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.

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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.