“Mr. Lincoln Went to Beardstown, But Did He Pick Up Syphilis While He Was There?”
© Richard Wightman Fox 2015
Recently I gave a public lecture on Lincoln, and following the question period, a woman approached me to raise an issue she had thought too sensitive to mention earlier. “Did Lincoln,” she wondered, “really get syphilis when he was a young man?”
I 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 book Lincoln: A Novel (1984). Major historians weighed in at the time to say that the evidence for Lincoln having contracted syphilis was inconclusive at best.
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.
For an example, see my essay “Lincoln’s First and Final Love? William Herndon’s Ann Rutledge” (above). 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.
That doesn’t prove 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 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 couldn’t help doing what came naturally to him, in his estimation: he remembered exactly what he’d been told. Now he could only kick himself for having been 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. Luckily for Mary, he managed to keep quiet about all this until almost a decade after her death in 1882. Having suffered after 1866 from Herndon’s 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 dubious report about Lincoln’s infected body.