When I first started this novel, very few people knew that Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of Abraham Lincoln, had been institutionalized for insanity. Even now, when I mention the name Myra Bradwell in a crowd, almost no one knows who she is. Myra rescued Mary Todd Lincoln from the asylum, but that is the least of Myra’s story.
Writing a book is a lot like cooking a good meal. The freshness of the ingredients help determine the quality of the finished product.
I was originally determined to write a completely different novel about a young woman with little prospects thrust into the practice of law, well before women became rank and file lawyers. So I set off to the downtown Miami library to research early women lawyers. There I discovered a book by Jane Friedman titled America’s First Woman Lawyer: The Biography of Myra Bradwell, and discovered the story of Mary Todd Lincoln’s insanity trial and her rescue by Myra Bradwell. By George, I thought, I had it—that wonderfully rich creative ingredient for my novel. A story so compelling that it would write itself.
Every novel needs a character curve, and who could have a better character curve than Mary Todd Lincoln? Daughter of one of the first families of Kentucky, a young girl who had experienced the death of her mother, she moved to Springfield, Illinois, to get away from her stepmother, and married a rather plain and gangly young legislator with a gift for gab. Mary and Abe were prairie people. She cooked on a coal stove, sewed clothes and dolls, and was often a law widow, divested of the help of her husband during those long periods when he traveled the circuit to practice law. Oh, and she did become the First Lady of the United States, doing what most First Ladies do, fixing up the white house and planning balls. Unlike other First Ladies, however, she did this during a time of war and was the subject of praise and the butt of criticism for her decorating and entertaining talents. Like most mothers of the time, she lost children to random illnesses. First Eddy. Then Willie during the White House years. Finally, several years after her husband was assassinated while sitting next to her at a play, her favorite living son, Tad, died of a prolonged and painful illness. By May of 1975, Mary did not realize how strained her relationship with her oldest and only living son had become. She was overwhelmed and depressed, distressed, and on heavy medication for pain. But was she crazy?
We could call Myra Bradwell the mother of all women lawyers. She challenged the Illinois Supreme Court decision denying her admission to the practice of law. Her case, argued in United States Supreme Court, resulted in an opinion that vied with the Dred Scott decision as one of the most incompetent and morally objectionable Supreme Court cases ever written. Shortly after the Civil War she started The Chicago Legal News, which was to become the foremost legal newspaper owned by any man or woman in America. She played an incredible role in expanding opportunities for women. And she was friends with Mary Lincoln.
It is the dynamics of this pair of remarkable women which plays out in A Warrant for Mrs. Lincoln, an historical novel with a dual cast of characters, the historical Bradwell and Lincoln families, and Helen Waite, a young woman who faces a difficult choice.