Is That a Stovepipe Hat or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

On the modern questioning of Lincoln's sexuality.

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Some Republicans have been distressed in recent years to hear that the icon of their party, Abraham Lincoln, may have been playing for the other team. It had been whispered for years that Lincoln was gay, and there is no doubt that some of his behavior would point that way today — most notably, for four years he shared a bed with his friend Joshua Speed. The intense relationship began in 1837, when a 28-year-old Lincoln — then a tall, calloused-hand frontiersman with mournful eyes — turned up at Speed’s general store in Springfield, Illinois, hoping to make it as a lawyer. Lincoln couldn’t afford the bed on sale, so Speed immediately offered to share his own mattress upstairs. From that day on, the pair became passionate and all-but-inseparable friends. When Speed finally did move out of the mattress to be married, Lincoln was shattered, sinking into such a black depression that friends removed all sharp objects from his room. For years afterward, he wrote Joshua long and tender letters signed wistfully “Yours forever.” As one biographer put it in 1926, the friendship had “streaks of lavender, and spots as soft as May violets.” At the same time, biographers had long noticed that Lincoln as a young man seemed indifferent to women: Although he eventually fathered four children, his marriage to Mary Todd Lincoln was a tortured, almost masochistic affair.

 

Then, in 2005, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln by gay activist and former Kinsey researcher C.A. Tripp brought the whispers into the open by revealing a broader pattern of male bonding. Before Josh Speed, Lincoln had another close bedmate in New Salem: his 18-year-old cousin Billy Greene, who drooled over Abe’s muscular physique, writing, “His thighs were as perfect as a human being Could be.” Later, as president, Lincoln developed a crush on Elmer Ellsworth, a debonair assistant to his election campaign, and arranged a high military position for him. When Ellsworth was killed by a sharpshooter while removing a Confederate flag from a hotel in Alexandria, Virginia, the disconsolate Lincoln began spending his nights with a studly young bodyguard at the presidential retreat outside Washington, D.C. Thirty years later, the regiment’s official historian proudly recalled that this new favorite, the young Captain David Derickson, “advanced so far in the president’s confidence and esteem that in Mrs. Lincoln’s absence he frequently spent the night at his cottage, sleeping in the same bed with him, and — it is said — making use of his Excellency’s night shirt!”  The pressures of hiding his homosexual urges, Tripp argues, help to explain Lincoln’s recurring depressions.

So was he or wasn’t he? The evidence will always be ambiguous, since there is no “smoking gun” — a confessional letter that gives a blow-by-blow account of Lincoln’s bedroom romps. (In 1999, playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer announced that he had found Joshua Speed’s diary, which included scenes that would remove all doubt about Lincoln’s gayness. It turned out to be fictional).  Maybe Lincoln was too afraid to write in anything but veiled and coded terms; or maybe nothing happened in those shared beds. In the 19th century, men were often obliged to sleep together, especially on the frontier;  and it wasn’t just two to a bed — it could be four or six. They often indulged in “passionate friendships:” photographs show men unselfconsciously lounging on one another’s laps and embracing with casual affection. Victorian women, too, when a female girlfriend came to visit, would boot their husbands out of bed so they could share it with their companion for the night (without exploring the Sapphic possibilities).

Sharing a mattress in the 19th was as common as sharing an apartment today; it was no more erotic than sitting next to someone on a wagon seat. Perhaps it is too difficult for us now to remove the sexual element from the situation, but Lincoln seems to have done so: Even as president, he spoke about his male bedmates quite openly, oblivious to the idea that they would one day be called his lovers. • 24 March 2010

SOURCES/FURTHER READING: Tripp, C.A., The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, (New York, 2005); Shenk, Joshua Wolf, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Depression, (New York, 2005).

 

Tony Perrottet’s book, Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.
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