‘Travel with a Professor’ series to host historian of Mary Todd Lincoln, trip to Chicago ‘retrial’

Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln

In 1875, Robert Todd Lincoln, the only surviving son of Abraham Lincoln, petitioned to have his mother institutionalized for insanity.

Mary Lincoln had no knowledge of her son’s intentions until Chicago police officers showed up outside of her hotel to escort her to the courthouse. For three hours, 17 witnesses testified to Mary Lincoln’s erratic behavior and spending habits.

Robert took the stand and swore, “She has been of unsound mind since the death of Father.”

Little evidence was given in Ms. Lincoln’s defense, and the jury deliberated for only 10 minutes before declaring her a “lunatic.” The next day, she was confined to the Bellevue Sanitarium in Batavia, Ill.

One hundred and thirty years after her death, scholars still debate whether the nineteenth-century legal system treated Mary Lincoln justly.

Modern audience members are invited Monday, Sept. 24, to join the jury and decide for themselves at “The Insanity Retrial of Mary Lincoln.”

NIU’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences External Programming is hosting a bus trip to Chicago’s Murphy Auditorium to attend this unique historical reenactment. There is a $60 fee for the bus trip, which includes a ticket to the retrial.

“The Insanity Retrial of Mary Lincoln” was organized by the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield to dramatize the evolution of mental health laws in Illinois.

Lawyers and mental health experts will use a modern courtroom setting to conceptualize what would occur if today’s health laws were applied to the original trial’s evidence. Actors portraying Robert Lincoln and Mary Lincoln will testify, and the audience will serve as the jury.

Jason Emerson and his book, “The Madness of Mary Lincoln”
Jason Emerson and his book, “The Madness of Mary Lincoln”

To kick-off this unique event, NIU’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences External Programming is also sponsoring a free, on-campus presentation by Jason Emerson, Lincoln family scholar and author of “The Madness of Mary Lincoln” (2007) and “Mary Lincoln’s Insanity Case: A Documentary History” (2012).

Emerson also has written multiple books about the Lincoln family, including “Lincoln the Inventor” (2009), “Abraham Lincoln’s Son for President” (2011), and “Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln” (2012). He has appeared on Book TV, American History TV, and The History Channel.

Emerson’s presentation will be held from 1 to 2:30 p.m. in the Holmes Student Center Sky Room. This free event is co-sponsored by NIU’s Honors Program, University Libraries, College of Law, Department of Communication, Department of English and Department of History.

After the free presentation, Emerson will accompany paid program participants on the bus to the retrial, where he will provide additional commentary to set the stage for the performance at Chicago’s Murphy Auditorium. The bus will depart from the Normal Road (east) entrance of the Holmes Student Center at 2:45 p.m. and return at approximately 9 p.m.

This program is part of CLA&S External Programming’s ongoing Travel with a Professor series. CLAS faculty members or graduate students who would like to lead educational field trips should contact the CLAS External Programming office today.

For more information, or to register for the bus trip to the retrial, contact CLAS External Programming at LASEP@niu.edu or (815) 753-5200.

by Clint Cargile

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