Robert Lincoln Writes About The End of His Mother’s Estrangement

Robert T Lincoln LFA-0092; Mary Lincoln LFA-0496

One of the most common questions asked about the relationship between Mary Lincoln and her oldest son Robert is whether they ever reconciled after becoming estranged due to Mary’s commitment to Bellevue Place Sanitarium in 1875. The answer is yes, but it took five years. I have previously written about Mary and Robert’s relationship in an article included in the wonderful book The Mary Lincoln Enigma, edited by Frank J. Williams and Michael Burkhimer. But a previously unknown letter recently has been found in the Library of Congress that adds a little more to the story.

The relationship between Mary and her oldest son Robert was, quite simply, one of the closest and most important of Mary’s life. Robert was not only the first-born of the four Lincoln children, but, after the death of his little brother Eddie in 1850, six-year-old Robert became his mother’s constant comfort and companion. Two more sons were subsequently born to the Lincolns, Willie and Tad, but Robert, older than his brothers by seven and nine years respectively, was somewhat apart from them. While Willie and Tad were best friends, Robert’s natural companion, Eddie, was gone. Instead, his close companion at home became his mother. Mary and Robert shared many interests and activities in common. They both loved reading literature and poetry, they took piano lessons together, and shared a skill and interest in the French language, in which both were fluent.

During Robert’s childhood and adolescence, when his father was constantly away from home riding the judicial circuit and making political appearances, Robert acted as his mother’s social and intellectualcompanion, and also in many ways as her protector. When his father was gone Robert was the man of the house; he not only did the male chores, but also acted as an anodyne to his mother’s emotionalism. Mary was a high-strung woman and suffered from many fears. Many of her terrors occurred at night, when she feared burglars, and when she was particularly afraid of lightning and thunderstorms. When Robert was a child and his father was away, a local neighbor boy often would stay at the Lincoln home. As Robert grew older, he became the calming presence to his mother.

Robert left for college in 1860, but during the next four-and-a-half years, he became his mother’s traveling companion. Mother and son both loved traveling, and whenever Robert had a break from college (at Harvard) he and Mary were usually on the road somewhere together. Robert met his mother during many of her trips to New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, where the two would not only spend hours together shopping in the most fashionable stores, but also entertaining with social, political, and military leaders. Mary also visited Robert at Cambridge when she could, at least once a year. Every summer mother and son spent one to two weeks traveling around New England on vacation: in August 1861 to Long Branch, N.J. for two weeks; in 1862 to New York City for one week; in 1863 to the White Mountains of New Hampshire for one week; and in 1864 from Boston to New York City to Manchester, Vermont for a total trip of about ten days.

Robert does not appear to have been a “mama’s boy,” but just a good companion to the mother he respected and the woman with whom he shared so much in common. After his father’s assassination in 1865, Robert derailed whatever plans he had as a 21-year-old man, and instead cut his Eastern ties and went with his mother and brother Tad to Chicago. When the family first moved to Chicago in May 1865, Robert was not happy by the cramped accommodations at their hotel in Hyde Park. “I presume that I must put up with it, as mother’s pleasure must be consulted before my own,” he said.

Robert Todd Lincoln LFA-0087

Over the next ten years, Mary Lincoln considered her oldest son to be a blessing to her—in 1871 she called him “all that is noble and good”—and showered him with all the love and generosity she could. She loaned him money, postponed her European trip with Tad to attend Robert’s wedding to Mary Harlan in 1868, sent her son and daughter-in-law money and gifts from Europe, and as they were setting up their new house she told them to take and use anything of hers that was in storage in Chicago. Mary’s letters are filled with lavish praise over her son; and she more than once bestowed upon him the greatest compliment during her widowhood she could give, such as when she declared in 1868, “Robert grows every day, more and more like his father.”

After Tad Lincoln died at age seventeen in 1871, Mary was distraught and depressed. She had now lost three sons and her husband, and felt like heartache and tragedy were to be her lot in life. “Ill luck presided at my birth,” she told her daughter-in-law, “certainly within the last few years it has been a faithful attendant.” Robert invited his mother to live with him and his wife, which she did for about six months, until the two Marys had a falling out in 1872. Mary spent the next three years living out of hotel rooms, traveling the U.S. visiting health spas and Spiritualist retreats.

By March 1875, Mary Lincoln was suffering from mental troubles including hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and depression. The story of her insanity episode and trial is well known (and which I have written multiple books about), with the outcome being that she was declared insane and committed to Bellevue Place Sanitarium in May 1875. During the one-year period from May 1875 to June 1876, while Mary was judged legally insane and Robert acted as her conservator, their relationship bottomed out. By the time of Mary Lincoln’s second trial, in June 1876, during which she was declared “restored to reason,” she was so angry at Robert that she had threatened to kill him more than once. After the trial, she threatened to sue him for theft of her property (which he was storing for her) and to spread salacious stories about him in the newspapers.

When Mary was released she quickly fled to Europe in a self-imposed exile. Part of the reason she left America was because she could not stand the way everyone looked at her as if she was insane; but the main reason was that she feared her son would commit her again. Mary was gone for the next four years. She was so bitter over what her son had done that she refused to communicate with him, and even avoided writing his name, generally referring to him only as “RTL,” “that one,” or one of numerous epithets such as a “monster of mankind.” She credited her separation from Robert as contributing to her tranquility, writing in 1876, “I am allowed tranquility here and am not harassed by a demon.” Their estrangement was so thorough that in 1877 Robert even admitted to a correspondent that he did not know his mother’s address, only that she was “somewhere in Europe” and that “she has for unfortunate reasons ceased to communicate with me.”

While she was away, Mary ignored Robert, but continually sent gifts to her granddaughter, Mamie. Robert hoped this small connection meant that one day his mother would forgive him, telling his aunt, “I am very glad that she has sent the things to Mamie for it makes it seem probable that the time will come when her great animosity toward me will cease and I am very anxious that it should. Its existence has been very distressing to me.” But Robert knew that reconciliation would only come when his mother was ready. When his aunt Elizabeth Edwards suggested to Robert in 1879 that he send a letter to his mother to help repair the family breach, Robert replied, “I am afraid a letter from me would not be well received. If I could persuade myself otherwise, I would write to her at once and not think I was making any concession, for I have not allowed her anger at me to have any other effect upon me than regret that she should so feel and express herself towards me.”

It took two more years, but Mary and Robert’s reconciliation finally did occur in May 1881—after five years of estrangement. Mary was then living at the Edwards home in Springfield, after returning to the U.S. in October 1880 due to deteriorating health. She did not inform her son of her return. Robert was at that time President James A. Garfield’s secretary of war, and in mid-May left Washington for an official visit to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He stopped in Springfield on his way back to Washington, and spent an entire day with his mother at the Edwards home on Sunday, May 29.

No existing records show exactly how the meeting was arranged, but it is logical that Elizabeth Edwards set it up. She was the mother figure who understood her stubborn younger sister, and the matriarch who respected Robert and always regretted the mother-son rift. Elizabeth was in fact probably the only person who could have brought them together. A few days after the visit, Robert wrote to his mother’s friend Sally Orne, “Just arriving from the west I find your kind letter of Sunday. That day I spent with my mother in Springfield where she is with her sister, Mrs. Edwards. The reports you have seen about her are exaggerated very much. She is undoubtedly far from well and has not been out of her room for more than six months and she thinks she is very ill. My own judgment is that some part of her troubles is imaginary.”

Elizabeth Todd Edwards LFA-0254

For the rest of Mary’s life, Robert (usually with his family) visited his mother every few weeks; when Mary stayed in New York City for medical treatment from October 1881 to March 1882, she saw her son every week. Robert and his wife also worked diligently behind the scenes in Washington in 1881 to get Mary Lincoln’s government pension increased from its original $3,000 to $5,000 — the amount Lucretia Garfield was given as a pension after her husband’s murder.

Mary Lincoln died of a stroke on July 16, 1882. Robert was informed that his mother was critically ill only that morning and immediately began arranging his affairs in the War Department so he could leave Washington that night and be in Springfield with his mother by Tuesday morning. He asked his relatives to send him hourly updates on his mother’s condition. Before he could leave Washington that night, however, he received a telegram informing him that his mother had died.

Robert, assisted by his aunt Elizabeth, planned his mother’s funeral and traveled to Springfield for the event. Shortly after returning to Washington from Springfield, Robert received a condolence letter from Lucretia Garfield, the widow of Robert’s former boss when he was Secretary of War, President James A. Garfield. Robert’s response, only recently discovered in the Lucretia Garfield papers at the Library of Congress (which have for decades been stored off-site), includes previously unknown comments by Robert about his reconciliation with his mother, as well as a reference to the assassination of President Garfield, at which Robert was present in July 1881:

Washington, July 30, 1882

Dear Mrs. Garfield,

Many thanks for your kind letter which I found on the return from the funeral of my mother. Her death was very sudden and unexpected to me but it was a painless release from much mental and bodily distress. I have a great satisfaction that a year ago I broke down the personal barrier which her disturbed mind had caused her to raise between us, so that in the end her estrangement had ceased.

I am sorry to tell you that my wife is far from well. She has been in Colorado but is now here hardly able to leave the house. I am anxiously waiting for an opportunity to take her away again from our oppressive weather. She desires to join me in the warmest expression of remembrance and regard to you and the children.

The anniversary of the long and anxious days of last summer make us think of you very often and of how full of sad recollection they must be to you.

Believe me

My dear Mrs. Garfield

Sincerely yours

Robert T. Lincoln


For the next 44 years, Robert Lincoln wrote only a handful of letters (of which posterity is aware), that referenced his mother’s mental condition, but none are known to exist that explain or even mention how mother and son reconciled that spring Sunday in 1881. The only tantalizing clue to more details that historians have to agonize over is an 1890 letter from Henry White in which he told his wife that Robert Lincoln had unburdened his sorrows to him, including things about his late mother. This unburdening came right after the funeral of Robert’s 16-year-old son Jack, who died of blood poisoning in London while Robert was the American minister to Great Britain. White was Robert’s assistant, and urged him to take a walk after the funeral. “He has been telling me how all his interest in the law business was for Jack’s sake only, and to keep the place open for him,” White wrote. “He also told me a lot about his trouble with his mother, and seemed generally most confidential.” Unfortunately, White did not detail in that letter or any other that has ever been found exactly what Robert told him about his mother.

True to his statements, Robert did not appear to hold any ill feelings against his mother for the rest of his own life. He followed all of her pre-written wishes for her funeral and burial, and a few days later had her casket secretly removed from the Lincoln tomb and buried in the basement next to the hidden casket of his father to prevent potential theft (as was attempted of Abraham Lincoln’s body in 1876) and to make sure they were together. Robert spent years thwarting the publication of articles about his mother’s mental illness (to protect not only her reputation, but also his father’s and his own, no doubt), and encouraged and assisted in the family-approved — and first published — biography of his mother, written by his cousin Katherine Helm and published in 1928. When Robert died in 1926, he believed he would be buried in the Lincoln family tomb in Springfield, Illinois, to spend eternity with his parents, younger brothers, and, eventually, his own wife and children. Robert’s widow changed the plan and had her husband buried in Arlington National Cemetery instead. But that is another story.

Jason Emerson is a journalist and historian who has researched and written about the Lincoln family for more than twenty five years.