A couple of years ago I gave a public lecture on Lincoln’s last days in 1865. Following the discussion period, as I was leaving the auditorium, a woman approached me to ask one more question. She hadn’t broached the subject earlier, she said, because it was so distant from my topic. “Did Lincoln,” she wondered, “really get syphilis when he was a young man?”
I was fascinated that this issue was on her mind, and asked her where she’d first heard about it. “In one of my medical school textbooks,” she replied. She couldn’t remember if the textbook treated the syphilis story as a fact, or as a speculation.
I told her that the subject had been widely discussed in the 1980s, when Gore Vidal featured it in his Lincoln: A Novel (1984). Major historians weighed in at the time to say that the evidence for Lincoln’s having contracted syphilis was inconclusive at best.
After Vidal’s death in summer 2012, I went back to his novel and his shorter writings on Lincoln to try to figure out why he’d dwelt so doggedly on the syphilis idea. It soon became clear that he’d seized upon it as the first salvo in a campaign to destroy Lincoln’s image as a “saint,” to reduce him to the moral status of a very ordinary man of his times.
The word “syphilis” still conjured up menacing associations in the 1980s, as it had in the 19th century. Even the possibility that he had carried the disease — which in its long latency period might have infected Mary Lincoln, and, through her, their children — could help tarnish his reputation as a hero of uncommon virtue. Vidal played up the devastating implications for Lincoln’s family members as much as he did the original “devilish passion.”
The “Sandburg-Mt. Rushmore” approach to Lincoln, said Vidal, had blocked a true grasp of his significance. Blighting the saint would open people’s eyes: the mythic selfless emancipator was actually an aggressive empire-builder.
The politically nimble Lincoln had done much more, said Vidal, than “save” the Union from being split in two. He had deepened the hold of the union, making the nation, not the states, the sovereign power for all Americans. Decades after his death, with the holy Lincoln as its chief icon, the imperial American state got to have its cake and eat it too, dominating much of the international order while posing as the one power that acted “with malice toward none and charity for all” other nations.
But where did Vidal get the syphilis story in the first place? It came from Lincoln’s former law partner William Herndon, who wrote privately in 1891, “Lincoln had, when a mere boy, the syphilis… About the year 1835-36 Mr. Lincoln went to Beardstown and during a devilish passion had connection with a girl and caught the disease.”
Herndon claimed to have heard those words from Lincoln’s own lips, but he didn’t specify when he’d heard it. “Old and infirm,” by his own admission, when he wrote the 1891 letter — he died two months later — Herndon sometimes got mixed up about what he’d heard directly from his former partner, what he’d heard from others, and what he’d inferred all by himself. (In 1889, Herndon said Lincoln had told him that he’d left his “heart” buried in Ann Rutledge’s grave; in 1866, Herndon claimed “a friend” had told him that; some evidence suggests he came up with it himself. See my blog post of Nov. 30, 2011.)
That doesn’t mean Herndon was confused in this instance, but the reliability of the syphilis tale has been widely questioned. In his book We Are Lincoln Men (2003), David Herbert Donald concluded that a recollection written down “more than fifty years after Lincoln’s alleged escapade and more than twenty years after his death” could only stand if supported by “confirmatory evidence.”
Herndon may have anticipated the doubts that would greet his story. “Lincoln told me this,” he wrote to Weik, “and in a moment of folly I made a note of it in my mind…” In other words, it would have been better for all concerned if he’d simply forgotten about it. But he’d done what came naturally to him: remembered exactly what he’d been told, and remembered it for all time. Now he could only kick himself for being such an unyielding servant of the truth.
With Lincoln’s syphilis engraved in his memory as a fact, Herndon had tried to keep it a secret. But now, approaching his end, he felt compelled to divulge it. He feared that someone, after his death, might discover the fact and wrongly take it as proof that Abraham had been unfaithful to Mary. Herndon was absolutely certain that Lincoln had been “true as steel to his wife.” He’d contracted his case of syphilis six or seven years before his marriage.
The irony of the syphilis tale is that Herndon’s goal — protecting the memory of Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s marital purity — came at the cost of swearing to Lincoln’s pre-marital impurity. Thankfully, he managed to keep quiet about all this until almost a decade after Mary Lincoln’s death in 1882. Having suffered after 1866 from Herndon’s wild speculation about her husband’s heart — that after Ann Rutledge’s death in 1835 he had never truly loved another woman — she was spared having to reckon with Herndon’s report about Lincoln’s infected body.