Mrs. Lincoln: Was she crazy?

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Three of her four kids didn’t live to adulthood, and her husband was shot as he held her hand. If anyone ever deserved to go crazy, it was Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the 16th U.S. president. “She had the most tragic public life in American history,” says James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill.

But was she truly insane? That question is raised—but not answered—by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum’s special exhibit, “Mary Todd Lincoln: First Lady of Controversy,” running through Nov. 30. “We invite you to draw your own conclusions,” says a sign at the beginning of the show. “It’s hard enough to diagnose mental illness when the patient is alive,” says Lincoln expert Tom Schwartz, the Illinois state historian. “You might be able to attach it to mental illness …You can also explain it according to events and circumstances. It doesn’t have to be mental illness.”

The exhibit comes as the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth approaches, in February 2009. Steven Spielberg is working on a movie, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” with Liam Neeson as Abraham and Sally Field as Mary Todd. And having been dead for more than a century hasn’t spared the Lincolns from more tabloid-style reassessments, either. “Americans love to have their public leaders’ private lives spilled out into the headlines,” says Civil War historian Catherine Clinton, who’s writing a new book about Mary Todd Lincoln. “And the Lincolns are no exception, as we have had major books in the past few years asking ‘Was Lincoln gay?,’ ‘Was Mary crazy?,’ ‘Were one or both of them bisexual? Bipolar?’ And the second-guessing game goes on.”

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