Thirty-some years ago, the April 1976 issue of The Chicago Gay Crusader ran an article titled “Lincoln's Other Love.” The author, Dennis Doty, drew his suggestion that Abraham Lincoln might be gay from several sources going all the way back to a newspaper story by New Salem resident John Hill that appeared 27 years after Lincoln's assassination. Doty bolstered his argument with excerpts from Lincoln's letters quoted in the eight-volume Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln ( 1953—55 ) .
Doty wasn't the first gay scholar to make the claim. In 1971, iconic archivist Jim Kepner recorded his gleanings from Illinois' good gray poet Carl Sandburg's multi-volume 1926 biography of the president. In The Prairie Years, Sandburg noted the “streak of lavender” and “spots soft as May violets” that ran through Lincoln and Joshua Fry Speed, who slept together nightly for four years in a bed above the Springfield store where Lincoln clerked. Lest the misguided think Sandburg was merely waxing ecstatic over prairie flowers, I refer them to the chapter “They Said It With Violets in 1926” in Kaier Curtin's history of gays on the American stage. The imagery of violets and lavender was well known to most literate Americans in the early 20th century and was common place when Sandburg's book was published.
By the 1980s the first wave of amateur and tenured gay historians were hastily “outing” every queer they could, adding them to the growing pantheon of fellow travelers who accomplished much but had their sexuality hidden from history. Unfortunately, many blindly followed their predecessors' published findings without digging deeper into shallow scholarly graves. Kepner eventually published his thoughts on Lincoln in his privately printed From the Closet of History ( 1984 ) , mistakenly citing a 1956 edition of the Sandburg work as his source. In fact, as notes in C.A. Tripp's posthumously published The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln ( 2005 ) suggest, Sandburg's publisher had purged the suggestive homoerotic 1926 references from later editions; therefore, lazy copiers of Kepner give themselves away by citing an edition that does not carry the material.
Jonathan Ned Katz, whose scrupulous accretion of documents filled his early books, notes in Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality ( 2001 ) that the Doty article was the first he read suggesting Lincoln's possible homosexuality. In a chapter headed “No Two Men Were Ever More Intimate” ( a quote from Speed on his relationship with Lincoln ) , Katz begins his exploration of the 19th-century conception and labeling of homoeroticism.
In his study, Tripp introduced a handful of other men whom he suggests were intimate with Lincoln and were among the subjects of what Sandburg called the “invisible companionships that surprised me,” mentioned in his research of “stacks and bundles of fact and legend”: William “Billy” Greene, with whom Lincoln shared a bed in New Salem so narrow that when one turned, the other had to turn also; Army Capt. ( later Maj. ) David V. Derickson, who frequently shared the president's bed when Mary was absent; Col. Ephraim Elmer Ellsworth, with whom Lincoln had a “knight and squire” relationship and who was killed in the Civil War; Abner Y. Ellis, who came to Springfield and took quite a “fancy” to Lincoln and ended up in his bed; and others. Tripp tries to answer the question everyone seems obsessed with, echoing a London reviewer of The Life of Lorena Hickok, E.R.'s Friend ( 1980 ) : “Were orifices penetrated?”
The crux of the matter is the rhetorical question, Why do so many try so hard to discredit even minor evidence suggesting homosexuality in beloved or renowned public figures?
Copyright 2008 by Marie J. Kuda
From Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, edited by Tracy Baim, Surrey Books, 2008.