At least a century ago, the building at 54 W. Hubbard St. served as the site of Mary Todd Lincoln's insanity trial.
On Monday, the same location, although since restored and developed into office space, provided the backdrop to a kick-off event for a series of programs that will explore the trial that led to the former first lady's commitment to an asylum.
Sponsored by the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the events will run from April through November and include mock retrials, clothing exhibits and panel discussions on mental health laws then and now.
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke told a standing-room-only audience Monday that not only will the programs explore an interesting woman and trial, but they will illustrate how "the law is a living, breathing reflection of society."
Jenner & Block LLP lawyer John B. Simon (right) and Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita B. Garman watched the re-enactment on Monday that kicked off the Mary Todd Lincoln programs.
Photos by Marina Makropoulos.
A Cook County jury in 1875 found Lincoln insane and committed her to a facility in Batavia. Her son, Robert Lincoln, petitioned the court to have her institutionalized, citing "her erratic behavior and excessive spending," Burke said.
"There have been tremendous changes in the law that dictate how we care for people who are unable to care for themselves," she said. "We will give Mary Lincoln a fair trial under today's Mental Health Code."
An actress portraying Lincoln made an appearance at Tuesday's event, where she emotionally read a few of the former first lady's letters and showed off one of four period-style dresses made specifically for the programs.
Pam Brown, the actress, also received a summons to appear for her retrials from a police officer, who stormed through the side door to the crowded event, surprising several attendants sipping on champagne.
Justice Rita B. Garman said the role of women in society will also be discussed in the programming.
"We will pay special attention to the way the law was applied to women who did not conform to the expectations of society," Garman said.
She said audience members at this fall's mock retrials will need to decide whether Lincoln possessed mental health problems or if she "was a strong, independent woman who suffered from depression in a society where women's voices were not heard."
Both of the justices, as well as several of the other event organizers, stressed that the purpose of the programs goes back to education.
"For many young people, their only exposure to Mrs. Lincoln is through a television commercial, in which she asks Mr. Lincoln, 'Does this dress make me look fat?'" Garman said, referring to a Geico advertisement.
"Through this program, we hope to reveal the real person behind the myth."
Karina Zabicki DeHayes, the incoming president of the Women's Bar Association of Illinois, said her group recently signed on to support the events through member outreach.
DeHayes said the Mary Todd Lincoln program presents issues on the legal and societal treatment of women, a topic her bar group finds important.
While the group tends to focus on current challenges, like the retention of women in the legal profession, DeHayes said she expects this program "to give us an opportunity to not just learn about the past, but see what we can learn from the past and apply it to modern day."
John Lupton, director of history programs at the preservation commission, said he found the attendance at Monday's event "encouraging," especially since it previewed the upcoming programs.
And based on the number of visitors to the program's website, Lupton said he expects the turnout trend to continue. The website — WasMaryLincolnCrazy. com — crashed Monday morning as a result of "so much Web traffic," he said.