A Contemporary Retrial for Mary Todd Lincoln

A new WTTW special covers the mock retrial of Mary Todd Lincoln, who was tried and institutionalized for insanity a decade after Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Would she be institutionalized under today's laws? Find out on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm.

Read an interview with the actress who played Mary Todd Lincoln during the retrial, Pam Brown.

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Tell us about Mary Todd Lincoln.

Mary Todd LincolnI’ve been doing Mary Todd Lincoln for 6 or 7 years now. When I first started delving into her character, I came to see how misunderstood she was. She was a mother and a wife who wanted to be the best she could. That was her purpose.

She was also a sad figure, as her true home wasn’t a home in the traditional sense, but a boarding school. She was well-educated, well-read, loved Shakespeare, spoke French and was learning German after she met Mr. Lincoln. Misunderstood though.

In the recent retrial, Mary Todd Lincoln was found not guilty of being insane. What was your reaction?

The outcome was expected as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t imagine someone saying that she was insane now. She seemed bipolar, had massive mood swings. There are so many different medical explanations now as to why she may have acted the way she did. She may have had diabetes which can cause odd behavior when someone is hypoglycemic. She had mood swings from a very early age, which seem to imply that she was bipolar from birth. These were all health issues, and I think they should be referred to as such. She never harmed herself or anyone else. She may have acted erratically, but many people are erratic. People are who they are. We shouldn’t judge everyone by the norm, because there shouldn’t be one. God made us all individuals.

There were also accounts of her buying things unnecessarily or in large quantities.

Because you were spending money erratically, at the time that meant that you were mentally unstable. Personally, I feel good when I buy things I don’t need. Now, I have the discipline to stop myself or return items when I don’t really need them, but it’s common behavior. Mary didn’t have that foresight. She was afraid of losing things, of being poor, and she felt she never had enough money.

Pam Brown as Mary Todd LincolnWhat was your opinion of Sally Field’s portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln in Lincoln?

I think she captured all of everything that needed to be captured so we could appreciate what Abraham Lincoln was going through during the war. He basically raised a child alone because Mary was in mourning losing Willie, who was her favorite son. It was a large blow to her. She had lost two sons at this point, and it took a toll on her mental health. The assassination was the last straw. She was now alone.

But Mary had a good time in the White House. She loved being the First Lady. She stayed there so long after the funeral because she couldn’t let go of the idea of being the First Lady.

There are definite similarities between yours and Sally Field’s portrayals.

They were similar probably because both portrayals were born from deep character study. Some people have said that it looks like we studied each other’s movements.

How do you think Mary Todd Lincoln is remembered today?

People remember her mental instability the most and I don’t know if they’re wrong in doing that. You can’t blame people for reading what they read about her, but they should do more research so they can understand her fully through the eyes of a historian with complete knowledge. She was always able to take care of herself. She just loved Mr. Lincoln intensely and was in a deep depression, so sometimes she was absolutely a burden for him.

As a person, she loved deeply and she mourned deeply. Her and Mr. Lincoln gave themselves completely to their children. Parents then usually didn’t allow that to happen because it was so common to lose children. But they were passionate about their children, to a fault, almost.

*This interview has been condensed and edited

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