Mary Todd Lincoln Archive of Commitment Papers Sells to Museum for $37,600

On June 11, 2010, Cowan’s in Cincinnati offered an archive of documents detailing the 1875 insanity hearing and ultimate commitment of Mary Todd Lincoln into Bellevue Place, a private asylum in Batavia, Illinois. A Louisville, Kentucky, family decided to sell the archive after preserving it since the 1930s.

The archive, which included the commitment decree, the arrest warrant for Mary Todd Lincoln, and the ledger book signing her into Bellevue Place, will return to the Louisville thanks to the Frazier International History Museum, located on Museum Row in Louisville, which won the lot by bidding $37,600.00, well above the archive’s $8/10,000 estimate.

The Museum sent 26-year-old Kelly Williams, the Associate Curator, to bid on their behalf. On her successful first auction, Williams commented, “The Frazier Museum is very excited to be able to exhibit this extremely important archive. We were founded as the Frazier Historic Arms Museum, but we are much more diverse than just a museum of historical arms. We’ve re-branded, and we want people to know that there is something here for everyone. This archive will be a centerpiece in our collection.”

Williams noted that the Mary Todd Lincoln documents will be displayed as part of a planned 2011 exhibit titled “My Brother, My Enemy,” which focuses around individual Kentuckian’s contributions to the Civil War.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s tendency towards melancholy and depression after the deaths of her husband and children is an often-cited fact in history books; the question of her sanity (or insanity) remains an intriguing topic for historians. Mary’s only living son, Robert Todd Lincoln, initiated Mary’s commitment and confinement to Bellevue in May, 1875, claiming that she was squandering her stipend and savings and was increasingly likely to take her own life. However, Robert’s true motives for having his mother committed are unknown to this day.

Pointedly, after Mary’s commitment, Robert was named conservator of his mother’s finances. During her stay at Bellevue, Mary maintained correspondence with friends and supporters, making her case for her sanity, and she was released in September, 1875, after just four months. Just over a year after her arrest, Mary was determined to be competent to control her finances, and Robert was removed as conservator. She died in 1882 without ever healing the rift with her son.

The importance of this small clutch of papers is hard to understate. Robert Lincoln was clearly mortified that he had been forced to have his mother committed, and in the wake of the incident ordered all correspondence and records related to this period in his mother’s life destroyed. For the official legal documents to have survived is remarkable.

Lincoln scholar Jason Emerson, author of The Madness of Mary Lincoln (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007) found the documents “unparalleled historic items” and commented, “As a historian who has written a book solely dedicated to the event in Mary’s life even more exhilarating.”

The Louisville family who now own the archive are descendents of former owners of Bellevue, where in the 1930s the family’s ancestor found the documents in the asylum’s basement.

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