President Lincoln's Shakespearean-like death a mere few days after the conclusion of the war he tirelessly sought to first avoid - and then win - resonates 144 years later, as do the medical curiosities surrounding the 16th President of the United States.
Back in 1987 I made my first trip to Washington, D.C. It was part of some bullshit-for-the-thing-high-school-achievement-feel-good-say-no-to-drugs-reward-the-geeks kind of thing that I'm not even sure they do anymore since God invented the Internet. Anyroad, part of the trip was sight-seeing. Our little group of over-achieving geeks visited Ford's Theater, where 144 years ago Tuesday one of the worst jokes in American history was written [and here it is: "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" If there had been a Tonight Show in 1865, that would've been a Jay Leno joke, no doubt] as President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth just days after Appomattox Courthouse formally ended the Civil War.
If I remember correctly - dubious, no doubt - Ford's had just been reopened after yet another great restoration project. There was a museum in the basement, with one of Lincoln's suits [whether it was the one he wore on that ill-fated Good Friday evening in 1865, I know not]. I vividly remember, though, walking through the home across the street from the theater where Lincoln actually died. After being mortally wounded, despite 19th-century medicine's best attempts to kill him, Lincoln managed to survive nearly 10 hours before he stopped breathing. Lincoln was taken across the street to a boarding house, where he was laid on a bed that was too small to hold his six-foot-four frame. In that room, a maudlin death watch began, with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton weeping uncontrollably in between having the hysterical Mary Todd Lincoln thrown out of the house for her uncontrollable weeping which was interrupting his own.
On that day in 1987 when I visited the boarding house, under glass was a macabre object identified as the pillow upon which the dying President's head rested during his last mortal hours on Earth. I remember looking at the blackened coloring and wondering what was dried blood, what was brain matter, what was oil from the President's matted hair, etc. I then remember thinking, "Jesus, this is sick." Somewhere, I have a photo of the pillow - taken as only a high school student can take a picture, crooked and with the flash exposed - and I'd upload it to the site here if not for the fact that it was taken in 1987 before God invented the Internet.
I share this morbid story with you because apparently there was a bit of souvenir gathering going on around President Lincoln as he lay dying 144 years ago. You see, that "pillow" upon which Lincoln's head rested, the one under glass at the museum in Washington.....er, well, turns out there's another one. Or at least, another pillow case. Under glass. With blood. At a museum [this one in Philadelphia] and also said to be the one upon which the dying President's head rested.
Jesus, what did they do, take a stack of pillows and jam them one at a time under Lincoln's head long enough to bloody them and turn them into trinkets? Now, it's also possible that because Lincoln's body was too big for the bed they propped him up with more than one pillow, which would explain why there is another pillow(case) under glass. Still, it's a bit morbid, even 144 years after the man died, to think about what it took to preserve one of the pillows he died upon, let alone two of them.
One of the more sobering accounts of John Lennon's murder that I've read in the nearly 29 years since it happened was that of the presiding emergency room physician who - before officially pronouncing the former Beatle dead - personally oversaw the destruction of all bloodied sheets, bandages, gauze, bedsheets and bio-hazardous medical supplies used in the fruitless attempts to save Lennon's life. "I didn't want a freak show where some orderly grabbed this [shit] and tried selling it," the doctor said 25 years later. And, again, that was before God created the Internet and eBay.
Of course, by 1980 we knew the world was nuts and that people had been trying to steal Jim Morrison's dead body a few dozen times over the previous ten years. In 1865, they may have just been seeking to preserve a little something of a beloved President struck down in a Shakespearean-like tragedy on the morn of the victory he had toiled for more than four years to see.
Back to the pillowcase. It's existence has come to light because somebody wants to run a DNA test on it. John Sotos, a cardiologist and author, wants to test it to confirm his belief that Lincoln had a rare genetic cancer syndrome called multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 [MEN2B]. How this will help Lincoln, I'm not sure, seeing as he's already dead and not even 21st century medicine can cure 19th century cancer [wait; it can't cure 21st century cancer either; never mind....]. Sotos has carefully studied 130 period images of Lincoln and - in conjunction with what contemporaries wrote about Lincoln's physical appearance - the good doctor believes Lincoln suffered from MEN2b.
This new pillowcase of which I write is really only a fragment of a pillow case, kept under glass at the Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library, in Philadelphia's Frankford section. It was donated by a man on the staff of the U.S. surgeon general who treated the President after he was shot. Those on the board of the GAR museum are torn as to whether to grant Sotos' request to test the pillowcase. A decision will be voted on at the board's May 5th meeting.
Sotos has written a book, The Physical Lincoln, in which he attempts to analyze the President's feet, hands, lips, neck, heart, and other parts of the body to conclude that Lincoln had MEN2B.
According to Sotos, Lincoln "suffered from a very rate genetic disorder that affected him, literally, from toe to skull. The physical Lincoln was just as rare as the mental Lincoln."
Of course, this isn't the first time modern medicine has sought to diagnose the dead President. Back in the 1960s, the disease-du-jour for Lincoln was said to be Marfan's Syndrome, a genetic disorder of the connective tissue. The diagnosis was based on the absurd: i.e. people with Marfan are usually tall, with long limbs and long, thin fingers, like Lincoln; as well as on a smidgen of science: an examination of a 7-year-old Marfan patient that was an eighth-generation descendant of Mordecai Lincoln, the great-great-grandfather of the President."
When, in the 1990s, DNA testing developed as a way of confirming Marfan's, the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington turned down a request for testing on its own bloodstained artifacts [including that pillow I saw back in 1987], saying DNA science was not sufficiently advanced.
In addition to the Marfan issue, since the 1960s other researchers have studied 11 generations descended from the grandparents of Lincoln and found that a third of the descendants had some form of a genetic defect called spinocerebellar ataxia. Again, how that helps Lincoln [or, for that matter the living], I know not.
Those interested in presidential genealogy, however, may be pleased to learn that all of this has unearthed yet another group who wants Lincoln's genetic makeup DNA-tested. The Enloe family. Never heard of them? Well, probably neither had Lincoln It seems that 21st-century members of the Enrloe family believe Lincoln was the illegitimate son of Abraham Enloe of North Carolina - and not of Thomas Lincoln. Assuming this to be true, I guess the Enloe's will then be suing any surviving Lincoln's for about 200 years' worth of child support, in honor of the dead President's bicentennial this year.
So, we come back to the pillowcase. Back in 1876, the sole surviving son of Lincoln - Robert Todd - was horrified to learn that thieves had concocted plans to steal President Lincoln's body [see, 'Morrison, Jim'] from his grave and ransom the Lincoln family for $200,000 for the return of the remains. In response, Lincoln's coffin was encased in steel and concrete to prevent further theft attempts. Hence the reason why these morbid artifacts from the assassination are the only source of DNA.
As someone who loves history, I can intellectually understand the fascination with all things Lincoln, including medical history. The fact is, though, this was a human being. Even though dead 144 years come 7:13 am on Wednesday, April 15, 2009, Lincoln was someone's father, husband, son, etc. Out of respect for his memory, it's probably best to keep the pillows and pillowcases under glass and out of the lab. Unless there's a way to bring the man back and impart his wisdom to the current occupant of the White House in these dark economic times, it's better to let the man - and the artifacts - rest in peace.
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