An extract from ‘Mrs Lincoln’

Mrs LincolnI read today the account of my attempt at suicide. It was printed in the Chicago Inter Ocean – on the front page, where appear all the worst stories about me. This is not to say that Doctor Patterson allows the eighteen female lunatics under his care newspapers. Indeed, he believes all news of the outside world to be excessively agitating.

It is Doctor Patterson’s opinion that the tumult of late-nineteenth century life is responsible for diseases of the brain. He explained to me during our first interview that female nerves – which are smaller than those of men – are more likely to be drained of their vitality by the chaos of modern life.

“Newspapers would only serve to overstimulate your already deranged mind,” he told me.

Our interview was conducted in Doctor Patterson’s office, which is fitted up like a lady’s boudoir,with velvet chaises and a great many needleworked pillows. A décor designed to make comfortable the doctor’s patients, all of whom are possessed of those female nerves. “I do not believe that my mind is deranged,” I said to the doctor. “Addled from too much chloral hydrate and laudanum, perhaps. Unsettled by the ten-year anniversary of my husband’s killing. But not deranged.”

The doctor pulled at his coarsely curled hair, which he wears quite full in the back, as if to give the impression of a very large brain. “Your bladder is hysterical,” he informed me.

“My bladder, I believe, was damaged by the birth of my last son.” “You are also possessed of an irritated spine.”
“It is an arthritic condition which has come upon me since I passed fifty.” “And you have engaged in the religious excitement of séance.” “As has Queen Victoria and fully one-third of the gentlemen of my husband’s cabinet.”

I had perhaps sounded too definite in defense of my sanity, for Doctor Patterson raked at his unruly beard with impatience. “How long shall I have to stay at Bellevue Place?” I asked, in a tone more meek.

Doctor Patterson relaxed back in his leather chair, the only masculine furniture in the room. “You should not dwell too much upon leaving,” he told me.

“But seeing an end to my time here will make the days more tolerable.” I watched the doctor handle the paperweight he kept upon his desk, a dragonfly caught in amber – an object which feels cruel to me, put before ladies who have been committed here.

“You will remain at Bellevue Place,” said Doctor Patterson, “until I – and your son – determine that your reason has been restored.” “And how shall you determine such a thing?”

The doctor rose and went to stand before a lace-curtained window which looked out upon the lawns surrounding the asylum. “Treatment at Bellevue Place,” he explained, “is based upon the wholesome benefits of fresh air, moderate exercise, and the therapeutic effects of cooling baths, in addition to the essential practice – particularly for those of the female sex – of moral restraint.”He turned to regard me with a stern expression.

“I shall decide your sanity by your willingness to participate in these activities.” “I shall do whatever you require to prove my underangement,” I told him.

In the three days since that interview, I have every morning gone for a drive in the asylum carriage – which unlocks only from the outside – through the unpretty town of Batavia. Batavia is a quarry town, and everything in it – its clapboard houses, horse carts, and citizens – appears dulled by a fine powdering of limestone. I have also allowed Mrs. Ruggles, the matron with the forearms of a man, to soak me three times a day in cold, salted water, and have engaged in countless games of croquet with my fellow madwomen, games which are frequently halted so that Mrs. Munger, the wife of a Chicago banker, can shout at her ball. I pursue no moral unrestraint, and at the close of each afternoon, I walk the long path that traverses the asylum grounds all the way to the unfinished greenhouse at the edge of the property, returning by way of Mrs. Patterson’s kitchen garden in the event that lady should wish me to dig up some radishes for the good mental hygiene of it.

It is because of these walks that I have come to know Doctor Patterson’s retarded daughter, Blanche, a twelve-year-old child with the facial features of an Asiatic. And it is because of Blanche that I learned of the story of my attempt at suicide.

Blanche is not an attractive child. Her face is too round and her eyes too lidded. Also, Mrs. Patterson keeps her weak-minded daughter’s hair braided so tightly, the child’s head appears too small for her chubby body. But Blanche possesses an affection which does not demand to be deserved, and seems incapable of judging anyone’s actions; and over the days that I have been here, I have developed a fondness for her.

I visit with Blanche every afternoon, for she is a child oo firm habits, and that is when she comes to sit upon the stone steps of the back porch with a pair of shears and her family’s discarded newspapers. Newspapers which she snips into elaborately outfitted – though oddly shaped – silhouettes of ladies.

On this day – the day I read about myself in the Chicago Inter Ocean – I returned from my walk to find the girl sitting in her usual place upon the porch steps, a stack of newspapers at her side and her white lawn dress littered with snippets of black words.

“Abraham’s Widow!” the child exclaimed upon seeing me. Someone – the girl’s mother, I expect – must have explained to Blanche who and what I was, and this piece of information is all of the explanation which has fixed in her mind, for she uses it in place of my name.

“Good afternoon, Miss Blanche,” I said in reply. I like to call her “Miss” in the Southern style for the way that it causes her to touch her tight plaits, as if they have miraculously turned into curls. I gathered my skirts and sat beside the child. “Let me see what you have done.”

She handed me the newspaper she was cutting into a lady, and then rested her head upon my shoulder. At twelve, Blanche retains the warm, milky scent of a much younger child – a symptom, perhaps, of the undeveloped state of her mind.Whatever it is, I have found none of Doctor Patterson’s treatments as soothing as his daughter’s head upon my shoulder.

“You have made this lady very elegant,” I told her. I held the paper to the sun to better see the silhouette, and also to read something of what that scoundrel Grant, who has astoundingly become president, might be up to. I have passed the whole of my life following politics and only find it agitating to my female nerves to be cut off from them.

The late-afternoon sun was low and shining into my eyes; and I nearly returned the paper to the frail-minded girl without reading any of it. But as I angled the page to set it down, I was stopped by what I saw there. For just above the place where Blanche had cut her lady’s head was the headline, “Another Sad Chapter in the Life of the Demented Widow.”

I gasped, a short intake of breath which made Blanche stare up at me with worry, as if she feared she had stabbed me with the scissors. But it was not Blanche’s scissors which had so unsettled me; it was the knowledge that I am the country’s only demented widow, and that the sad chapter reported in the newspaper could only be my own.

“Are you well, Abraham’s Widow?” Blanche shouted into my ear. Almost all of the retarded girl’s utterances are rendered in overemphatic tones.

“I think an insect must have flown too near to me,” I told her. And though the child waited, I did not return the newspaper, for I knew that once I let her take possession of it, she would cut the story about me into a paper lady’s bonnet.

“Would this lady not be prettier with a hat?” I asked her. “Yes, Abraham’s Widow!” she exclaimed. “Let me design one for you.”

Carefully, I removed the shears from Blanche’s awkward fingers, and while she watched closely, as if I were working magic, I cut a small flattopped hat which took up very little of the page.

“Is that not more in fashion?” I said, putting the paper lady into Blanche’s hand and tucking the rest of the page into my pocket. At that moment, I saw Mrs. Patterson coming from the kitchen garden with a bunch of stunted-looking onions in her arms, and quickly worked the shears back into Blanche’s fingers, for only the staff – and this retarded child – were allowed scissors. Then, I rose from the steps. “You are going, Abraham’s Widow?” asked Blanche.

“Yes,” I said. I feared that if Mrs. Patterson encountered me, she was likely to ask me to return with her to the garden in order to enjoy the wholesomeness of weeding. “Cut a lady with a great long train,” I told Blanche, “and show it to me tomorrow.” “I will!” she shouted.

I rested a hand upon her narrow head and then disappeared into the dank coolness of the limestone building.

I found myself in the corridor outside the asylum kitchen, where I could see the Negro cook pouring something pale and watery into a cauldron. Doctor Patterson believes in the benefits of a bland diet upon unquiet minds, and all the food we are served at Bellevue Place is tasteless and white and smells of steam. Although I was anxious to read the story about my suicide, I did not linger here to do it, for I believed Mrs. Patterson to be headed toward the kitchen with her onions – though not, I assumed, in order to add them to our lunatics’ supper. I hurried toward
the staircase at the end of the hallway and rushed up to my second-floor room.

I have been told by the doctor’s wife that my room is one of the best of the asylum, in recognition of the position I once held. That may be so – I have not seen where the other inmates are kept. Still, the room makes me think too much of a second-class boardinghouse. The bureau is oak and was once decorated with acanthus leaves, which have long since fallen away, leaving behind their ghostly outlines. I have also a rocker which has been made to an odd geometry, and when I sit upon it, it makes me feel as if it wishes nothing more than to pitch me to the floor. The room
possesses a table, covered with a cloth which has lost half its tassels, and a strange little desk decorated with the carved face of an angel at the joining of each of its legs. Only the mattress is new, for I had it brought here on my first day – less to keep myself from sleeping upon bedbugs, as to avoid placing my head where others have dreamt their mad dreams.

I have a view of the river from my one window, but there are bars over the glass.

Shutting the door behind me – although a desire for privacy is thought at Bellevue Place to demonstrate an unwillingness to participate in the institution’s therapeutic activities – I dropped into the inhospitable rocker and took the newspaper clipping from my pocket.

“On the evening following her trial for insanity,” I read between the cuts on the page, “Mrs. Lincoln, overcome by melancholy, eluded the Pinkerton guards stationed outside the door of her hotel room and escaped to the pharmacy of Squair & Company. Acting in appearance both anxious and uncoherent, Mrs. Lincoln demanded of the druggist a lethal mixture of laudanum and camphor. When Mr. Squair expressed concern over providing such a poisonous concoction, the despairing lady informed him that she intended to use the potion to bathe a neuralgic shoulder. Unable to dissuade Mrs. Lincoln from her request, the druggist retired to a back room, and after some short moments, during which the demented lady grew increasingly agitated, Mr. Squair returned with a bottle marked ‘Laudanum – poison.’ Grabbing the potion from the druggist’s hand, Mrs. Lincoln rushed into the street; whereupon, she immediately poured the entire contents into her throat. Then, she returned to her hotel to await her death.

“The nation was only spared further sorrow by the fact that Mr. Squair had recognized the Widow of the Martyred President beneath her veil, and divining her purpose, substituted burnt sugar water for the laudanum.”

No one would believe this of me, I told myself.No one would believe that a fifty-six-year-old lady who is slightly arthritic and plumper than she should be could escape two Pinkertons. No one who knows me could believe that after all which has happened in my life, I would choose to end my life over commitment to the madhouse.

But of course they will believe it. For now that I have been proven insane, anything might be believed of me.

It is a singular experience to be adjudged insane, to sit in a courtroom in muddied skirts while seventeen witnesses swear to your derangement. My skirts were muddied because the man who had come to bring me to the courthouse, Leonard Swett, would not allow me to change my dress. “I am not to let you from my sight,” he explained. He was standing in the doorway to my room at the Grand Pacific Hotel with two policeman behind him. “We want no possibility of escape.”

“We are on the third floor of the hotel,” I said. “Even as a young woman, I could not have managed it.” Mr. Swett was a former colleague of Mr. Lincoln, and his resemblance to my husband had always made me feel warm toward him. I recalled then that Mr. Swett had lately acquired the title of “The Insanity Lawyer,” and I made myself smile into his stern face to remind him that we knew each other, and that I was Mrs. Lincoln and not his latest lunatic.

But Mr. Swett only fixed me with a hard look from behind his small, pince-nez spectacles. “I shall give you the choice of traveling to the courthouse in my carriage,” he said to me, “or in that of the officers.”

“Where is Robert?” I asked him. “Where is my son?”
“Mr. Lincoln is waiting at the courthouse.”

Robert is waiting there to defend me, I told myself. He will not let Mr. Swett commit me.

The courthouse was filled; overflowing with people who had known I was to be tried for insanity before I had. They crowded the benches and stood in the aisles, staring at me with eager expressions, in hopes, I supposed, that I would succumb to a fit of madness before their eyes. But I barely saw these men and women who had come to witness a mad First Lady. I searched only for my eldest son, finding him at last at the front of the courtroom behind a mahogany desk, well dressed and handsome in dark brown. Robert has inherited none of the homeliness of his father. His nose is straight and aristocratic, and his mouth is well formed. The only features he shares with his father are a small indentation pressed into his chin, which I always wish to put my finger to, and eyes of
an uncommonly pale shade of gray. Robert’s left eye, however, does not sit entirely straight in its socket. As a child, he was made by doctors to look through keyholes to straighten that eye, and now that Robert is a man of thirty-one, it is a little less inclined – save when he is overcome by some emotion, when it cants violently toward his nose.

“Please,” I begged Mr. Swett, “take me to my son.”
“You must sit with your own lawyer,” he instructed me.
“Is Robert not my lawyer?”
“Your lawyer is Mr.Arnold.” And as if Mr. Swett had conjured him out of the air, Isaac Arnold, a man who had been a friend of Mr. Lincoln’s and of mine during our time in Springfield, stood beside me.

“Perhaps you do not consider Robert experienced enough,” I said to Mr. Swett. “But I believe in my son and would prefer to have him defend me.”

Mr. Swett made an irritated exhalation. “It is Robert who has drawn up the application to try your sanity.”

“Robert wishes to commit me to a madhouse?” The noise of the courtroom grew deafening, and I found I could draw no air into my lungs.

“Robert only wishes what would be to your benefit,” said Mr. Swett. “And Mr.Arnold is here to ensure that afterward, no one can say that what is decided was not to your benefit.”He gazed pointedly at Mr.Arnold, and though I wished to understand the meaning of that gaze, I could not, for the gaslight which reflected from the lenses of Mr. Swett’s pince-nez spectacles turned his eyes to opaque disks.

Mr. Arnold, however, seemed in no doubt of what he was to do. He led me across the room, where he settled me behind my own mahogany table, in opposition to that of my son, and sat quietly as Mr. Swett proceeded to call sixteen witnesses to testify to my madness.

I was light-headed from my inability to breathe and brain-numbed from shock; and as the witnesses spoke about my insanity, I sometimes believed that this was no more than a dream induced by laudanum, hoped that it was.Nothing the witnesses said of me was untrue, and while all that I had done and thought had felt sound at the time, now that it was spoken aloud, it seemed the behavior of a madwoman.

“Mrs. Lincoln spent more than six hundred dollars on Belgian lace curtains,” declared a clerk employed at Mattock’s Department Store. “Though she told me that she does not own a home.”

“I have had to send men to search the rooms next door to Mrs. Lincoln’s,” said Mr. Turner, the manager of the Grand Pacific Hotel, “because she insisted there were assassins in them plotting her death. When my men found no assassins, Mrs. Lincoln swore they were living in the walls.”

“One night,” whispered the hotel housekeeper, her voice full of the excitement of relating scandal, “Mrs. Lincoln was found running through the hallway in her nightclothes, shrieking that her son was trying to murder her.”

Once the hotel employees and shopkeepers had finished describing my lunacy, five doctors were called. I had been examined by none of these doctors, had only seen them over the past weeks coming from Robert’s room at the hotel. Yet it was the opinion of each of these gentlemen that I had lost my reason due to excessive grief on the brain force.

The testimony of the doctors cut through my opiate-like haze like scalpels. I am going to be shut away with madwomen! I clutched at Mr. Arnold’s hand to keep myself from acting as insane as I was being described – and to urge him to make some defense of my sanity. But Mr. Arnold only patted my fingers with a palm made slick from the pomade he uses to fix the hair combed to hide his baldness and did not question any of Mr. Swett’s witnesses.

When the sixteen witnesses were done, Mr. Swett called Robert Lincoln to the stand.

He will not go, I told myself. And when Robert did go, taking the seat at the front of the courtroom and keeping a hand pressed over his flawed eye, I told myself that still, he would not tell this courtroom he believed me insane.

Apologizing first for obliging my son to speak about unhappy occurrences, Mr. Swett asked him to describe my spending since I had returned to Chicago.

“My mother has spent two hundred dollars upon soap and perfume,” he told the court.“More than she will be able to use in a lifetime. She has purchased seven hundred dollars’ worth of jewelry, which she will never wear, for she lives in mourning. The closets in her hotel room are so overfilled with purchases, she is in danger of being crushed by them.” “Does your mother suffer from delusions?” asked Mr. Swett. “She hears voices.Men who argue about the most efficient method of murdering her.”

My son told the crowded courtroom every irrational thing I had done these past months, every utterance I had made that sounded unreasoned. “My mother’s behavior has become so erratic,” he declared,
“I have had to engage Pinkertons to follow her whenever she leaves the hotel.”

“Can you tell us,” said Mr. Swett smoothly, “why you drew up the petition to try your mother’s sanity?” Robert’s left eye tugged furiously toward his nose. I hoped the emotion pulling upon it was love. Or at minimum, regret. But I had never possessed any skill for reading my eldest son’s emotions, and could not say which one now worked upon him.

“My mother has long been a source of great anxiety to me,” Robert told Mr. Swett. “Do you believe she is insane?” asked the lawyer. Please, say no. For I am your mother, still. Robert rubbed again at his defective eye. “I have no doubt of it,” he declared.

A lady seated behind me gave a small cry, as if she had come upon something shocking, a dead bird or other small animal; and for a moment I could not be certain that it was not I who had made the cry.

Mr. Arnold called no witnesses. It required only ten minutes for the gentlemen on the jury to decide me mad.

I thought then that I would go mad, for I was terrified of being locked up with lunatics. But for the moment, it was not fear I felt. Even the deepest dread could not be more powerful than the emotion which now claimed me, which overrode all other feelings. And when my son at last crossed the room to me, I found voice only to speak the one thought which pushed out all others.

“To think,” I said to him, “that my son would ever have done this.” It is now well past midnight, and I am seated at the little desk carved with angels reading again the story I rescued from Blanche’s scissors. As I read, I can hear above me Mrs. Wheeler’s pounding. Mrs. Wheeler beats her fists upon the walls of her room every night until she is dosed with chloral hydrate. But Mrs. Ruggles, the mannish matron, is a sound sleeper, and so the sound continues without ceasing for most of the night. During the day, Bellevue Place is subject to a different type of pounding noise, that of the machinery at the nearby quarry breaking up the limestone. I sometimes imagine that the asylum possesses a malevolent heart, and that those of us who are confined here will never escape the sound of its beating.

I do not sleep at Bellevue Place. But it is not only Mrs. Wheeler’s ravings which keep me from resting. Since my arrival here, I have given up my nightly doses of chloral hydrate and laudanum, refusing them when Mrs. Ruggles comes with the bottles. I have long suspected that the drugs addled my thinking, even when awake, and since I have left off taking them, I have grown more clearheaded. However, I also cannot sleep. And so I find myself awake, reading lies about myself printed in a newspaper.

None of this is new to me. From the time that I became a president’s wife, I have come upon too many stories of myself which contain no truth. I have read that I spied for the Confederacy during the war and sold my husband’s speeches to pay for my dresses. I have read that I kept slaves in the basement when I lived in the President’s House and stole the silver when I left it. I have read so much that is false and so little that is true, that I now believe paper cannot be made to hold one authentic fact of my history.

Perhaps it is this last thought which made me look inside the odd little desk for pen and ink, made me write the sentence, “I read today the account of my attempt at suicide,” then made me write everything which fills these pages, more true words about myself than have ever been inked before.

I cannot say if it is this tally of words which decides me. Or if it is only the unfilled hours of my sleeplessness. Whichever it is, I somehow am decided. I shall spend my nights at Bellevue Place writing my true story. Every night, while Mrs. Wheeler pounds upon the walls and the other mad ladies cry out in their sleep, I shall write. And the exercise will help the night to pass. And make me forget that I am locked in a madhouse. And keep me sane.

My first strong recollection is of the summer my mother died. I was six years old and the month was July – cholera season in Lexington, Kentucky. The windows of our brick house on Short Street had been shut tight against the poisonous gases that drifted up from the lowland swamp, and my mother was forced to breath her last in a shuttered house filled with the scent of her own bloodletting – the smell of the big copper penny known as the “large cent,” used to keep shut the eyelids of the dead. For two days, the stifling house swelled with the screaming of my mother giving birth to her seventh child in twelve years. Usually when my mother’s time came, my sisters and brother and I would be taken out of the house, sent up the road to Grandmother Parker’s farm. But because the air was filled with cholera, we were forced to remain at home, shut in with the sound of our sibling being delivered. I passed most of those two days in the sweltering bedroom I shared with my three sisters, removing the dresses from my china-faced dolls – relieving them of their clothes made me feel cooler – and singing hymns to cover my mother’s screaming.

During the night of the second day, the house went quiet, and I woke feeling panicked, for I had gotten used to the cries, which had come at intervals like the ringing of a clock. I slipped from the bed I shared with my eldest sister Elizabeth and crept into the hallway. There, I spied the thirteen-year-old wet nurse sent down by Grandmother Parker coming from my mother’s room, my just-born sibling in her skinny black arms.

© Janis Cooke Newman 2007