Essential Lincoln Book Shelf: The 156 Basic Books for an Abraham Lincoln Library”.

Watch Jason’s November 17 presentation at The Lincoln Forum on C-SPAN 2/Book TV.

Watch Jason’s October 20 Virtual Book Signing at the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago.



At long last the definitive work on Mrs. Abraham Lincoln’s oft discussed mental state has been published.

Steven Lee Carson, Lincoln Herald 110, no. 3 (Fall 2008): 228-229

Jason Emerson’s The Madness of Mary Lincoln will become a classic of American history. It has everything — a compelling story; a fascinating cast of characters; the thrilling discovery of long-lost documents; shrewd analysis of the people, the period, and the sources; and it’s a pleasure to read. Here is a model of the historian’s art.

Thomas J. Craughwell, American Spectator, December 2007/January 2008

As a reader without a special curiosity for these arguments or for this era of U.S. history, I found this book precise, detailed, well annotated, and quite convincing. As a physician and a 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. With some appropriate caveats, Emerson offers credible behavioral evidence, arrived at with the assistance of modern professional medical opinions, that Mary Lincoln likely had a chronic mental illness.

Dr. Mark H. Fleisher, Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Nebraska College of Medicine, Omaha, The Journal of the American Medical Association 299, no. 22 (June 11, 2008): 2688-2689.

All this makes for a very good story, and Emerson’s account is absorbing, concisely told, and grounded in generous use of source… The most admirable characteristic of Emerson’s book is that he argues close to the primary sources and includes all of the newly discovered material in appendices… Jason Emerson has provided a sympathetic, balanced account of both Mary Lincoln and her son and has made accessible his cache of new sources.

Joan D. Hedrick, Charles A. Dana Professor of History at Trinity College (Hartford) and author of the Pulitzer-prize winning Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life, “The Insanity File,” Women’s Review of Books, May/June 2008. Full review

Not only does Emerson clarify many facets of the trial and the institutionalization of Mary, but he also rescues Robert from historical victimization and obscurity in the Lincoln literature. . . . Emerson’s intrepid study of this critical period in Mary’s life will be a lasting contribution to the scholarship on the Lincoln family. It will surely stimulate new studies on her life and the Lincoln family, and as scholars, we must be thankful for the discovery of these letters.

Matthew C. Sherman, Department of History, Saint Louis University, “A Dutiful Son and a Disturbed Mother: New Perspectives on Robert and Mary Todd Lincoln,” H-CivWar Net, April, 2008. Full review

Jason Emerson’s The Madness of Mary Lincoln is a work of meticulous historical research that reads like a novel. . . The Madness of Mary Lincoln is an important and eminently readable addition to the body of Lincoln scholarship. Jason Emerson is to be praised for his outstanding work in telling a story with tools unavailable to any prior writer. Given such an opportunity Jason Emerson stepped to the plate and hit a literary home run with this insightful book.

Greg Romaneck, “Literary Notices,” The Citizens’ Companion: The Voice of Civilian Reenacting, May 2008.

Emerson’s outstanding detective work has uncovered documents that are indispensable to an understanding of Mary and Robert Todd Lincoln. . . . In telling this story with compassion and understanding, Emerson has made an important contribution to a subject too often presented in rigid and absolute moral categories of good and evil.

Gerald N. Grob, The Journal of American History, vol. 94, no. 4, March 2008

A fine new book by Virginia historian Jason Emerson.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor, The Washington Times, October 28, 2007. Full review

Jason Emerson has produced a well-founded, cleverly conceived, deeply researched and smoothly written narrative. . . . It can be read as a mystery story, as a morality tale, as an exploration in psycho-history or as a tragic tale of mother set against son.

Thomas P. Lowry, Fredericksburg [Va.] Free Lance-Star, September 8, 2007. Full review

A book that is not only one of the most original — and important — studies of American history to be published this year, but a book that is as compelling to read as any great psychological mystery or thriller. The book — written in an easy, conversational style that belies its meticulous research — is almost impossible to put down.

Ron Miller, Front Porch Fredericksburg Magazine, September 2007. Full review

Advance Praise

With clarity and eloquence, Jason Emerson has re-examined an episode of First Lady history that has remained consistently fascinating and misunderstood for over a century. The issues of Mary Lincoln’s mental health and her trial for insanity are presented for the first time in a context of sound medical information and a legal perspective—elements sorely lacking in all previous scholarship. There is no padding here; every word counts and every word adds up to a riveting and until-now neglected chronicle begging to be told. The Madness of Mary Lincoln is precise, documented and detailed.

Carl Sferrazza Anthony, author of First Ladies, America’s First Families, and biographer of four individual First Ladies

A well-conceived, well-researched, well-crafted, historical adventure story, backed by clearly exhaustive research and a deep feeling for both the personalities, and the medical and legal mores of the day. Jason Emerson is a very, very good writer and is clearly a superior historical detective. He has combed original sources and, even more intriguingly, chased down descendants of the original characters in the Mary Lincoln insanity story, with clearly important results. This is a most original study, taking new evidence to new heights of sophisticated analysis. It will deservedly supplant previous analyses of the insanity issue.

Harold Holzer, co-chair of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, author of Lincoln at Cooper Union

Jason Emerson has written a sparkling, new and definitive work on Mary Todd Lincoln’s mental health in general and her insanity problems in particular. He has discovered numerous unknown letters by Mary Lincoln and others. These he has skillfully woven into the fabric of this book, which is written with verve and complete understanding of the subject. It is a literary masterpiece and can even be read as a short life of Mrs. Lincoln, too. It is a very major contribution to Lincolniana, not to be missed.

Wayne C. Temple, Chief Deputy Director of the Illinois State Archives, author of Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet

The controversy surrounding Mary Lincoln, including her mental state, still intrigues and fascinates. She has variously been described at neurotic, spoiled, willful, a spendthrift, and manic depressive. Jason Emerson’s coda, using new primary sources, should put to rest lingering doubts about this First Lady’s insanity and the trial that led to her commitment. Beautifully written, one could only hope that all briefs be as cogent and well-argued as this.

Frank J. Williams, Chief Justice, Rhode Island Supreme Court, Chair, The Lincoln Forum

A judicious, convincing analysis of Robert Todd Lincoln’s conduct, showing that he acted conscientiously and honorably to protect his demented mother from herself, that he was motivated by a strong sense of duty and responsibility, and that Mary Todd Lincoln’s exceedingly irrational behavior made life miserable for him just as it had done for his father. Emerson’s new evidence demonstrates that Mary Todd Lincoln deserves to be pitied more than censured, but also that she behaved very badly indeed.

Michael Burlingame, Sadowski Professor of History Emeritus, Connecticut College, author of The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln

The Madness of Mary Lincoln in the News

“QND Team Mapping Square in Lincoln’s Time,” —Quincy [IL] Herald-Whig, March 19, 2008

“Who are you calling crazy?: Book Re-evaluates Lexington’s First Lady,” Lexington [KY] Herald-Leader, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2007

“Lincoln book serves up slice of Batavia history,” column by Eric Schelkopf Kane County Chronicle, Kane County, Illinois

Mary Todd Lincoln papers found Historian discovers copies of letters from ‘insanity years’
Springfield [IL] State Journal Register

Letters tell of Mary Todd Lincoln’s fight for release from asylumChicago Tribune (via

Letters by Lincoln’s Wife Found — CBS 2 Chicago

Copies of Letters Written by Lincoln’s Wife Found in Trunk — WUSA 9 Washington D.C.