Robert Todd Lincoln: Airing Dirty Laundry

110What does one say about a son who commits his mother into an insane asylum? With images of dark and dank cellars and mistreatment of patients we tend to tsk-tsk yet Robert Todd Lincoln, the eldest son of Abraham and Mary had money to put his mother up in a posh asylum. Still, Mary seething with hidden anger, pretending at tranquility, spent every waking hour at the asylum planning her escape.

How could a successful son of the famous Lincoln  despite his best efforts at distancing himself from his father’s name throw his poor mother away–and humiliate her? The public of the time and historians for a long while were in the dark and what they knew only made young Robert (in his thirties when he had his mother committed) seem callous.

Robert complained sometimes that his success no matter how he tried to avoid it was fueled by his name. Yes, he was a talented businessman and occasional government worker, but people wanted his name attached to their pursuits. No matter that Robert believed thoroughly he was a jinx. On hand for far too many tragedies Robert in later life avoided attending anything presidential for fear of bringing death upon the commander in chief.

059When in the 1970’s Robert’s sprawling summer estate, HILDENE, fallen into disrepair and ready for demolition was saved by a devoted group of Manchester, Vermont people a safe was found in Robert’s room. With money from his many successful endeavors–one being a part of the famous Pullman rail car company, Robert had built the summer retreat to escape his many cares.

I imagine though he admitted to never being close to his ambitious father who traveled and was killed, that so much death in the family and the responsibility of taking care of what some historians now say was a very narcissistic Mary Todd Lincoln felt like a millstone around his neck. After only a very short time  having Mary live with his wife and young family in Chicago, his wife moved out briefly. Caring for Mary sucked the oxygen from the once happy home.

077Some say Mary having seen so much death and felt so much sorrow suffered not from narcissism, but post traumatic stress disorder. Some of the symptoms include:

  • Suddenly become angry or irritable.
  • Have a hard time sleeping.
  • Have trouble concentrating.
  • Fear for your safety and always feel on guard.
  • Be very startled when someone surprises you.
  • Physical symptoms for no reason you can think of (called somatic complaints).
  • Feelings of shame, despair, or hopelessness.
  • Difficulty controlling your emotions.
  • Problems with family or friends.
  • Impulsive or self-destructive behavior.
  • Changed beliefs or changed personality traits.

For years Robert was seen as an unfeeling son by many until the safe was opened at Hildene and the true anguish of a son was revealed. Without daytime television or confessional blogging Robert and his wife quietly withstood the whispered remarks about throwing his mother away (she was released 4 months into her stay at BELLVIEW PLACE–where the rich went to regain their minds). The files revealed a different side of Robert. A young man only ten years after his father’s assassination watching his mother become more erratic, more impulsive, more dangerous to herself and others.

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As I live with a child suffering from PTSD I’m horrified at the random impulsiveness, the drinking of detergent, the many, many triggers that contribute to the brain’s unraveling. Robert’s young family must have watched on too with growing fear and concern. Even if Mary was only a narcissist Robert had a mess on his hands and  knew it. He cared deeply for his mother. He cared deeply for his wife and children. He set Mary up in the best possible health program he could find, but it wasn’t enough.

065Mary never forgave her son. Robert never set out on a public relations campaign to retrieve his reputation. Only years after his death the grief this private man felt was revealed. Behind the big cars and palatial estates was a man with ghosts in his closet.

21 thoughts on “Robert Todd Lincoln: Airing Dirty Laundry

    • People often want fame and fortune but Robert definitely experienced some of the negative aspects of coming from a famous family.

      When I think of the many people who suffer under depression and other psychological disorders and how I often get impatient with people when I have no idea what they’ve been through I feel a little ashamed of myself. 😉

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  1. Yet again, your insight into motivation and sympathy for underdogs / “bad boys” / the unrepresented of history gives the rest of us a glimpse of past lives and ever-present psychological truths. Thank you, Adrienne, for tilting the mirror!

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    • Pippa, thank you for such kind words. So happy you enjoyed this piece.

      I do seem to like the underdogs–something to do with my upbringing or maybe the fact that I’m an Aquarian (though I don’t fully believe in astrology :))

      Finally it’s autumn here and I get to read brilliant blogs like yours! I’ll be visiting soon.

      A

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    • I like the occasional memoir but there’s a good deal of narcissism in our culture’s obsession with self. We all want our struggles and triumphs to be broadcast across the internet (myself included at times). I love private people with mystery–yet I also love uncovering the mystery. 🙂

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  2. Thanks for bringing this story to light.
    “Behind the big cars and palatial estates was a man with ghosts in his closet.” Isn’t this often the case that sadness of heart is camouflaged by brightness of smile? It must be challenging living with/caring for a child with PTSD. I wish you godspeed.

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  3. This is sooo interesting. I had no idea Mary Todd Lincoln had so many emotional problems after losing both her son – and then her husband. I did know that both she and the president suffered after losing their son – and then she had the horror of seeing her husband shot and losing him. No wonder she had so many emotional problems. I think history has written her off as rather a ‘shrew’ but there’s a lot more to the story. And, of course, no one knew about PTSD then…
    I’m so sorry to hear that your child suffers from PTSD. That has to be beyond stressful. We all just want our children to be happy and safe…. and hope that nothing comes along to change that. But, as you know….things beyond our control sometimes happen. She’s lucky to have you for a mother. I wish you both the best of luck in overcoming this.

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    • She’s not quite our daughter yet–but in my heart she already is. 🙂

      We tend to think of events in a bubble as if people just instantly move on after tragedies just because we’ve forgotten about them.

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      • You’re very special and have a lot of love in your heart! And I TOTALLY agree – going through any kind of tragedy changes us. It may not show on the outside… but it’s still there. Also, everyone gets over ‘things’ their own way… and in their own time. You’ve got a LOT on your plate and I very much hope your love and devotion help this child get over her trauma, although the terrible memory will always be with her. (But you know that already…)

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      • I may have love, but I lack patience sometimes. I understand why Robert Todd Lincoln felt helpless at times. We’ve seen some progress with our little girl but mental health is a tricky thing. Trying to get her off meds is the first order of the day–luckily her new doctor agrees.

        Anyway, thanks for commenting, Cecile and have a wonderful day!
        A

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      • It’s very, very difficult to have patience all the time. I had twin sons and I lost my patience more than I care to admit…. I think we can all understand Robert Todd Lincoln’s behavior – and I thank you so much for sharing the story about him, his mother – and his house in Vermont, where I hope to go this summer!! ; o )

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      • You should definitely visit his house!

        My son still reminds me of the time I lost my temper when he was four and he spilled an entire bottle of apple juice under the refrigerator in our roach infested apartment. I was a clean freak back then and had just mopped the floor!

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      • Too funny! Once one of my twin (sons) spilled two glasses of coke in a row… and both went under the refrigerator. I wasn’t in the room… so it was my husband who ‘let him have it. PS I’ve never been a clean freak!! ; o )

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  4. You’ve provided much insight into young Lincoln’s decision to have his mother placed in an asylum. I faced much the same anguish after my father died and we realized that my mom, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, was much more advanced in the illness than we’d realized. She was a danger to herself and to others. In front of police, she screamed that I’d beaten her up – she’d thrown her head into a cabinet and given herself a black eye. I thought they were going to arrest me on the spot but they recognized her pathology. There was no way to make her home safe enough for her to continue living there. We couldn’t figure out a plan other than to place her in a memory care facility.

    I second guess my decision all the time even though it was the only possible conclusion. She is safe and well cared for and I do as much as possible to keep her mind alert and intact. It’s a losing battle of course, but she is safe.

    My personal experience allows me to feel much sympathy for Robert’s dilemma. And maybe I understand a bit of the challenges you deal with as you unravel your little girl’s trauma and help her cope in a more loving, safer world.

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    • I hope more people realize how difficult it is on a family to take care of a person who is losing their mind. It must have been heartbreaking for you–but also frustrating.

      We’re all human and while I’d like to say I always have patience for other people’s struggles, sometimes it’s just plain exhausting. How you must have felt when your mother accused you of abuse! Yes, she didn’t mean it (if she was in her right mind) but still things like that hurt.

      From what you’ve written on your own blog it’s obvious how much you care for your mother. Alzheimer’s is so terrible!

      Much peace to you and your mother in this new year.

      Love,
      A

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