Runaway Jury? Mary Todd Lincoln Redeemed at Retrial

One of the more unique events related to the Emancipation Proclamation sesquicentennial involves a retrial for former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who was infamously consigned to an asylum in 1875 by her son Robert Todd Lincoln. Last week, the Illinois Supreme Court Historical Society organized the first of two retrials for Mrs. Lincoln in front of a sold-out audience. An actor portraying Mary Lincoln arrived at the courtroom via horse and carriage, wearing a cloak and a billowing petticoat. The facts presented at the mock trial remained the same as those presented at the original, but the organizers implemented modern interpretations of the law and expert testimony both for and against Mrs. Lincoln (an important distinction from the original trial). The mock jury weighed the evidence and testimony, and found in favor of Mrs. Lincoln.

While this jury easily sided with Mrs. Lincoln, historians have been grappling with the evidence presented at the original trial, and with the verdict itself. The case not only involved the question of Mrs. Lincoln’s sanity, but was also central to understanding the culture of justice in the 19th century. While some historians contend that Mrs. Lincoln was truly insane and that the trial was necessary, others consider the proceedings those of a kangaroo court. Jean Baker, author of Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, firmly sides with the latter. When contacted by e-mail for comment, she pointed out: “By any standard, even those relating to women in the 19th century, the evidence at the trial was stacked against Mary Lincoln.” 

Disputed events such as these are perfect opportunities for us to revisit them and get the general public involved in the discussion. If the original jury easily found Mrs. Lincoln insane, how does the new verdict reflect our changing attitudes toward justice? According to Baker, the verdict reflects societal change “on insanity and gender, specifically how women were treated in the justice system and the failure to give Mary Lincoln a fair trial.” But according to Catherine Clinton, author of Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, even by 19th-century standards of justice, Mrs. Lincoln was treated egregiously. In a phone interview, Clinton declared, “You didn’t need a 21st-century perspective of justice. Under the laws at the time, Mrs. Lincoln was denied counsel. There is not better illustration of railroading, as the phrase goes.” 

Already, the mock trial has proven to be an opportunity to promote the profile of history in public culture.  As Baker stated, “There is no better way to teach history than to focus on particular episodes that permit all of us to understand the importance of evidence, the way we respond to it, and the fungible nature of historical judgments, the latter never more clear than in a trial.“ Indeed, mock trials can make the study of history more exciting for students by giving them a chance to form connections between past and contemporary issues. This point is aptly emphasized by Clinton, who pointed out that “we as historians need to make these dead issues come alive.”

For information about the next mock trial, and the Mary Todd Lincoln project, please visit the event’s website. Special thanks to Jean Baker, Bennett-Harwood Professor of History at Goucher College, and Catherine Clinton, chaired professor of U.S. history at Queen’s University Belfast, for supplying their expert commentary on the event.

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