Sunday, June 28, 2015

Abraham Lincoln, Women, and That Persistent Rumor That he Was Gay

Abraham Lincoln
(From Leslie's Magazine - 1909)
When we talk about Abraham Lincoln and his relationships with women one of the first questions we need to ask is, Did Abe play for the other team? Several authors have hinted that Lincoln may have been a closet homosexual. Most notable among these was C. A. Tripp in his book The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln published in 2005. The book purports to detail Lincoln’s affair with an army Captain among several others. Readers should keep a skeptical eye when approaching Tripp’s work. Several years after the publication of his book one of his co-authors Philip Noble came clean to the New York Times and confessed that the “book is a fraud.”

Let’s take a look at the supporting evidence.

The most damning evidence used to tag Lincoln a homosexual is the fact that at several points in his lifetime he shared his bed with other men. By today’s standards that could be considered a prima facia case, but frontier life presented a different set of challenges from today. Doris Kearns in her book Team of Rivals noted that it was common for lawyers and judges riding the circuit in Lincoln’s time to share a bed. The reason was there were limited accommodations available on the Illinois frontier so there was no other choice available.

Many people were forced to share rooms or beds. It was a fact of life. Looked at from the standards of his day, Lincoln’s bunking with Joshua Speed when he first arrived in Springfield wasn’t all that unusual.

It is a well-known fact that Joshua Speed was a womanizer. He spent plenty of time with the girls of Springfield, and when he was feeling particularly frisky he spent his time with the prostitutes.

William Herndon told Jesse Weik (his collaborator) this story about Lincoln visiting a prostitute.

The story starts out with Lincoln asking Joshua Speed, “Do you know where I can get some (you fill in the blank)?”

Speed told Lincoln to wait a moment while he wrote him a letter of introduction to a young lady. Then he sent Lincoln off with directions on how to approach her. After stripping down and getting into bed with the prostitute Lincoln asked her, “How much?”

When she told him five dollars Lincoln responded that her priced seemed fair, but all he had with him was three dollars. She offered to trust him for the other two dollars, but Lincoln told her he didn’t want to feel indebted so he got dressed and left.

The humor and sentiment is definitely Lincoln’s, and Herndon didn’t have any reason to lie to Weik about the story. They both understood it would be inappropriate to include it in their biography of Lincoln.

Lincoln’s first infatuation was an ill-fated affair with Anne Rutledge. Herndon describes Anne as “a beautiful girl.” She was pretty, “slightly slender,” stood five foot, two inches tall, and weighed about 120 lbs.

They met in 1835, shortly after Lincoln arrived in New Salem. Their courtship was short, and she died suddenly of typhoid fever.

Lincoln’s next love interest was Mary Owens. She came to New Salem from Green County, Kentucky to visit her sister sometime in 1833. Her acquaintance with Lincoln lasted a month at most before she returned to her home in Kentucky.

Lincoln didn’t see her again until 1836. The way Herndon tells the story, Lincoln said, “If Mary Owens ever returned to Illinois a second time he would marry her.” As a result they spent more time together on her second trip to New Salem.

Mary Owens
Mary Owens was the exact opposite of Abraham Lincoln. She came from a wealthy family and was well educated. From all accounts she was a pretty girl with dark curly hair. She stood five feet, five inches tall, weighed about 150 pounds, and was considered to be a good catch by many of the New Salem bachelors in 1836.

They were together for about a year before Mary Owens broke off the relationship. She wrote Herndon in 1866 saying, “I suppose that my feelings were not sufficiently enlisted to have the matter consummated. About the beginning of the year 1838 I left Illinois, and our acquaintance and correspondence ceased.”

For his part Lincoln wrote a letter to Mrs. O. H. Browning on August 1, 1838, describing his thoughts on Mary Owens, “…although I had seen her before, she did not look as my imagination pictured her. I knew she was over-size, but she now appeared a fair mate for Falstaff…her skin was too full of fat to permit it contracting into wrinkles, but from her want of teeth, weather-beaten appearance in general, and from a kind of notion that ran in my head that nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy and reached her present bulk in less than 35 or 40 years; and, in short, I was not at all pleased with her. But what could I do?”

It was an obvious jab at Mary Owens for leaving him, and most likely helped Lincoln get over his disappointment with the way the relationship ended. He closed the letter to Mrs. Browning by saying, “I have now come to the conclusion never again to think of marrying, and for this reason I can never be satisfied with anyone who would be blockheaded enough to have me.”

Mary Todd was a breath of fresh air when she first visited Springfield in 1837. She was twenty years old; stood five feet, two inches tall; had reddish brown hair; blue eyes; and had studied at the Shelby Female Academy, and Madame Charlotte Le Clere Montelle’s boarding school. She spoke French, and was the product of a wealthy family. Her father Robert Todd was a prominent Kentucky merchant and politician, the father of fifteen children, and owned hundreds of slaves.

Her sister, Elizabeth Edwards, was the wife of Illinois Governor Ninian Edwards, and among the social elite of Illinois.

Mary Todd left Springfield after a three month stay, and returned to Illinois in 1839. She was pursued by many suitors among them Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. It is sure that Elizabeth Edwards and her husband found Lincoln a strange suitor. Compared to Mary Todd he was uneducated, had a rough personality suited to the frontier, and a large and gangly appearance.

Lincoln and Mary Todd had an off-again, on-again relationship with Lincoln breaking off their engagement in late 1840. Early in 1842 they got back together, and were married on November 4th, 1842. Robert Lincoln was born nine months later, followed by Edward in 1846, William (Willie) in 1850, and Thomas (Tad) in 1853.

They spent their first two years together living at the Globe Tavern at Springfield. Two years later they moved into their own home at Springfield where they would spend the rest of their time together, other than their years in the White House.

Mary was temperamental, and experienced wild mood swings at times. John Hay, the President’s secretary, described her as a “hellcat.” Some of her problems can be explained by her situation. She came from a wealthy family, and her life with Abraham Lincoln was completely dissimilar to the life she was used to. The Lincoln’s were poor and lived in a tavern for the first two years of their marriage. Being married to Lincoln was a lot like living alone. He was away much of the time riding the circuit as a frontier lawyer. As a result she was forced to take care of the Lincoln home and children on her own. From all accounts when he was home Lincoln was a very permissive father and let the children run wild.

Mary pushed Lincoln to better himself. When he was offered the Governorship of Oregon Mary encouraged him to decline the office. Her thought was it could delay his jump into the national political arena.

Personal hardships also plagued the Lincolns. Their son Edward died in 1850 and another son Willie died in 1862. Both Lincolns were devastated by the death of their children, particularly Willie who died during their early days in the White House. Mary took it particularly hard and turned to a number of spiritualists for comfort.

It is known that the President and Mrs. Lincoln attended several séances during their time in Washington. One séance at the White House was conducted by medium Charles Shauckle, and was witnessed by a reporter from the Boston Gazette. It is said the spirit of General Henry Knox, George Washington’s Secretary of War, visited Lincoln that night to advise him on military tactics.

Another medium Mary Lincoln had considerable contact with was Nettie Colburn Maynard. She later wrote a book, Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist? (1891). It detailed her experiences in the Lincoln White House, and named the prominent Washington families who attended her séances.

It could be argued that Mary Lincoln let her mind run wild during those bleak years in the White House. She claimed to have been visited by the ghosts of three former Presidents: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and John Tyler.

Life in the White House had its ups and downs for Mary Lincoln. She spent much of her time in the military hospitals nursing sick and wounded soldiers and reading to them; she took on the task of modernizing and updating the White House. Her wild spending pushed the project way over budget, and news of it shocked Lincoln and people all over the country. Stories of her extravagance spread through the Washington papers. This combined with her personal spending habits got her labeled a shopaholic.

Because she was from the South, Northerners eyed her with suspicion. She was the first lady of the Union, yet three of her brothers perished fighting for the Confederacy. Alexander Todd died at Baton Rouge, Samuel Todd was killed fighting in the Battle of Shiloh, and David Todd perished at Vicksburg.

In the South she was considered a traitor because of her marriage to Lincoln, and her anti-slavery stance.

After Abraham Lincoln’s death Mary Lincoln’s problems worsened. She spent the years from 1868 to 1871 traveling through Europe with her son Tad. In 1875 her son Robert had her committed to an insane asylum because of her wild spending habits, and other fears for her safety. She secured her freedom after three months, and fled the country fearing Robert would have her committed again. She returned to the United States in 1881, and lived with her sister Elizabeth Edwards in Springfield. She died of a stroke in 1882, and was buried beside her husband.