Two hundred years have passed since his birth and Abraham Lincoln is still making headlines. Recently trumpeted as Barack Obama’s personal hero, the media has heralded the new President’s cabinet as a recreation of Lincoln’s legendary 1861 cabinet dubbed The Team of Rivals by Doris K Goodwin.
Lincoln formed “the most unusual cabinet in history” by drawing together opponents such as William H Seward, Salmon P Chase and Edward Bates.” Obama’s appointments include former rivals Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Tom Vilsack. However, ‘Honest’ Abe Lincoln has been a publisher’s dream for nearly two centuries and not always for his abolitionist politics or sensationalized assassination. Read on for a few lesser known facts, 19th century gossip and of course, good reads….
A gang of American counterfeiters received the strongest ever penalty for grave robbing after a botched attempt to steal the former President’s body and hold it hostage for $200,000. Bonnie Stahlman Speer’s The Great Abraham Lincoln Hijack depicts how the Secret Service intercepted the robbers at Lincoln’s tomb on Election Day 1876, where they planned to exhume Lincoln’s coffin and smuggle it to Indiana in a covered wagon. The gang members, who each faced a year in prison, masterminded the plot several years earlier but were forced to flee after a local brothel hostess got wind of the plan. John Carroll Power’s 1898 representation of the scheme in History of an Attempt to Steal the Body of Abraham Lincoln has since become a highly prized collectible book.
Speaking of Mary Todd, President Lincoln’s wife stood trial for insanity in 1875 after her son Robert sought to have her institutionalized. Known for her extremely bad temper, mental instability and compulsive shopping, the First Lady’s conduct became increasingly erratic and paranoid following her husband’s assassination and the deaths of three of her four sons. The release of Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, a now-collectible autobiography by close friend and dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley, further worsened Mary’s health. Mary regularly denounced “Slick Lizzie” and began suffering from hallucinations and an obsession with perceived plots on her life. The ailing First Lady is eloquently characterized by Jason Emerson in The Madness of Mary Lincoln and in Andrew Holleran’s Grief: a Novel.
Historians document Lincoln as having suffered from malaria, frostbite, smallpox and depression, however, the assertion that he had syphilis by biographer William Henry Herndon, his legal partner of nearly 18 years, triggered huge controversy. The 1889 publication of Herndon’s Life of Lincoln claims that the former President contracted the disease in 1835 after a “devilish passion” with a girl in Beardstown. Now a valuable collector’s item, the book challenged Lincoln’s reverential public persona and used groundbreaking biographical techniques, including firsthand interviews with Mary Todd and many others. Gore Vidal also comically references the syphilis question in Lincoln, his epic work of historical fiction centering on the 16th President.
James Swanson’s Manhunt is one of the finest historical Lincoln books to emerge in recent years. It deals with the 12-day search for Confederate die-hard John Wilkes Booth. It reads like a thriller and reveals Booth’s mixture of luck, skill, cunning and bravado that ensured his remained at large for an incredible length of time. Killing the president proofed remarkably easy for the famous actor but avoiding the authorities proved a huge challenge.