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Abraham Lincoln |Politician |Born 1809 in US

Mini biography from Queers in History
by Keith Stern

Published online for April 15, 2011 The 174th anniversary of the meeting of Joshua Speed and Abraham Lincoln, and the 146th anniversary of Lincoln's death

 

I included Abraham Lincoln in my book because after extensive research I concluded the 16th US President . . .  was queer.  No, I wasn’t there, and no, I don’t have any photos to prove Lincoln was gay. But I have documented undisputed facts that have been ignored or covered up by most historians for over 140 years. I think a reasonable examination of those facts reveals that not only was Honest Abe a gay man, he was comfortable with his sexuality and it had a big impact on how he conducted his life, and the civil war. I’d like you to read something:

Rubin and Charles
has married two girls
but Billy has married a boy. 
The girls he had tried,
on every side,
but none could he get to agree. 
All was in vain,
so he went home again,
and now Billy is married to Natey.

That’s an excerpt from a poem published in Indiana in 1829. Kinda racy. It caused quite a stir in the neighborhood and was remembered long after the poet went on to bigger things. That’s right, a poem about two young men who get married and try to have a baby! Maybe the earliest gay-themed poem in US literature. Written by none other than a twenty-year-old Abraham Lincoln.

We know about Abe’s gay poem because it was included in the first edition of one of the earliest biographies of the President. Mysteriously it was left out of later editions for nearly 70 years, and almost forgotten.

Today, you might be able read it on Wikipedia, except somebody keeps deleting the links to the article about Lincoln’s sex life. I expect that whole Wiki article will disappear some day, maybe for another 70 years.

In the meantime, though, you can read more about Lincoln and 899 other people in my book, Queers in History.

I’ll tell you a little bit more of Abe’s story.

On April 15, 1837, an impoverished Abraham Lincoln, twenty-eight years old, arrived in Springfield, Illinois to set up his first law practice.   One of his first stops was at the general store, where he thought he might buy a bed.  Standing behind the counter was a twenty-two-year-old man, the shopkeeper Joshua Fry Speed.   Speed totaled up the cost of the bed, mattress, blankets, pillows etcetera to be a whopping seventeen dollars.  Well, that was a lot of money back then and Abe simply didn’t have it. As Speed later recalled, when he looked across the counter, "I never saw a sadder face." Lincoln asked if he might buy the bed on credit.

But Joshua had a better idea. Taking Lincoln by the hand, he led him up the steps to his living quarters above the store, showed him the small room with a bed in the corner and said, “Why don’t you just sleep here with me.” And the two men continued to live and sleep together for nearly four years in that bed in that room.

Some historians note that it was common for men to share beds in those days, there was a shortage of beds. But they fail to recognize that many of those men were also lovers.

It’s true, there was a shortage of beds, and as men traveled around they might arrive at a roadside inn where there was lack of space, so they might be forced to share a room or even a bed with one or two other men. There were many jokes about what went on in those shared beds too.

But it was unusual for two adult men to happily sleep together at home for so long the way that Abe and Josh did. And it’s not like Joshua Speed couldn’t afford an extra bed--after all, he was a bed salesman! He was practically the Sealy Posturepedic of Springfield, Illinois.

Nearly four years later, Abe learned that Josh was leaving him and going back to his native Kentucky.   Abe was devastated and suffered symptoms of what today we would call a nervous breakdown, an episode known to historians as Lincoln’s "fatal first." January 1, 1841. Well, New Year’s Day is not one of my favorites either. By the way, there is not a shred of evidence to support the contention of some historians that Lincoln also broke off an engagement with Mary Todd or suffered any of the other myriad setbacks that some have postulated to explain what upset him on that fateful day, other than the well-documented impending separation from Speed.

Lincoln was depressed, perhaps even suicidal, and wrote,

"I am now the most miserable man living.  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.”

At that time, Lincoln was 31 and Speed was 25, so this was no childhood phase. As Abe grew older he continued to have intimate relationships with men.

Even as president, Lincoln formed a close attachment to a soldier, Captain David V.  Derickson, who was the commander of his guards.  In 1862 and 1863, they shared a bed in the White House and a getaway cottage at the outskirts of town. Believe me, there were plenty of extra beds in the White House.

Lincoln's same-sex relationships did not go unnoticed by contemporaries and early biographers.  Virginia Woodbury Fox, a well-connected Washingtonian, wrote in an 1862 diary entry:

"Tish says, 'there is a Bucktail Soldier here devoted to the President, drives with him, and when Mrs L.is not home, sleeps with him.' What stuff!"

Even thirty-three years later, Thomas Chamberlain, one of Lincoln’s bodyguards, remembered the relationship of the two men when he wrote a history of the regiment:

"Captain Derickson, in particular, advanced so far in the President's confidence and esteem that, in Mrs.  Lincoln's absence, he frequently spent the night at his cottage, sleeping in the same bed with him, and -- it is said -- making use of His Excellency's night-shirt!”

Scandalous stuff. Some historians like to say these observers were not implying a sexual relationship, only that the two men were good friends, and it was perhaps slightly improper for a common soldier to become so close to the President. But the fact that people of the time invariably noted the men slept together only when Mrs.  Lincoln was not around, indicates to me that they had an inkling what was going on -- they were aware that the relationship was somehow hidden from and perhaps a substitute for Lincoln’s terrible marriage to Mary Todd.

One of the more notable aspects of Lincoln's personality was his discretion. He maintained an air of mystery, even secrecy, such that no one ever claimed to know what he was really thinking. On the other hand, he felt compelled to know every detail about the circumstances surrounding him. These traits, which may have been related to his need to hide his sexual orientation, served him well as the hands-on commander-in-chief during the Civil War. 

We will likely never know for sure if Abraham Lincoln had sexual relations with those men. But it seems clear he had a passionate desire for intimacy with men to an extent that attracted notice among the people who knew him.

 

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