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Retrial rules: No sanitorium needed for Mary Todd Lincoln

Updated: September 25, 2012 7:48AM

CHICAGO — The verdict was in: By a jury of her “peers,” former first lady Mary Todd Lincoln was not insane, broadcast journalist Bill Kurtis announced Monday night. 

“The nos have it,” Kurtis said. 

The nation’s former first lady, who was judged insane at an 1875 Chicago trial and ordered to a Batavia sanitarium, was retried Monday in Chicago. 

The jury, or audience members, of modern-day judges, attorneys and history buffs were directed to decide Todd Lincoln’s fate using modern day laws after hearing arguments at Chicago’s Murphy Auditorium. About 266 people cast “no” votes, meaning Todd Lincoln should not be committed to the sanitarium. About 68 people cast “yes” votes at the mock trial. 

Mary Todd Lincoln was tried in 1875 at the instigation of her son Robert Lincoln on allegations of insanity. She ultimately was declared “a lunatic” and placed in the Bellevue Sanitarium in Batavia. But Mary Todd Lincoln obtained an early release from Bellevue with the assistance of friend, Myra Bradwell. One year after the original insanity trial, another jury found her sane, restoring her legal control over her assets. 

On Monday night, judges Warren Wolfson and Erica Reddick argued on behalf of Robert Lincoln. Judges Lorna Propes and Mark Drummond argued on behalf of Mary Todd Lincoln. Mary Todd Lincoln was portrayed by Pam Brown and Robert Todd Lincoln by Zach Kenney. 

The prosecution argued that Todd Lincoln was a woman who had delusions of her only living son dying, thought Chicago was on fire four years after the Great Fire, and made references to dying soon in letters. 

“She’s dangerously ill,” Reddick said Monday night. 

But defense attorneys argued that Todd Lincoln had not made any immediate threats, in the last 60 days, to kill herself.

“There is not enough evidence here to send Mrs. Lincon away,” Propes said, adding that the prosecution had “cherry-picked” a handful of statements from hundreds of letters. 

After Monday night’s trial, Crystal Carbellos, a criminal defense attorney from Romeoville, said that Todd Lincoln was depressed, not insane.

“She didn’t need to be committed. She was depressed, Carbellos said. “We’re using today’s standards, but back then, your husband could commit you, or in this case, (Todd Lincoln’s) son.” 

Chicago-based defense attorney Dana Woodbury agreed with the verdict. 

“I voted no. She’s thinking about death. Well, when everyone around you is dying, that’s reasonable,” Woodbury said. 

Judge Maureen Connors of the 2nd Division of the 1st District Appellate Court was the presiding judge at the Chicago retrial. 

Today, historians disagree whether the evidence against the first lady was trumped up, whether the procedures used constituted due process, and what would occur if today’s modernized health laws were applied to the same facts. 

The Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum sponsored Monday’s Chicago retrial. A second retrial is scheduled for Oct. 1 at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield. Tickets for auxiliary seating is available for $15 at

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