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updated: 9/25/2012 7:19 AM

Modern 'trial' lets Mary Todd Lincoln go free

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  • Mary Todd Lincoln

      Mary Todd Lincoln

 
Associated Press

According to historical accounts, Abraham Lincoln's wife slowly went insane after his death and had to be committed to an asylum by her only remaining son. But was Mary Todd Lincoln legally insane or just ill, and was her son protecting her or protecting the family's reputation?

A "trial" on Lincoln's mental state Monday night found that she shouldn't have been committed, going by modern legal and medical standards. Prominent judges served as attorneys arguing for the two sides, and psychiatrists provided expert testimony. Actors in period costumes portrayed Mary Todd Lincoln and her son Robert.

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The event was a chance for history buffs to have a little fun, but the participants hope it serves another purpose, too.

"I think it definitely can be educational, and that's one of its objectives," said Dr. James Cavanaugh, a professor of psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center.

The people involved in the event wanted to give the audience a better sense of changes in the legal system's handling of mental illness and how medicine has evolved to treat it. The Chicago "trial" was filmed by public television and eventually will be used in classrooms, said Judge Neil Cohen, chairman of the committee that organized the event.

Mary Todd Lincoln was committed in 1875, 10 years after her husband's assassination.

Her son paid six doctors, none of whom had examined Mary Todd Lincoln, to sign statements calling her unsound. She was taken into custody without warning and tried the same day, without being allowed to choose her own attorney.

Witnesses testified that she believed someone was trying to poison her and that some sort of Indian spirit was inside her head. She shopped compulsively, often buying several of the same item but never opening them afterward. She carried valuable bonds in her petticoats.

A jury took just 10 minutes to declare her insane. She was released a few months later, however, after a campaign of public support from friends.

Ever since, experts have debated how much of the evidence against her was accurate and, if it was, what it said about her mental health.

The audience at Monday's trial got to vote on the answers, and the same format will be used at another one scheduled for Oct. 1 in Springfield.

The trials were organized by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission.

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