Abraham Lincoln’s Health

Abraham Lincoln’s Health


Featured Book

(Pioneer Press, 1933)
Abraham Lincoln’s vigorous health was promoted in the 1860 presidential campaign by his image as a rail-splitter. But Mr. Lincoln was not always vigorous or healthy. After a close friend, Ann Rutledge, died in August 1835, Abraham Lincoln probably came down with malaria. A disease which raged in the New Salem area that summer as a result of drenching rains in the spring, followed by a heat wave in the summer. 1 It was the first recorded occasion that Mr. Lincoln fell seriously ill. Young Lincoln had his share of childhood accidents – he was nearly drowned in Kentucky and was kicked in the head by a horse in Indiana in 1818, but his health was generally good into young adulthood. 2
Frontier life, however, provided the breeding ground for disease, according to Dr. Milton Shutes, who chronicled Mr. Lincoln’s physical and mental health in two books. “Springfield was a slowly growing city of unpaved, unclean and poorly drained streets,” he wrote. “Garbage and manure, flies and mosquitoes were more than annoyances, especially about the downtown State House Square. Doctors had not much more than quinine, calomel, laudanum and whisky to offer. The open prairie country of the seventh and eighth law circuits comprised the larger part of central Illinois. Lincoln and his colleagues, following the court in open buggies or on horseback, slept in the crowded and often dirty bedrooms and ate the indifferent meals of available taverns.” Nevertheless, noted Shutes, Mr. Lincoln “was rarely ill, except for an occasional respiratory infection to add to his wife’s winter solicitude over his red flannels, his rubbers, muffler and companionable shawl.” 3
Health was a relatively big business in the Illinois state capital, noted historian Kenneth J. Winkle. “When Lincoln arrived, there were eighteen doctors and four druggists. Indeed, physicians were the third-largest occupation group in the town. Lincoln’s future brother-in-law, the well-to-do Dr. William Wallace, was a partner in Springfield’s largest drugstore. Wallace advertised over one hundred varieties of drugs, dyes, paints, oils, and perfumes, included forty-one different patent medicines ‘just received from the Eastern Cities,’ to prevent and treat common diseases. Lincoln himself enjoyed robust good health but constantly consulted physicians, including his brother-in-law, for the latest medical advice on warding off disease.” 4
As a child, young Lincoln “always had good health – never was sick,” recalled his stepmother. 5 But as a young man, noted historian Douglas Wilson, Mr. Lincoln suffered from occasional attacks of “hypo.” Shutes noted that “frequently he suffered from what he termed ‘unwell!’ The word explained a state of symptomatic ill health not sufficiently serious to describe specifically. Lincoln used it in letters to Mary Owens, John E. Rosetti, Senator [Orville H.] Browning and others. Those not infrequent ailings were probably days of headache and somatic depression, migraine, allergy or anything within medical reason, of psychosomatic origin.” 6
One such attack of hypo occurred in January 1841 after Mr. Lincoln broke up with fiancée Mary Todd. His friends worried about his physical and mental health. He was cared for by Dr. Anson Henry, a longtime political ally and friend. Dr. Shutes wrote of “hypo” that “whether the condition is termed hypochondria, neurasthenia, or psychoneurosis, it has fear as a dominant element, and is caused by overwork and worry. As a rule, it is accompanied by varying degrees of emotional depression; the patient is unhappy and is often made so because of a hyper-conscientiousness.” 7 Certainly, these conditions seemed present for Lincoln.
Reports of Mr. Lincoln’s instability circulated in Illinois. One letter inquired of attorney John J. Hardin, a Lincoln legal and political colleague: “We have been very much distressed, on Mr. Lincoln’s account; hearing he had two Cat fits, and a Duck fit since we left. Is it true? Do let me hear soon.” 8 On January 20, Mr. Lincoln wrote his law partner, John Todd Stuart who was then serving in Congress, urging the appointment of Dr. Henry as postmaster of Springfield. “I have within the last few days been making a most discreditable exhibition of myself in the way of hypochrondism and thereby got an impression that Dr. Henry is necessary to my existence. Unless he gets that place he leaves Springfield. You therefore see how much I am interested in the matter.” 9
Mr. Lincoln wrote Stuart again on January 23, apologizing for his “deplorable state of my mind: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forbode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me. The matter you speak of on my account, you attend to as you say, unless you shall hear of my condition forbidding it. I say this, because I fear I shall be unable to attend to any bussiness [sic] here, and a change of scene might help me. If I could be myself, I would rather remain at home with Judge Logan. I can write no more.” 10 On February 3, he again wrote Stuart, mostly about patronage, but he began his letter: “You see by this, that I am neither dead nor quite crazy yet. The same everlasting subject–that of filling offices–is the one that now induces me to write.” 11
“Poor L! How are the might fallen!” wrote Springfield attorney to a friend. “He was confined about a week, but though he now appears again he is reduced and emaciated in appearance and seems scarcely to possess strength enough to speak above a whisper. His case at present is truly deplorable but what prospect there may be for ultimate relief I can not pretend to say.” 12 Historian Wayne C. Temple wrote that “Lincoln continued to brood, and his health – both mental and physical – failed to improve in an adequate manner. In the beginning, he had absented himself from the Hall of the House and neglected his duties for several days. Although Lincoln had taken up his legislative responsibilities once more, he still languished miserably in a depressed state of mind. And through all of his mental anguish, Dr. Anson Henry treated Lincoln’s ills. It was probably he who suggested that ‘a change of scene might help Abraham.” 13
Close friend Joshua Speed, who also suffered from ‘hypo,” continued to worry about Mr. Lincoln’s mental health after he left for Kentucky that spring. He wrote William Butler on May 18, 1841: “I am glad to hear from Mrs Butler that Lincoln is on the mend. Say to him that I have had but one attack since I left Springfield and that was on the river as I came here – I am not as happy as I could be and yet so much happier than I deserve to be that I think I ought to be satisfied –“.14 According to historian Douglas L. Wilson, “Here we see how their ‘hypochondriaism’ was regarded by Speed and Lincoln as a bond between them, and we see further that Speed represents himself to Butler as being happier than he deserved to be.” 15
Apparently, Mr. Lincoln long suffered from a more specific physical disorder – constipation. John Todd Stuart had a peculiar view of Mr. Lincoln’s constitution. He told William Herndon that Mr. Lincoln “was a kind of vegetable – that the pores of his flesh acted as an appropriate organ for such Evacuation…” 16 He blamed some of Mr. Lincoln’s problems on his digestion and said he had prescribed “blue mass pills” to deal with the problem. Henry C. Whitney reported that Stuart said: “Lincoln’s digestion was organically defective so that the excreta escaped through the skin pores instead of the bowels”. Stuart said he “advised him to take him to take Blue Mass and he did take it before he went to Washington and for five months while he was President but when I went to Congress he told me he had quit because it made him cross.” 17
Such blue mass pills included mercury as an ingredient and were intended as a laxative but they were also prescribed for a wide variety of ills. 18 Mercury, according to medical researchers, was prescribed to treat “hypochondriasis,” which covered a wide range of “mental and intestinal distress.” 19 Medical speculation has suggested that the mercury might have affected Mr. Lincoln’s physical and mental disposition – causing him irritation and insomnia before he ceased their use in 1861. One medical study in 2001 concluded that Mr. Lincoln might have been unable to handle the presidency had he not stopped using the patent medicine. The authors wrote: “If blue pills prompted Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable behavior in the decade before he went to the White House, then his insightful decision to stop taking them may have been crucial to the outcome of the Civil War.” 20
Mr. Lincoln himself had some peculiar attitudes toward medicine. “He had great faith in the virtues of the mad stone although he could give no reason for it and confessed that it looked like superstition but he said he found the People in the neighborhood of these stones fully impressed with a belief in their virtues from actual experiment and that was about as much as could ever know of the properties of medicines”. 21
Another contemporary recalled a prescription given Mr. Lincoln after the Quincy debate with Senator Stephen A. Douglas in October 1858. “I tell you, I’m might nigh petered out; I reckon I’ll have to quit and give up the race,” Mr. Lincoln said. George P. Floyd recalled that his wife suggested a “rum sweat” to which Mr. Lincoln projected “Why, I never drank a drop of liquor in my life.” She explained that it was “an external treatment so Mr. Lincoln agreed to submit: “Well, if you think it will do me any good, just crack your whip and go ahead. Any port in a storm, and, I tell you, I am mighty near overboard.”
As Floyd described it: “The treatment was administered as directed by my wife. A pan of New England rum was placed under a cane-seated chair. The patient was stripped, seated in the chair, and covered all over with blankets. Then the rum was set afire. The fumes or vapor of the rum caused profuse perspiration, after which the patient was put to bed, covered with woolen blankets, and given a decoction of hot ginger tea. The sweating continued.” The treatment apparently worked. The next morning, Mr. Lincoln proclaimed: “Why, I am feeling like a two-year-old. I can jump a five-rail fence right now, I swanny! I’ve heard folks drinking liquor, and rubbing their bodies with the bottle for ailments, but I never yet heard of driving the stuff through the pores of the hide to get a man full. If Mrs. Floyd would only join us in this campaign and prescribe for me, I think we could beat out Judge Douglas slick and clean.” 22 Several years later, Floyd visited the White House and was told by the President: “I believe your wife saved my life when I was at Quincy in 1858. Yes, and I have taken that ‘rum sweat’ that she prescribed for me many times, and I have prescribed it for some of my friends. It has always been a dead shot.” 23
Longtime law partner William H. Herndon, who fancied himself a frontier psychologist, wrote: “Lincoln’s melancholy never failed to impress any man who ever saw or knew him. The perpetual look of sadness was his most prominent feature. The cause of this peculiar condition was a matter of frequent discussion among his friends. John T. Stuart said it was due to his abnormal digestion. His liver failed to work properly — did not secrete bile — and his bowels were equally as inactive….The reader can hardly realize the extent of this peculiar tendency to gloom. One of Lincoln’s colleagues in the Legislature of Illinois is authority for the statement coming from Lincoln himself that ‘this mental depression became so intense at times he never dared carry a pocket-knife.’ Two things greatly intensified his characteristic sadness: one was the endless succession of troubles in his domestic life, which he had to bear in silence; and the other was unquestionably the knowledge of his own obscure and lowly origin. The recollection of these things burned a deep impress on his sensitive soul.” 24
Dr. Shutes noted that Mr. Lincoln seemed also to suffer from chronic physical fatigue: “Lincoln did not complain of physical fatigue, but he would move to a lounge as a habitual smoker reaches for a cigarette. When one was unavailable, he sought an approach to the horizontal position by placing his chair and shoulders against a walk and his feet on the highest rung or, preferably, on a table. Herndon said that his partner usually arrived at their office at nine o’clock, that the first thing he did was to lie down on the sofa, one leg on a chair, and read the newspapers. Throughout Lincoln literature, he can be found lying on the grass, on the floor, or on a sofa.” 25
Concern about his health and comfort was never far from Mr. Lincoln’s mind. Judge David Davis recalled that in 1849 after Mr. Lincoln had returned to Springfield, Grant “Goodrich of Chicago proposed to him to open a law office in Chicago & go into partnership with him. Goodrich had an Extensive – a good practice there. Lincoln refused to accept – gave as a reason that he tended to Consumption – That if he went to Chicago that he would have to sit down and Study hard – That it would Kill him.” 26
At the table, Mr. Lincoln seldom overindulged. “Abe was a moderate Eater and I now have no remembrance of his Special dish: he Sat down and ate what was set before him, making non complaint: he seemed Careless about this. I cooked his meals for nearly 15 years,” recalled stepmother Sarah Bush Lincoln.” 27 Cousin John Hanks described him as “a good hearty eater.” 28 Another, younger Lincoln relative, Harriet A. Chapman recalled that “Mr. Lincoln was what I Call a hearty eater and enjoyed a good meal of victuals as much as enny one I ever knew. I have often heard him say that he could eat corn cakes as fast two women could make them.” 29 One New Salem resident recalled that Mr. Lincoln “Was a fast eater, though not a very hearty one.” He remembered that young Lincoln had a special fondness for honey. “Whenever he went to [James] S[hort]’s house he invariably asked his wife for some bread & honey. And he liked a great deal of bee bead in it.”
On the Eighth Judicial Circuit each spring and fall, Mr. Lincoln seldom complained of the miserable food the lawyers were served in country inns. Judge David Davis recalled Mr. Lincoln once proclaiming “Well – in the absence of anything to Eat I will jump into this Cabbage.” 30 Attorney Henry C. Whitney said that Mr. Lincoln was “an incompetent judge” of food. “He could not discern between well and ill-cooked and served food.” 31
In Washington, President “Lincoln ate heartily but not to excess; he was particularly fond of certain things, especially apples, and Mrs. Lincoln always had a sufficiency of this fruit chosen carefully and ready at hand,” recalled White House guard William H. Crook. 32 Mr. Lincoln specially enjoyed fruit and nuts. “Mr. Lincoln was a great eater of apples,” recalled Springfield attorney Charles S. Zane. He said to me once that a man should eat and drink only that which is conducive to his own health. ‘Apples,’ he said, ‘agree with me, ‘and he added, ‘a large per cent of professional men abuse their stomachs by imprudence in drinking and eating, and in that way health in is injured and ruined and life is shortened.” 33
In the White House, President Lincoln’s eating habits were irregular. For breakfast at the White House, he would have an egg, a piece of toast and coffee for breakfast, according to aide John Hay. Sometimes even that sparse meal would be neglected. Artist Francis B. Carpenter recalled a morning spent with the President and Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt discussing pardons. At noon, Mr. Lincoln said: “I believe, by the by…that I have not yet had my breakfast, – this business has been so absorbing that it has crowded everything else out of my mind.” 34 Once when some visitors were informed that the President was eating dinner, they told the porter that they would call at another time. They were told instead to wait: “In a few minutes the President walked into the room, with a kindly salutation, and a request that the friends would take seats,” reported artist Francis B. Carpenter. “The doctor expressed his regret that their visit was so ill-timed, and that his Excellency was disturbed while at dinner. ‘Oh! No consequence at all,’ said Mr. Lincoln, good-naturedly. ‘Mrs. Lincoln is absent at present, and when she is away, I generally ‘browse’ around.” 35
Lunch consisted of “a biscuit, a glass of milk in winter, some fruit or grapes in summer,” wrote Hay. “He was very abstemious – ate less than any one I know. Drank nothing but water – not from principle, but because he did not like wine or spirits. Once, in rather dark days early in the war, a Temperance Committee came to him and said the reason we did not win was because our army drank so much whiskey as to bring down the curse of the Lord upon them. He said dryly that it was rather unfair on the part of the aforesaid curse, as the other side drank more and worse whiskey than ours did.” 36 Friend Robert L. Wilson wrote that he “never Saw Mr Lincoln drink, he often told me he never drank, had no desire for the drink, nor th companionship of drinking men.” 37 Attorney Joseph Gillespie recalled “He was a remarkably temperate man; eschewing every indulgence not so much as it seemed to me, from principle as from a want of appetites. I never heard him declaim against the use of tobacco or other stimulants although he never indulged in them.” 38
Most contemporaries testified that Mr. Lincoln seldom if ever drank liquor. Aide William O. Stoddard recalled that “At the table, when his attention was especially called to some rare wine, I have seen Mr. Lincoln barely touch his lips to his glass, ‘just to see what it was,’ but there was no perceptible diminution of its contests.” 39 However, friend Milton Hay said: “He drank lager beer for some time on the advice of a physician. My impression is that he had run down from cold or something and needed building up, and was told to drink lager. He did drink it for quite a while, and that is about the only thing I know that he ever drank.” 40 The practice didn’t continue in the White House. “He was one of the most abstemious of men: the pleasures of the table had few attractions for him,” wrote Milton’s nephew, John Hay. “He drank little or no wine; not that he remained always on principle a total abstainer, as he was during a par of his early life, in the favor of the ‘Washingtonian’ reform, but he never cared for wine or liquors of any sort, and never used tobacco.” 41
If the frontier could be unhealthy, Washington was worse. The capital was particularly dangerous in summer when heat, humidity and mosquitoes abounded. Writing his fiancée in mid-July 1862, Lincoln aide John G. Nicolay observed that “The windows of the room are open, and all bugdom outside seems to have organized a storming party to take the gas light, in numbers which seem to exceed the contending hosts at Richmond. The air is swarming with them, they are on the ceiling, the walls and the furniture in countless numbers, they are buzzing about the room, and butting their heads against the window panes, they are on my clothes, in my hair, and on the sheet I am writing one.” 42 For such reasons, the President and his family usually spent the summer months at the Soldiers Home in a more elevated section of northeast Washington. The President commuted on horseback or carriage to the White House.
The effluent from the Washington Canal, which ran between the White House and the Potomac River in the area of what is now Constitution Avenue, contributed to the health problems of residents. Aide William O. Stoddard wrote: “Everybody who spends much time in the White House is certain to suffer more or less. To be sure, the President has had only the smallpox, but he was well seasoned before he came, and he is too full of anxiety, all the while, for a different kind of fever to get into him. Mrs. Lincoln had suffered in ways which have no chronicle, and little Tad has undoubtedly been injured so that his constitution will not recover….The private secretaries were all tough, healthy fellows, pretty well seasoned, but they have had sharp down-turns to wrest with.” 43
The proximity of the Washington Canal has sometimes been blamed for the typhoid-like disease that felled Willie and Tad Lincoln in February 1862 – killing Willie. Mr. Lincoln suffered from occasional headaches as President but his health was generally good, unlike his wife who suffered from debilitating migraines. A typical telegram from wife to husband in December 1863 read: “Reached here last evening. Very tired and severe headache. Hope to hear you are doing well.” 44 In January 1862, shortly before his sons came down with typhoid fever, William O. Stoddard reported: “The President seems to retain his usual health and spirits, and labors on as indefatigably as ever.” 45 The President’s aides suffered more than he did. Stoddard himself came down with a very serious case of typhoid in 1863 and again in 1864. The two principal secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay also succumbed to the poisonous environment of Washington and periodically sought rest and recuperation far away from the city. But the President, except when he visited the Army of the Potomac, seldom got farther away than the Soldiers’ Home in northeastern Washington.
Early in his Presidency, Mrs. Lincoln determined that she would take an afternoon ride in the White House carriage and that, according to her cousin, Elizabeth Grimsley, Mary decided “as her right, that [Mr. Lincoln] should accompany her, as this was the only way in which she could induce him to take the fresh air, which he so much needed.” 46 Apparently, the carriage rides could have a restorative effect. On April 10, 1862, Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning recorded in his diary: that he “went to Presidents, but he was sick and in bed, and I did not see him. Went up again at night, and sat with him an hour or more. He was comfortable and in very good spirits — having been out riding in the evening.” 47
Aide William O. Stoddard recalled: “When Mr. Lincoln first came to Washington, as President, there was very little in the way of public amusement to call out him or anybody else, and for a long time he worked away steadily in his official treadmill, hardly caring for or thinking of any such thing as recreation. To such an extent was his absorbed devotion to business carried that the perpetual strain upon his nervous system, with the utter want of all exercise, began to tell seriously upon his health and spirits, and occasioned some alarm upon his gradually changing appearance. Even his temper suffered, and a petulance entirely foreign to his natural disposition as beginning to show itself as a symptom of an overtasked brain.” Stoddard wrote that visits to plays and concerts provided some diversion as did his summers at the Soldiers Home. 48
But the stress of the Presidency took its toll by 1863. President Lincoln was ill when he returned from delivering his Gettysburg Address on November 20. Aide John Hay wrote on November 26, “The President quite unwell.” 49 He was effectively confined to bed with variloid for the next three weeks and treated by Dr. Robert K. Stone, the family physician in Washington. The symptoms of the mild form of smallpox included flu-like symptoms – headache and fever. He found humor in his predicament, however. “I’ve got something now that I can give to everybody.” 50 On November 27, Mr. Lincoln wrote Secretary of State William H. Seward: “I am improving but I can not meet the Cabinet to-day.” 51
Aide William O. Stoddard recalled that “the White House has suddenly been turned into a smallpox hospital, with a certain degree of penetrable quarantine…Day follows day, and all the reports from the sick-room are favorable, but the whole country is nervous about this case, mild as it is, and so are you.” 52 By early December, Stoddard wrote: “The President is steadily recovering his health and strength, and his friends say that he will be rather improved than otherwise by his brief struggle with fever. He received his guests at the Reception the other day with a good deal of his usual hearty cheerfulness, though compelled to avail himself of occasional opportunities for a brief resting-spell.” 53
During this period, Stoddard later wrote, he, John Nicolay and John Hay “held mournful consultations over the idea that all the country would go to ruin if Abraham Lincoln should die of the dread disease, or any other.” 54 Stoddard, who had received small pox inoculation, recalled being asked by the White House usher to come to see the President:: “It will never be possible to forget how this sick-room looks. So bright it is, in the perceived certainty that the peril has passed away! Even the welcoming smile that lights up Mr. Lincoln’s face is a half-amused reflection of your own exuberance. He had not been alarmed about himself at any moment, and he combines his instructions concerning the duties he assigns you with a humorous response to your personal inquiries. He almost wishes he could have his office in one of the smallpox hospitals. It would relieve him of one part of his press: ‘Well, no,’ he adds, ‘it wouldn’t. They’d all go and get vaccinated, and they’d come buzzing back, just the same as they do now – or worse.” 55
Mr. Lincoln’s health had improved by December 10, but he did not return to his office until the December 15. Four days later, journalist Noah Brooks reported: The President has recovered his health so as to go out. He was at the theater four nights this week to see Hackett as Falstaff, and received the usual formal call of the Justice of the Supreme Court yesterday.” 56 By early January, journalist Brooks reported: “The President looks better since he has had the varioloid. I don’t mean to insinuate that the disease has added any new charms to his features; but his complexion is clearer, his eyes less lack-luster and he has a hue of health to which he has long been a stranger.” 57 Temporarily, the illness did change his appearance in one important regard – he lost his beard. 58
By the of the war in 1865, President Lincoln was tired, very tired. When Joshua Speed asked President Lincoln when he got to sleep, he responded: “Just when everybody else is tired out.” 59 Over the course of his Presidency, Mr. Lincoln literally wore himself out, recalled friend Robert L. Wilson: “The labor caused by the breaking out of the war at the commencement of his administration, imposed on Mr. Lincoln more work than one man could do. He adopted no hours for business, but did business at all hours, rising early in the morning, and retiring late at night, making appointments at very early and very late hours. He never had any time for rest and recuperation.” 60
The aging effect of the war years were shocking to those who had not seen the President for several years. Journalist Noah Brooks knew Mr. Lincoln in Illinois before he moved to California. He next saw President Lincoln in New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1862: “The change which a few years had made was simply appalling, His whiskers had grown, and had given additional cadaverousness to his face, as it appeared to me. The light seemed to have gone out of his eyes, which were sunken far under his enormous brows. But there was over his whole face an expression of sadness, and a far-away look in the eyes, which were utterly unlike the Lincoln of other days. I was intensely disappointed.” 61
President Lincoln’s deterioration was also evident to someone who saw him frequently such as Benjamin Brown French, U.S. Commissioner of Buildings. Inn February 1863, after a meeting with the President, French wrote ominously of the signs of strain on the president and described him as “growing feeble” and with a hand that “trembled as I never saw it before.” French told him that he should get some rest, and the president replied that “it was a pretty hard life.” 62
Journalist Joseph Barrett recalled a visit to President Lincoln in March 1865 “rather late in the evening – he seemed unusually care-worn and weary, thought cheerful in tone and kind in manner. Detaining him but a short time, I rose to go, when he requested me to wait for an instant until he was gone. ‘I must have rest,’ said he, ‘and there are still persons waiting outside; I hear their voices now.’ He then hastily retired by the private way, which had recently been constructed in the rear of the ante-room.” 63
Mr. Lincoln’s health deteriorated in the weeks before and after his second inaugural in March 1865. Joshua Speed recalled visiting the President about 10 days before the inauguration and observing that “He was worn down in health and spirits.” Speed sat in the President’s office as he dealt with a stream of visitors. After one particular emotional visit from an elderly woman, Speed told the President, “Lincoln with my knowledge of your nervous sensibility it is a wonder that such scenes as this don’t kill you.” The President replied, “I am…very unwell – my feet & hands are always cold – I suppose I ought to be in bed.” 64
President Lincoln remained in bed on March 13, and held his March 14 Cabinet meeting from there. Journalist Noah Brooks wrote: “The President’s health has been worn down by the constant pressure of office-seekers and legitimate business, so that for a few days he was obliged to deny himself to all comers, and he now rigidly adheres to the rule of closing the doors at three o’clock in the forenoon, receiving only those whom he prefers during the hours of evening. He is considerably better in health now.” 65
John Hay wrote that President Lincoln “continued, to the end, receiving these swarms of visitors, every one of whom, even the most welcome, took something from him, in the way of wasted nervous forces. Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson once remonstrated with him about it: ‘You will wear yourself out.’ He replied with one of these smiles in which there was so much of sadness, ‘They don’t want much; they get but little, and I must see them.’ In most cases he could do them no good, and it afflicted him to see he could not make them understand the impossibility of granting their requests.” 66
By March 15, the President felt well enough to work in his office and meet with Cabinet meetings. By the next day, he was well enough to take a short carriage ride with his youngest son. By March 17, a Washington newspaper reported: “Although the President is yet quite feeble, he is slowly gaining strength, and yesterday afternoon he took a short ride, appearing upon the Avenue in his carriage, accompanied by his son master Tad. If the thousands of office seekers who are now here besetting him upon every side would allow him to obtain a few day’s relaxation, he would doubtlessly speedily recover his usual health; but notwithstanding the President’s disposition and the fact that this is cabinet day, the White House was thronged again this morning with parties eager to obtain an interview.” 67 He was well enough that afternoon to give a short speech at the National Hotel.
On March 20 Mary Todd Lincoln wrote a friend: “We are having charming weather and I am most happy to say, that my blessed Husband’s health, has much improved.” She added: “Mr L most probably, goes down to the front (entre nous) this week & wishes me to accompany him – I gladly seize on any change that will benefit him.” 68 General Ulysses S. Grant’s wife had read of the President’s illness and suggested to her husband that President that be invited for a visit of rest and restoration. Julia Grant recalled in her memoirs: “While I was at headquarters in March, 1865, the papers daily announced the exhausted appearance of the President. On more than one occasion, I petitioned the General with hospitable intent to invite Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln down to visit the army; so many people were coming, and the weather was simply delightful. The General would always reply to my request: ‘If President Lincoln wishes to come down, he will not wait to be asked. It is not my place to invite him.’ ‘Yes,’ I urged, ‘it is. You know all that has been said about his interference with army movements, and he will never come for fear appearing to meddle with army affairs.’ But the General did not invite them. One day, Captain Robert Lincoln, in reply to my inquiries about his father’s health and my asking why his father and mother did not come down on a visit, said: ‘I suppose they would, if they were sure they would not be intruding.” 69
The Lincolns left Washington on March 23 and arrived at City Point on March 24. Their two-week working vacation was the President’s longest absence from Washington during his Presidency. Mr. Lincoln seemed to revive away from the pressures and office-hunters in Washington. Congressman Elihu Washburne joined President Lincoln at the front on April 7, 1865. He wrote: “On arriving there, late Friday afternoon, we found the President and party had returned from Richmond, and were on their steamer, the River Queen, which was to remain at City Point over night. In the evening Mr. [James G.] Blaine and myself went on board the steamer to pay our respects to the President. I never passed a more delightful evening. Mr. Lincoln was in perfect health and in exuberant spirits. His relation of his experiences and of all he saw at Richmond had all of that quaintness and originality for which he was distinguished. Full of anecdote and reminiscence, he never flagged during the whole evening.” 70
By the time he returned to Washington on April 9, President Lincoln’s health and spirits seemed restored. The end of the war and Mr. Lincoln’s life were both in sight. When Joshua Speed had visited the President in February 1865, President Lincoln said: “Speed die when I may I want it said of me by those who know me best to say that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow –” 71 Johnson Brigham, who saw President Lincoln as his inaugural and then a month later, wrote: “The lean, muscular man who in 1861 had come out of the West had sadly aged. His black frock coat fitted him loosely. The deep lines of care on his allow face had deepened into furrows. His cheeks were sunken, his cheek bones unduly prominent But a marvelous change had come over him since I had last seen him. The wearied look was gone, and his deep-set gray eyes flashed with a jubilant express that told the story of a lifted burden.” 72
Mr. Lincoln had a strong sense of his own mortality. His favorite poem was “Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Man Be Proud?” On July 15, 1862, Illinois Senator Orville Browning visited the President: “At the Presidents this morning — He was in his Library writing, with directions to deny him to every body. I went in a moment. He looked weary, care-worn and troubled. I shook hands with him, and asked how he was. He said ‘tolerably well’ I remarked that I felt concerned about him — regretted that troubles crowded so heavily upon him, and feared his health was suffering. He held me by the hand, pressed it, and said in a very tender and touching tone — ‘Browning I must die sometime’, I replied ‘your fortunes Mr President are bound up with those of the Country, and disaster to one would be disaster to the other, and I hope you will do all you can to preserve your health and life’. He looked very sad, and there was a cadence of deep sadness in his voice. We parted I believe both of us with tears in our eyes.” 73
Even in death, Mr. Lincoln’s mortal remains have continued to be the subject of controversy. Speculation that Mr. Lincoln suffered from Marfan’s Syndrome has been refuted in recent years and succeeded by speculation that the 16th President suffered from a genetic abnormality called “spinocerebellar ataxia Type 5.” No wonder the spirit of mortal man can’t be proud. It’s still being poked at.


  1. Milton H. Shutes, Lincoln’s Emotional Life, p. 45.
  2. Louis A. Warren, Lincoln’s Youth Indiana Years.
  3. Milton H. Shutes, Lincoln’s Emotional Life, p. 103.
  4. Kenneth J. Winkle, The Young Eagle: The Rise of Abraham Lincoln, p.176.
  5. Harold Holzer, Lincoln as I Knew Him: Gossip, Tributes & revelations from His Best Friends and Worst Enemies, p. 16.
  6. Milton H. Shutes, Lincoln’s Emotional Life, p. 103.
  7. Milton H. Shutes, Lincoln and the Doctors, pp. 27-28.
  8. Earl Schencks Miers,editor,Lincoln Day by Day, Volume I, p. 152. (Letter from Martin McKee to John J. Hardin, January 22, 1941).
  9. Roy P. Basler, editor,The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), Volume I, p. 228 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to John Todd Stuart, January 20, 1841).
  10. CWAL, Volume I, pp. 229-230 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to John Todd Stuart, January 23, 1841).
  11. CWAL, First Supplement, p. 6 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to John Todd Stuart, February 3, 1841).
  12. Logan Hay, “Lincoln in 1841 and 1842,” Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, p. 118.
  13. Wayne C. Temple, Dr. Anson G. Henry: Personal Physician to the Lincolns, p. 3.
  14. Douglas L. Wilson, Honor’s Voice, p. 124.
  15. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln Before Washington, p. 124-125.
  16. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 63 (John T. Stuart interview with William H. Herndon, ca late June 1865).
  17. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, pp. 631-632 (Letter from Henry C. Whitney to William H. Herndon, August 27, 1887).
  18. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 466.
  19. Norbert Hirschhorn, Robert G. Feldman, and Ian A. Greaves, “Abraham Lincoln’s Blue Pills,”Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Summer 2001, pp. 315-332.
  20. Norbert Hirschhorn, Robert G. Feldman, and Ian A. Greaves, “Abraham Lincoln’s Blue Pills: Did Our 16th President Suffer from Mercury Poisoning?” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, p. 329.
  21. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants, p. 182 (Letter from Joseph Gillespie to William H. Herndon, January 31, 1866).
  22. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, pp. 176-177 (George P. Floyd, McClure’s Magazine, January 1908).
  23. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 179 (George P. Floyd, McClure’s Magazine, January 1908).
  24. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 473.
  25. Milton H. Shutes, Lincoln’s Emotional Life, p. 105.
  26. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 349 (David Davis interview with William H. Herndon, September 20, 1866).
  27. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 108 (Sarah Bush Lincoln interview with William H. Herndon, September 8, 1865).
  28. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 445 (John Hanks interview with William H. Herndon, ca. 1865-1866).
  29. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 512 (Letter from Harriet A. Chapman to William H. Herndon).
  30. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 359 (David Davis ineterview with William H. Herndon, September 20, 1866).
  31. Henry C. Whitney, Life on the eighth Circuit, p. 73.
  32. Harold Holzer, editor, Lincoln as I Knew Him: Gossip, Tributes & Revelations from His Best Friends and Worst Enemies, p. 242 (William H. Crook).
  33. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 134 (Charles S. Zane, Sunset Magazine, October 1912).
  34. Francis B. Carpenter, Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House, p. 34.
  35. Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House, p. 272.
  36. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 331 (Letter from John Hay to William H. Herndon, September 5, 1866).
  37. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 205 (Letter from Robert L. Wilson to William H. Herndon, February 10, 1866).
  38. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 180 (Letter from Joseph Gillespie to William H. Herndon).
  39. Michael Burlingame, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary: William O. Stoddard, p. 200 (White House Sketches, No. 13).
  40. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p.48 (George ALfred Townsend, “Lincoln’s Near Friend,” Cincinnati Inquirer, August 26, 1883).
  41. Michael Burlingame, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 134 (Hay’s Reminiscences of the Civil War).
  42. Michael Burlingame, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, pp. 85-86 (Letter from John G. Nicolay to Therena Bates, July 20, 1862).
  43. Michael Burlingame, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary: William O. Stoddard, p. 124.
  44. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 149 (Mary Todd Lincoln to Abraham Lincoln, December 4, 1863).
  45. Michael Burlingame, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 55 (January 19, 1862).
  46. Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, “Six Months in The White House”, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. XIX, October 1926, January 1927, p. 55.
  47. Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume I, 1850-1864, p. 540.
  48. Michael Burlingame, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary: William O. Stoddard, p. 190 (White House Sketches, No. 11).
  49. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 118 (November 26, 1863).
  50. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 13 (New York Post, February 17, 1864).
  51. CWAL, First Supplement, p. 211 ( Letter from Abraham Lincoln to William H. Seward, November 27, 1863)
  52. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary: William O. Stoddard, p. 108.
  53. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, December 14, 1863, p. 197.
  54. Michael Burlingame, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary: William O. Stoddard, p. xiii.
  55. Michael Burlingame, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary: William O. Stoddard, p. 109.
  56. Michael Burlingame, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 96 (December 19, 1863).
  57. Michael Burlingame, incoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 100 (January 1, 1864).
  58. Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, p. 374.
  59. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 255 (Letter from Joshua F. Speed to William H. Herndon, May 8, 1866).
  60. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 35 (Letter from Robert L. Wilson to William H. Herndon, February 10, 1866).
  61. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 207 (Noah Brooks, Scribner’s Monthly, February 1878).
  62. Benjamin Brown French, Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, 1828-1870, p. 417
  63. Joseph R. Nightingale, “Lincoln’s Friend and Biographer: Joseph Hartwell Barrett,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Autumn 2003, p. 287.
  64. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 157 (Letter from Josh F. Speed to William H. Herndon, January 12, 1866).
  65. Michael Burlingame, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, March 22, 1865, pp. 175-176 (March 22, 1865).
  66. Michael Burlingame, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 132 (“Life in the White House in the Time of Lincoln”).
  67. Stanley Kimmel, Mr. Lincoln’s Washington, p. 170.
  68. Justin G. Turner & Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, pp. 205-206(Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Abram Wakeman March 20, 1865).
  69. John Y. Simon, Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, pp.141-142.
  70. Allen Thorndike Rice, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time, p. 43-44 (Elihu Washburne).
  71. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants, pp. 157-158 (Letter from Joshua F. Speed to William H. Herndon, January 12, 1866).
  72. John E. Boos, Rare Personal Accounts of Abraham Lincoln, p. 249.
  73. Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, 1850-1864, July 15, 1862, pp. 559-560.