History: The Missing Lincoln

Was Honest Abe suffering from a rare fatal disease? A bloody pillowcase holds the answer — if a dusty Northeast Philly museum will give it up

When you test DNA, they point out, you don’t just check for one disease, like MEN2B. You run the full genome sequence — Alzheimer’s, hemophilia, Crohn’s disease, and on and on. And Lincoln’s health has long been the subject of frenzied debate. There’s been speculation he suffered from Marfan syndrome, mercury poisoning, depression and constipation, among other woes; in April, Washington’s National Museum of Health and Medicine convened a two-day symposium on Lincoln’s health. DNA testing could answer questions scholars have pondered for years. For example, Sotos postulates that Lincoln’s generous treatment of the defeated South could have been motivated by intimations of his own imminent mortality. Then there’s the can of worms that is the Enloe family, descendants of Abraham Enloe, for whom Lincoln’s mother may have once worked. They’ve claimed since the late 1800s that Abraham Lincoln was really Abraham Lincoln Enloe, and they want DNA testing to prove it one of at least five families with similar hopes.

The possible repercussions of testing of their relic haunt the board members. “I’ve had so many restless nights,” Schmincke says. Not Sotos. “There’s a saying in laboratories, ‘The data are the data,’” he says. “That absolves you from the weight of history.”

 


HUMAN BEINGS HAVE ALWAYS been collectors. Gathering up stuff we like is so ingrained that children have to be taught: Don’t pick the flowers in the park, don’t pocket other kids’ toys, don’t chip off pieces of Abe Lincoln’s log cabin as keepsakes. In Lincoln’s day, though, there weren’t such prohibitions; his boyhood home was fair game, like the sources of so much of what fills the GAR Museum. “You didn’t have the population we have now,” Boyle says. “People took mementos, to share, to keep.”

With the opening of the Louvre in 1793, the idea of public repositories of artworks, dinosaur bones, the crown jewels, whatever took root. The 19th century was the great era of museum-founding, when we moved from living with the objects of our past to setting them aside to be observed, studied, catalogued. But even the most public museums turn out to be private bailiwicks for their caretakers. You put in the time and work, and gradually, guardianship tips over into ownership. You come to think of the stuff you oversee as yours.

Which is what makes the GAR Museum’s struggle for respect so personal. Take Old Baldy, General Meade’s warhorse, wounded more than a dozen times in battle but surviving his master for a decade, dying in 1882. On Christmas Day of that year, two admirers dug Old Baldy up, cut off his head, had it stuffed and mounted, and presented it to the General George G. Meade Post of the Grand Army of the Republic of Philadelphia.

At some point thereafter, the GAR Museum lent Old Baldy to what’s now known as the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, a competing entity in Center City. But in 2001 the CWM had money problems, and threatened to abscond to Richmond, Virginia - capital of the Confederacy. Union Army descendants howled, and Philly sued to keep the museum here, with Vince Fumo (who else?) coming up with a proposed home near Independence Hall. Budget cutbacks scuttled that, so the museum’s holdings are currently in storage. Previously, the GAR Museum sued to get Old Baldy back. The case settled with CWM keeping the head so long as it was taken care of and on display. “The judge felt it would be better viewed downtown than in Frankford,” Schmincke says, scowling. Now the CWM seems to be in violation of that settlement. “We want to display it,” says Boyle. “We have his bridle and his bit,” Schmincke adds. “It would be nice to put them back together again.”

Meanwhile, the GAR has something better - Lincoln’s blood. Most institutions with samples have vetoed testing; in other cases, the samples may be contaminated. The GAR’s, though, is pure. “No one else’s head was on that pillowcase,” says Boyle.

“We’ll be the yardstick,” Schmincke says. “After this is over, the pillowcase will be the yardstick used to measure Lincoln.”

 

THE CIVIL WAR was our first - our only - full-fledged domestic war, invading our homes the way the dying president invaded Anna Petersen’s. It was a family matter, pitting father against son, brother against brother, which made it at once more intimate and more epic, with its echoes of Abraham and Isaac, Abel and Cain.

Once you go biblical, of course, Lincoln’s blood is — well, transubstantiated. Schmincke explains what Hermann Faber’s scrap means: “When I look at the pillow strip, Lincoln’s not standing here in front of me, but he’s still there. That’s him downstairs, even if he has no torso, no limbs.”

But that’s the trouble with DNA testing. Our 16th president was more than blood and bone. “Those who seek to understand Lincoln through an exploration of his physical life are doomed to disappointment,” Michael F. Bishop wrote in a review of C.A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln. He’s right. In the end, what testing may say about the pillowcase is far less interesting than what the collective urge for testing says about us, 200 years after Abe first took breath. If he had Marfan or migraines, if he suffered from depression or cancer, then he was like us. And, more important, we are like him, America’s great sad man.

Lincoln understood this, knew that his accessibility and gawkiness and grief were what bound the nation to him. “On January 1st every year, the White House was open to the public,” Schmincke says. “Lincoln would shake the hands of all the people who came in. They’d take souvenirs — cut down drapes, break off pieces of tables. It drove Mary Todd Lincoln crazy. But the president would tell her: ‘Mary, it’s their house.’”

The truth is, we all want a piece of Lincoln. We want him to be our great-great-grandfather, our fellow sufferer, our confidant, our friend. He was our first modern American hero, a kindred victim of this harsh world, tragic like Marilyn Monroe, like JFK, like Martin Luther King. He’s the original geek god, a tongue-tied backwoods boy who made it to the top. And as such, he represents the best of the American spirit, the unsettled, questing, never-resting impetus within us that insists on knowing what Britney had for breakfast, what Lindsay texted Sam last night, and what Honest Abe carried with him to his grave.

 

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  • Ken

    I’ve read several articles in the December 2009 issue. I am surprised at the number of misspelled and missing words. It is difficult to understand the meaning of an article if the reader has to guess at misspelled and missing words. Please do a better job of proofreading your articles. Thanks.