SIU Department Name | Page Title

siu logo siupress logo

SIU logo


Main Content Area

The Dark Days of Abraham Lincoln's Widow, as Revealed by Her Own Letters

The Dark Days of Abraham Lincoln's Widow, as Revealed by Her Own Letters

Add to Cart

Myra Helmer Pritchard, edited and annotated by Jason Emerson


208 pages, 6 x 9, 20 illustrations


Additional Materials

About the Book

Written in 1927 but barred from timely publication by the Lincoln family, The Dark Days of Abraham Lincoln's Widow, as Revealed by Her Own Letters is based on nearly two dozen intimate letters written between Mary Lincoln and her close friend Myra Bradwell mainly during the former's 1875 incarceration in an insane asylum. By the 1920s most accounts of Mrs. Lincoln focused on her negative qualities and dismissed her as "crazy." Bradwell's granddaughter Myra Helmer Pritchard wrote this distinctly sympathetic manuscript at the behest of her mother, who wished to vindicate Mary Lincoln in the public eye by printing the private correspondence. Pritchard fervently defends Mrs. Lincoln's conduct and sanity, arguing that she was not insane but rather the victim of an overzealous son who had his mother committed.

The manuscript and letters were thought to have been destroyed, but fortunately the Lincolns' family lawyer stored copies in a trunk, where historian Jason Emerson discovered them in 2005. While leaving the manuscript intact, Emerson has enhanced it with an introduction and detailed annotations. He fills in factual gaps; provides background on names, places, and dates; and analyzes Pritchard's interpretations, making clear where she was right and where her passion to protect Mrs. Lincoln led to less than meticulous research and incorrect conclusions. This volume features an easy-to-follow format that showcases Pritchard's text on the left-hand pages and Emerson's insightful annotations on the right-hand pages. 

Following one of the most revered and reviled, famous and infamous of the First Ladies, this book provides a unique perspective of Mrs. Lincoln's post-White House years, with an emphasis on her commitment to a sanitarium. Emerson's contributions make this volume a valuable addition to the study of the Lincoln family. This fascinating work gives today's Lincoln enthusiasts the chance to read this intriguing interpretation of the former First Lady that predates nearly every other book written about her.


Jason Emerson is an award-winning historian and journalist who has been researching and writing about the Lincoln family for more than twenty-five years. His works include The Madness of Mary Lincoln, Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln, and Lincoln the Inventor


“This is a complicated narrative about a complex woman. Rife with drama, the backstory, as told by writer Jason Emerson, is as compelling as the book itself. . . . In Pritchard and Emerson’s hands, Mary Todd Lincoln is no less enigmatic but just as fascinating as ever.”—Stacy A. Cordery, Journal of Illinois History 

“Reading these notes in conjunction with the reprinted letters, a more accurate account of Mary Lincoln’s insanity emerges. Rather than an unjustly imprisoned former First Lady, one finds a woman overwhelmed by grief and neuroses, grappling with the shadows enveloping her mind.”—Sarah Bischoff, The Journal of Southern History 

“The tale of Mary Lincoln’s mental derangement, her incarceration in a mental hospital, her release four months later, and her subsequent estrangement from her only surviving son forms one of the saddest chapters in the Lincoln family saga. When Jason Emerson wrote his revelatory study The Madness of Mary Lincoln (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007), he utilized valuable new letters he had discovered. In the present volume, he makes available the text of those documents and the dramatic story of their recovery from historical oblivion. Emerson deserves the thanks of all Lincolnians.”—Michael Burlingame, author of Abraham Lincoln: A Life  

“This companion to [Emerson’s The Madness of Mary Lincoln] contains both the voice of Mary herself as well as an account of the (largely successful) contemporary efforts to silence her. Those wishing to retrace Emerson’s detective work will find this illuminating.”—Patrick A. Lewis, The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

“Jason Emerson is a rising star in Lincoln studies, and this volume is further evidence that those of us who never tire of learning about the life and times of Abraham Lincoln are in his debt. This carefully crafted volume illuminates dark corners of Mary Lincoln’s life and enhances our understanding of the First Lady after that night at Ford’s Theatre.”—Michael S. Green, author of Lincoln and the Election of 1860 

“Emerson portrays Mary realistically but sympathetically [and] dispels the old extreme stereotypes.”—Karen S. Campbell, editor for the Lincoln Society of Dayton, Let the Journeys Begin 

“Not only has Jason Emerson uncovered letters by Mary Lincoln, he has uncovered an entire manuscript by James and Myra Bradwell’s granddaughter, who tried to use her privileged position to sell the story to the less-discriminating press of her day. It is good to have the Pritchard manuscript in print at last, after eighty hidden years, to have both its insights and its embarrassing sororal prejudices. Emerson, by unearthing a new landmark in the historical treatment of the tragic Mary Lincoln, helps to reconfigure how we view the tragic ex-First Lady”—James M. Cornelius, curator of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum 

“With this edited volume, Jason Emerson makes an original and valuable contribution to our scholarly understanding of Mary Todd Lincoln’s later years. It succeeds and builds on the intriguing and fruitful detective work that the editor achieved in The Madness of Mary Lincoln, which provided the most important and original insights into her later years that have been produced in at least the preceding generation. The result is a long-missing yet vital puzzle piece that has long been missing that helps to complete our understanding of Mary Lincoln’s commitment proceedings and her eventual release and final difficult years.”—Kenneth Winkle, Thomas C. Sorenson Professor of American History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln