Robert Todd Lincoln burned most of his papers and correspondence before he died. Most, but not all. He saved a collection of papers he called the MTL Insanity File.
Fifty years after Robert Lincoln died, Abraham Lincoln’s last descendant discovered the MTL Insanity File tucked away in a cupboard in his Vermont mansion.
The discovery marked the last chapter in the sad story of the Lincoln family after the president’s assassination. And it shed light on one of the biggest controversies surrounding the family: Did Robert Todd Lincoln do the right thing when he had his mother committed to an insane asylum?
Mary Todd Lincoln
Even before her husband ran for president, Mary Todd Lincoln suffered from migraine headaches, depression, eccentricity and angry outbursts. She also liked to spend money, and psychiatrists today think she may have had bipolar disorder.
Robert, her eldest, was the only one of her four sons to outlive her. Eddie died at three of tuberculosis, Willie died at 11 in the White House and Tad died at 18 after Lincoln’s assassination.
As a widow, Mary often fell into severe depression. She seemed delusional at times, and she spent money extravagantly while badgering people for more.
Robert, though rigid and disagreeable, agonized over what to do with his eccentric mother. Finally he had her declared insane and committed to the Bellevue Place sanitarium in Batavia, Ill. Mary managed to engineer her release, smearing her son in the process.
She called him ‘the monster of mankind.’ During her trial she didn’t have an adequate defense, she said. The doctors who testified were all friends of Roberts and hadn’t examined her.
Mother and son remained estranged until shortly before her death in 1882.
The Lincoln Family
Robert Todd Lincoln got rich as a railroad lawyer. He could easily afford to build a 24-room summer home called Hildene in Manchester, Vt.
He and his wife, Mary Harlan, had two daughters and a son who died at age 16.
The Lincolns also had three grandchildren. Daughter Mamie married Charles Isham and had one son, Lincoln Isham, who died without issue. Daughter Jessie eloped with Warren Wallace Beckwith, a minor league baseball player, and had two children, Mary and Robert. Jessie spent the last years of her life living at Hildene, which her daughter Mary, known as Peggy, had inherited.
Mary Beckwith inherited her great-grandmother’s eccentric nature along with Hildene. She bought three airplanes, kept small wild animal in the house and ran errands in town wearing overalls, which did not flatter her rotund figure. She never married or had children, and grew into a recluse.
She had little interest in her Lincoln legacy, asking, “Why should anybody be interested in all this old stuff we’ve got around the house?”
Her brother Bob, the last of Abraham Lincoln’s descendants, never worked a day in his life and called himself a spoiled brat.
The MTL Insanity File
Mary Beckwith died of colon cancer on July 10, 1975, age 76. She left Hildene to the Christian Science Church, including 400 acres and the house. Hildene was a wreck, not quite falling down but valued at only $100,000. The church couldn’t afford to renovate the property, but a nonprofit stepped in, bought the estate and preserved it.
Bob inherited all his sister’s personal papers and Lincoln relics. He decided to let scholars see for the first time the news clips and legal briefs his grandfather collected.
He had befriended James Hickey, curator of the Lincoln papers at the Illinois State Historical Library. In 1977, Hickey and his wife Betty flew to Albany, then drove to Manchester, Vt. There they helped Beckwith go through Hildene room by room.
They had to look through 69 trunks in the attic alone and several thousand of Robert Todd Lincoln’s books. The Hickeys stayed at a motel, and in the morning picked up Bob Beckwith at his bed and breakfast on their way to Hildene. Beckwith, diabetic and irritable, had to be fed every few hours.
On the third day, Betty was going through the trunks in the attic when her husband ran up the stairs. “I found them!” he said. He took her to Robert Todd Lincoln’s bedroom on the second floor. Inside a closet she saw a bundle of documents.
They included legal documents, newspaper clippings and letters, including 25 by Mary Todd Lincoln to her daughter-in- law, tied with a pink ribbon and labeled ‘MTL Insanity File.’
It was an astonishing discovery.
Nothing Like It
Mark Neely and Gerald McMurtry would later write a book called The Insanity File: The Case of Mary Todd Lincoln.
Between them, they had studied Abraham Lincoln for 60 years. They first saw the MTL Insanity File during cocktails before dinner at an Illinois farmhouse.
“The scotch seemed to lose all its effect in the startling and sobering light of these documents,” they wrote. Neither had ever before seen a cache of Lincoln documents like that one.
Robert Todd Lincoln had destroyed many of his family’s letters, including his father’s and his own. He also destroyed his mother’s letters during her most difficult years of widowhood. But for some reason he kept the MTL Insanity File.
Bob Beckwith had wrestled with what to do with them. Ultimately he decided his father had kept the Insanity File because he wanted people to know its contents.
Surprisingly, the Insanity File contained more letters critical of Robert Todd Lincoln than sympathetic to him. The letters reveal a tortured son rather than a monster of mankind and a pitiful, distressing mother.
Neely and McMurtry decided in the end that Robert Todd Lincoln had treated his mother fairly.
“He did not fear having the case of Mary Todd Lincoln reviewed before the bar of history,” they wrote.
This story was updated in 2023.
Images: Hildene By Rolf Müller – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1352185