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

It may appear the museum is being overcautious. But 3,000 miles away, in sunny California, a Johns Hopkins-trained cardiologist named John Sotos is dying to get his hands on that pillowcase. Sotos has a particular interest in rare diseases; he serves as a consultant for the TV show House and in U.S. presidents; he has a website that examines their health. Sotos believes that John Wilkes Booth deserves to be no more than a footnote in history, because the president he killed was already dying, and likely knew he was dying. Sotos thinks Lincoln suffered from the cancer-causing genetic disorder multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B, or MEN2B, based on photographs and contemporaries’ descriptions: the president’s extreme height, long limbs, bumpy lips, lack of muscle tone. But to prove it, Sotos needs to perform a DNA test on Faber’s scrap.

Items stained with Lincoln’s blood aren’t particularly rare. Walter Reed Army Medical Center has some of the shirt worn by Lincoln’s surgeon, and the bullet he fished out; the Henry Ford Museum has the chair Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot. Ford’s Theatre owns the coat he wore. Bloodied relics are scattered all around the world.

In the 1990s, a different Lincoln theorist, who thought the president suffered from a different rare genetic disease, tried to get the Walter Reed artifacts tested. “That began a process in which the government convened committees, which then convened committees that convened more committees,” Sotos says. “Nothing ever happened. The lesson I took from it was that big organizations move slowly, and smaller ones may move more quickly.” So he decided to ask the GAR Museum if he could test part of its scrap.

Schmincke and fellow board member Hugh Boyle have another explanation. “He called us about the testing,” Boyle says. “He said, ‘Just put the pillowcase in a box and mail it to me.’”

“Oh yeah.” That’s Schmincke, darkly bitter. “The country bumpkins.”

That wasn’t going to happen,” Boyle says. Granted, Schmincke and Boyle aren’t black-tie-and-foie-gras museum board members. But as Boyle says, “No one here is on the board to pad their résumé.” Instead, they’re guardians. Centurions. And if there’s one thing they can’t abide, it’s any implication they, or their museum, are amateur.

While you may never have heard of the Grand Army of the Republic Museum, it’s plenty well known in what Schmincke and Boyle call “the Civil War community,” the network of “round tables” of enthusiasts for whom the war will never die. Boyle, 71, has ruddy skin and bright blue eyes. He caught the Civil War bug 18 years ago, when he took a class on the Battle of Gettysburg at Holy Family. “Six of us had a drink afterward,” he recollects, “and someone said, ‘What about a Civil War round table?’” It now has 175 members; Boyle’s been president for 17 years.