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Schelkopf: Lincoln book serves up slice of Batavia history

Batavia has had its share of famous residents, including Bernard J. Cigrand, the father of Flag Day.

But one of the city’s most famous residents – at least for a short time – was Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of President Lincoln. For almost four months in 1875, she was a patient at Bellevue Place – a sanitarium for women – after a trial found her to be insane.

Bellevue Place still stands, although it has been converted to apartments and is not open to the public.

However, a bed and dresser from her stay at Bellevue have been on display at the Batavia Depot Museum. The bed is on loan through October to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield.

The museum in October will host a visit by historian Jason Emerson, who examines her mental illness in a new book, “The Madness of Mary Lincoln.”

Visitors will have the chance to meet Emerson from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Oct. 21. From 3 to 4:30 p.m., he will talk about how he researched the book and will sign copies of the book.

Those who thumb through the “The Madness of Mary Lincoln” will find comments from those closest to her, including her son, Robert Lincoln, who had her committed.

What kind of son has his mother committed? Well, the book offers an explanation, including his own words.

“Indeed my consolation in this sad affair is in thinking that she herself is happier in every way, in her freedom from care and excitement, than she has been in 10 years,” Robert Lincoln said in a letter to Sally Orne, one of his mother’s closest friends. “So far as I can see, she does not realize her situation at all. It is of course my care that she should have everything for her comfort and pleasure that can be obtained.”

The book also quotes from “Patient Progress Reports for Bellevue Place,” which refers to her admittance to the sanitarium May 20, 1875.

“Case is one of mental impairment which probably dates back to the murder of President Lincoln – more pronounced since the death of her son [Tad], but especially aggravated during the last two months,” the report said.

However, Mary Todd Lincoln has a different perspective, as she writes in previously unpublished letters, several of which she wrote while at Bellevue Place.

“It does not appear that God is good, to have placed me here,” she wrote in one letter. “I endeavor to read my Bible and offer up my petitions three times a day. But my afflicted heart fails me and my voice often falters in prayer. I have worshipped my son and no unpleasant word ever passed between us, yet I cannot understand why I should ever have been brought out here.”

The book offers us a fascinating slice of Batavia’s history, and one that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

– Eric Schelkopf covers Batavia and North Aurora and can be reached at 630-845-5355, or by e-mail at eschelkopf @

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