They'd been assumed burnt to ashes,
destroyed and lost forever.
Lincoln, during her stay at a sanitarium, wrote letters
that later were withheld by her only living son, Robert.
He supposedly wanted to erase from history the sad
details of his mother's mental health and possibly her
furious accusations that he had betrayed her. So history
records Robert as having burned the letters.
But last summer, historian Jason Emerson, while on a
fact-finding mission, found himself staring speechless
into a steamer trunk gathering dust in a Maryland attic.
There they were, or at least the next best thing.
Emerson found photographed and handwritten copies of
the letters, as well as a 111-page manuscript about Mrs.
Lincoln's insanity case, written by the granddaughter of
Mary's legal advisers, Myra and James Bradwell.
Emerson also uncovered pages from Mary's 1873 will
and copies of letters written the years immediately
before and after Mary's recovery at the private Bellevue
Place in Batavia. Of the 25 letters Emerson uncovered,
11 were from her so-called "insanity years."
The steamer trunk was in the attic of a home owned by
descendents of one of Robert's family attorneys. The
copied letters Emerson found appear to be accurate.
The documents contain no eye-popping revelations, the
would require a rewrite of history. Still, Emerson's
find adds layers to the mother-son drama that left Mary
and Robert estranged until a year before Mary's death in
1882 in Springfield.
"(The letters) show Mary questioning her religious
faith, illuminate her continuing mania about money and
clothing, and perhaps most interesting, reveal the
Bradwells to have been more instrumental than previously
known both in securing her release and in causing her
resentment of Robert," Emerson writes in the June-July
issue of American Heritage magazine.
Some of the letters Emerson discovered were written
by Mary when she toured Europe after her release from
Bellevue Place. Their contents confirm that her state of
mind had improved.
"They are calm, rational and cogent, full of
descriptions of her travels and inquiries about friends
and events at home," Emerson writes.
His discovery began with a paper trail while working
on a biography of Robert Todd Lincoln that Emerson is
writing for Southern Illinois University Press.
"He was an amazing man who gets a really bad rap,"
Emerson said of Robert, adding that he was not the
"rapacious bastard" who coldly locked his mother up in
an insane asylum.
Emerson is writing another book for SIU Press about
the Mary letters.
How he came across copies of the "lost letters" is
just as interesting as the letters themselves.
Apparently, the Bradwells' granddaughter, Myra
Pritchard, the one who wrote the 111-page manuscript,
possessed the original letters, which her mother had
kept safe from Robert's fireplace. After Robert died,
Pritchard approached Robert's wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln,
about her draft. Mary Harlan, with the help of family
lawyers who threatened to sue Pritchard, ended up
wresting away the manuscript, letters and any copies.
Emerson suspects, however, that Mary Harlan's lawyers
kept their own copies of everything and put them in the
steamer trunk, which was passed down to their children,
whose Maryland home Emerson visited last summer.
Ironically, Pritchard secretly made other copies, but
destroyed them after Oliver Barrett, a prominent Chicago
lawyer and Lincoln collector, persuaded her the copies
were unethically obtained and should be burned. Still,
she kept documentation of the letters that helped
Emerson verify that the copies he found are based on the
Kim Bauer, curator of the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library and Museum, also signed off on the
"Clearly, everyone is going to look at this," said
Tom Schwartz, Illinois state historian, interim director
of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
and a highly regarded Lincoln expert. "I don't see any
major revelations, but again, I'm not working on an
extensive biography of any of the leading players,
either. So much of the story has been pieced together by
Emerson, who once was a park ranger at the Lincoln
Home National Historic Site and lives in Fredericksburg,
Va., said he feels this is the kind of thing historians
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime discovery," he said.
Pete Sherman can be reached at 788-1539 or