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lincoln legends

19 may 2008

Edward Steers, in Lincoln Legends, draws attention to several factoids about the 16th President that don't stand much scrutiny but, for all that, hover on the fringes of our half-memories and stray knowledges about Lincoln. If you subscribe to all the Lincoln legends, you "know" that Lincoln was born (an illegitimate child) in a log cabin that still stands in a shrine in Kentucky, fell hopelessly and forever in love with a young woman named Ann Rutledge, whose body now lies in Petersburg, Illinois; that he was secretly baptized in Illinois' Sangamon River before taking office as President; that his wife Mary Todd was a Confederate sympathizer and perhaps a Confederate spy; that he wrote the Gettysburg Address on a bumpy train, on the back of a stray piece of wrapping paper; that he was gay; and that his assassin John Wilkes Booth killed him at the behest of Radical Republicans in his own government, whereupon Booth was spirited away to live out his days in India. And if you really do believe all those things, Steers has a big old tomb in Springfield that he would like to sell you.

Lincoln Legends is a cheerful and lively debunking of all these far-fetched and often incompatible mythologies. The birthplace cabin was a bunch of logs from sketchy sources to begin with, and got even sketchier over the years as it was assembled and disassembled by traveling hucksters. Lincoln was boringly legitimate (none of the many bastard-Lincoln stories hang together). Ann Rutledge was real, but there's no evidence she and Lincoln ever hit it off romantically (though some evidence that each did so with other young lovers). No more than a bone or two of Ann lies in her shrine in Petersburg. Evidence for Lincoln's baptism comes from both too many sources (there are a bunch of pretenders for the role of baptising preacher) and too few (all the sources are third- or fourth-hand). Mary Todd Lincoln's relatives were mostly Rebels, but there's ample evidence that she broke with them pretty sharply over the War. The earliest holograph of the Gettysburg Address is a fair copy on letterhead that had to have been written at an immobile desk. There are no missing pages from Booth's diary that would be embarrassing to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton or anyone else in Lincoln's administration. And the only man who supposedly saw an impostor killed in Booth's place turns out not to have existed, himself.

The "Gay Lincoln Myth" is better-documented, having been the substance of a recent study by C. A. Tripp, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln (2005). Lincoln spent a lot of time sleeping in the same beds as other men, at least by 21st-century heterosexual standards. He slept for several years with a young man named Joshua Speed (Charles Strozier, in Lincoln's Quest for Union [1982], says that Lincoln agonized about leaving Speed to marry Mary Todd). Lincoln had what was at the very least a serious man-crush on the glamorous Elmer Ellsworth, who became the first Union officer killed in the Civil War. And late in the War, President Lincoln slept with one of his young bodyguards, a certain David Derickson.

Truly slept, mind you, is the most parsimonious explanation. There were simply fewer beds to go around in the 19th century, and no central heating, and utterly non-sexual couples routinely shared mattresses. There remains some doubt as to why the President of the United States would have to bunk with one of the guard, but even Derickson (whom Steers admits is the strongest candidate to be a gay lover of Lincoln) might just have been in need of some shut-eye, particularly because the sleepover is said to have taken place at the small Soldiers' Home cottage that Lincoln enjoyed retreating to, not at the White House.

In any case, Tripp extrapolates mightily from tiny scraps of evidence. If Steers doesn't entirely raze the "Gay Lincoln" legend, he certainly shows what shaky foundations it's built on.

The question remains: why does anyone want to believe all this stuff? It seems that most of the myths, like most urban and rural legends, are based on a strong public distaste for the prosaic. Abraham Lincoln was from the most undistinguished family imaginable. The family cabin may look rough-hewn and pioneerish, but if it had been 150 years later he'd have been born in a trailer. He was a clever but pretty ordinary country lawyer with a complicated but entirely realistic love life; he believed in God, certainly, but was an agnostic about the competing claims of Christian denominations. He was killed by a man who was a violent Southern sympathizer and a true conspirator (the Booth gang planned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, and nearly did kill Secretary of State William Seward). But Booth acted according to his own crazy lights, not on the orders even of the Confederate government, let alone the Union government. And though Secretary Stanton probably erred in not showing Booth's corpse to the world, it was seen by enough eyewitnesses to make it unimaginable that Booth survived and lived peacefully on in retirement somewhere (the idea of a peaceful Booth being absurd to begin with).

Real life is boring. Thankfully, books that puncture exciting fantasies, like Steers's, can themselves be exciting to read.

Steers, Edward, Jr. Lincoln Legends: Myths, hoaxes, and confabulations associated with our greatest President. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007.

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