[Paleopsych] WkStd: Honest, Abe?
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Thu Jan 27 15:47:04 UTC 2005
by Philip Nobile
The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln
by C.A. Tripp
Free Press, 384 pp., $27
THE NOTION that Abraham Lincoln had homosexual experiences is hardly
new. All the way back in 1924, Carl Sandburg's bestselling biography
winked at Lincoln's "streak of lavender and spots soft as May
violets." And more explicit versions of the idea have appeared in the
years since--as signaled by "Log Cabin Republicans," the name chosen
by gay members of the GOP for their advocacy group.
But the attempt to use this "Gay Lincoln Theory," making the sixteenth
president an icon for modern homosexuals, is now poised to make its
biggest push--led by the late C.A. Tripp's The Intimate World of
Abraham Lincoln, a book published this month by Free Press, a division
of Simon & Schuster.
The topic of Lincoln's sexuality keeps reappearing because the
available evidence is so tantalizing: a jokey poem he wrote in his
youth about a boy marrying a boy, a four-year sleeping arrangement
with adored friend Joshua Speed, a marriage sometimes said to be
reluctant and less than amorous, a lifelong preference for male
company, a documented claim that he shared a bed in the summer White
House with his soldier-bodyguard in 1862, and a number of other
C.A. Tripp, who died in 2003, was a well-known sex researcher, a
protégé of Alfred Kinsey and the author of a 1975 volume, The
Homosexual Matrix. After a decade of pondering Lincoln's relations
with men, he pronounces in his posthumously published new book on
Lincoln's masturbation habits, seduction style, sex positions, and
orgasms. Confidently naming five male lovers of the president, The
Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln declares the conclusion absolute and
obvious that this married father of four was "predominately
The argument is "irrefutable," Gore Vidal blurbs on the book's cover.
And, in fact, Tripp's work is as good as the case gets for Lincoln's
walk on the Wilde side.
Unfortunately, that is merely a way of saying the Gay Lincoln Theory
fails any historical test. "Useful history" is always a dubious kind
of scholarship. But in its attempt to be useful for gays today, The
Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln reaches far beyond the merely
dubious. The book is a hoax and a fraud: a historical hoax, because
the inaccurate parts are all shaded toward a predetermined conclusion,
and a literary fraud, because significant portions of the accurate
parts are plagiarized--from me, as it happens.
Tripp and I intended to be coauthors of the book, laboring together on
the project from 1995 to 2000--when our partnership, already fissured
by dueling manuscripts, came to a bitter end. We quarreled constantly
over evidence: I said the Gay Lincoln Theory was intriguing but
impossible to prove; he said it was stone-cold fact.
More advocate than historian, Tripp massaged favorable indicators
(Lincoln's early puberty), buried negative ones (Lincoln's flirtations
with women), and papered over holes in his story with inventions
(Lincoln's law partner and biographer William Herndon never noticed
the homosexuality because he was an extreme heterosexual and thus
afflicted with "heterosexual bias").
I quit the project first in 1999, when Tripp refused to include
citations to Charles Shively, a former University of Massachusetts
historian and Tripp's main guide to the gay Lincoln. "Darwin didn't do
it," he said to me, referring to Darwin's initial failure to cite
precursors in The Origin of Species. Although Tripp profusely copied
ideas and references from Shively's flamboyantly rendered Lincoln
chapter in Walt Whitman's Civil War Boy Lovers, he brushed off proper
mention because he thought Shively's reputation for being "too
gay-lib" would dissuade readers.
After Tripp relented, I rejoined the book on one condition: We would
write separate chapters, and a Lincoln expert would decide which one
went in the book. In January 2000, when the time came to send out our
competing versions of chapter one--about Lincoln's prized
bodyguard--Tripp refused to let Dr. Tom Schwartz, secretary of the
Abraham Lincoln Association and his choice for referee, do the
expected peer review. Realizing that Tripp would never give up his
homosexual bias or observe the customary standards of historiography,
I resisted his offer to sign a new agreement. Sadly, we never spoke
ONLY AFTER READING his two-column obituary in the New York Times on
May 22, 2003, did I learn of a completed manuscript. A year later, I
heard that Free Press had bought it and set a publication date for
November 2004. Last July, I alerted Elisa Rivlin, Simon & Schuster's
general counsel, to my suspicions of problems in Tripp's final text.
According to Rivlin, it is company policy to ignore complaints about
forthcoming books--but she was curious about what I knew, and we made
a deal: In exchange for a copy of the galleys, I would vet the book
Apart from jaw-dropping plagiarism in the first chapter, which
kidnapped the text I wrote for the aborted peer review, I saw that
Tripp was up to the same tricks that had forced me to withdraw from
the project: consistently bending the evidence in the lavender
direction. The con was so outrageous that I urged killing the book.
"If you correct the errors, remove the copied material, restore what
Tripp covered up, and make the proper attributions, there is not much
left of Tripp's argument," I emailed Free Press counsel Jennifer
Emphasizing the risk of a Simon & Schuster-sponsored history fraud (it
was also the house that published the plagiarized works of Doris
Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose), I turned over my correspondence
The file included a four-page letter from Lincoln biographer and Simon
& Schuster author David Donald, disparaging a 1996 draft of Tripp's
argument. "Throughout you seem to be neglecting the fundamental rule,
the historian has to rely on facts," observed Donald. "I don't mean to
discourage you from doing further work--but I do think it ought to be
more systematic and more empirical."
Tripp was cavalier about the negative reaction from
historians--ascribing their rejection of the theory to their
unwillingness to admit homosexuality in their hero. He said that
Donald told him that he would not believe Lincoln was gay even if
Lincoln said so. Tripp was even convinced that another doubtful
biographer was timid because he was a nervous closet case--until the
man introduced him to his fiancée.
MY INTERVENTION seems to have caused second thoughts at Free Press.
The publication date was shifted from November into the new year,
sacrificing the Christmas trade. Rivlin appeared to value my
criticism. After the first round of memos, she asked for more.
Yet despite repeated requests, she blocked my meeting with Tripp's
Free Press editor, Bruce Nichols. Company spokesman Adam Rothberg told
the New York Times last month that "slight changes" were made after my
protest and that "we are satisfied that we are publishing a book that
reflects Mr. Tripp's ideas and is supported by his research and
BELIEF, ABSOLUTELY. Supported by Tripp's research, not quite. Free
Press's corrections have managed to put the book's ideas in even a
worse light than Tripp had left them. As he once wrote me after I
toned down his purple prose on Lincoln's puberty, "with 'friendly'
editing like this, we don't need any enemies."
Look, for instance, at the discussion of Lincoln's adolescence. Tripp
felt his date-of-puberty argument was the most-important "smoking gun"
in the whole gay Lincoln arsenal. Not only did it lend a
quasi-scientific luster to a largely speculative quest, it was his
sole original contribution to the discussion of Lincoln's sexuality.
According to Kinsey, extremely precocious puberty in males is
associated with a higher lifelong sex drive, social extrovertism, and,
in almost half the sample, at least some incidence of homosexuality.
Consequently, Tripp sought to establish the earliest possible date for
Lincoln's transition into adolescence and twisted the facts to do so.
Initially, his source was William Herndon's 1888 biography, Herndon's
Life of Lincoln. "In his eleventh year he began that marvelous and
rapid growth in stature for which he was so widely noted in the Pigeon
Creek settlement," wrote Herndon, relying on Lincoln's older grammar
school classmate, David Turnham. Since Kinsey's average age for
puberty was 13.7 years, Tripp said that Lincoln's eleventh year
puberty increased the probability for some homosexual experience.
So far, so good, if one grants that boys of Lincoln's day had the same
average as Kinsey's twentieth-century sample, a wrinkle blithely
ignored by Tripp. But in 1998, Tripp moved Lincoln's puberty date from
eleven to nine after reading a full transcript of Herndon's scribbled
Turnham interview, published in the 1998 Herndon's Informants:
Letters, Interviews, and Statements About Abraham Lincoln:
"immediately on landing in Ind I became acquainted with Mr Lincoln. My
father and his were acquainted in Ky--Abe was then about ten years of
age--I being 16 ys of age--Abe was a long tall dangling award drowl
looking boy--went hunting and fishing together."
Tripp insisted that Turnham meant Lincoln was long, tall, and dangling
the very day they met. If Lincoln spurted so tall at ten, he must have
attained puberty at nine, which implies that he was on the fastest
possible track to youthful homosexual tryouts and likely homosexuality
as an adult.
YET A CAREFUL READING of Herndon's notes show that nothing Turnham
recollected justifies this huge leap backward. As I told Tripp,
Turnham did not precisely link his first impression of Lincoln with
height. Rather his remark seemed to reflect a general memory of
Lincoln's above-average stature throughout his boyhood.
Later in the same interview, Turnham described Lincoln's height with
the same language wrapped in the same misty reminiscence: "He loved
fishing & hunted Some--not a great deal--He was naturally Cheerful and
good natured while in Indiana: Abe was a long tall raw boned boy." But
Tripp would not let go. The temptation to portray Lincoln as a
nine-year-old poster boy for the Friends of Dorothy was too great.
Turnham's description, despite the obvious ambiguity, became Tripp's
foundation for backdating Lincoln's puberty, now "precisely known."
Apparently, Simon & Schuster was not totally convinced. After I sent
Rivlin a copy of Turnham's interview, a table-turning revision was
inserted into the puberty passage in the second chapter of the book:
Thanks to an accident of history, Lincoln's age at puberty happens
to be precisely known. In March 1819 the Turnham family, longtime
friends of the Lincolns back in Kentucky, moved "next door" to them
in Indiana, less than a mile away. David Turnham was sixteen years
old at the time; Abe had turned ten just the previous month. David
later remembered Abe as a "long, tall, dangling, awkward,
droll-looking boy," marking Abe's growth spurt as obvious enough by
then to have been well under way for several months, with his first
ejaculatory capacity predating even that; thus, Lincoln may have
arrived at puberty before David Turnham first met him in March. In
short, Lincoln hit puberty at age nine.
Notice the contradiction between the claim that "Lincoln's age at
puberty can be precisely known" and the later admission that "Lincoln
may have arrived at puberty before David Turnham first met him." There
was no "may have" in Tripp's galleys in which he wrote assuredly that
"Lincoln arrived at puberty several months, perhaps half a year,
before David Turnham first met him in March."
The qualifier popped in during the publisher's rewrite just as the
hyperbolic "several months, perhaps half a year before" extension was
cut. If Tripp's editor were serious about correcting the dating
exaggeration, he would have altered other passages in the book where
the extreme puberty claim resurfaced without any qualification.
SIMILAR EDITING CHALLENGES arise in the third chapter, where Tripp
discusses Billy Greene, Lincoln's first bed partner in Herndon's Life
of Lincoln. They clerked together in a general store in New Salem,
Illinois, in 1831. Greene was then eighteen, destined to marry and
father nine children; Lincoln was twenty-two. Based on his Greene
interview, Herndon wrote: "William G. Greene was hired to assist
[Lincoln], and between the two a life-long friendship sprang up. They
slept in the store, and so strong was the intimacy between them that
'when one turned over the other had to do likewise.'"
Naturally, this line excited Tripp, and he began to touch-up the
evidence to fit his preconception. Thus, when Herndon asked Greene
what he remembered about his first sight of Lincoln, Greene replied
that he was "well and firmly built: his thighs were as perfect as a
human being's could be."
Bingo. Greene's eye on Lincoln's thigh, opined Tripp, "strongly
suggests a sexual practice later named 'femoral intercourse,' . . .
one of the most frequently used homosexual techniques."
Likewise, Tripp treasured a line from the wife of Mentor Graham,
briefly Lincoln's schoolmaster in New Salem, which seemed to confirm a
lusty affection between Billy and Abe. But the source was an
unfootnoted 1944 biography entitled Mentor Graham, the dialogue of
which, its own authors admitted, was fictionalized.
Unfazed, Tripp camouflaged the problem by introducing Mrs. Graham's
quotation with the unexplained qualifier allegedly: "Allegedly,
Graham's wife, Sarah, specifically mentioned that Billy and Abe 'had
an awful hankerin', one for t'other.'" This usage was designed more to
deceive than enlighten the reader, who hardly expects to see a
concocted quotation passing for real in a nonfiction book.
Despite my complaints, Tripp's editor made no adjustments in the
hilarious "perfect thighs" and invented "hankerin'" items. But a third
Greene passage got a correction that boomeranged on page 52:
In later life on a visit to the White House Lincoln introduced
[Greene] to his secretary of state, William Seward, saying that
this friend of his, William Greene, was the man who taught him
grammar. This embarrassed Greene, who knew little about grammar, so
he remained silent for fear Seward would notice his deficiency.
Lincoln later reminded Greene that he had helped Lincoln by
quizzing him from a grammar book. Certainly the White House tribute
was proof enough of Greene's help, and a salute as well to the
reality of the grammar problem. But why, in fact, was Greene so
embarrassed? One cannot know for sure, but a reasonable guess might
be that those long ago grammar sessions, many of them in bed, ended
with sexual contact. To now have these private events suddenly
recalled within the formal surroundings of the White House by what
may have seemed at the moment an all too free-speaking long-ago bed
partner could have been a real jolt.
Mark the oddly divergent explanations for Greene's discomfort with
Seward. First the unsourced assertion that Greene was "silent for fear
Seward would notice his deficiency," then, three sentences later, out
of nowhere, Tripp's "reasonable guess" that Greene was nervous about
Lincoln's edging too close on those hot nights in New Salem. The
answer is simple: Tripp did not write the "for fear" sentence.
It was inserted in the book because I sent Free Press a passage from
Thomas Reep's 1927 book, Lincoln at New Salem, in which Greene relayed
the origin of his unease: "This statement embarrassed Greene, who
himself knew little about grammar and in whose conversation
grammatical rules were not always adhered to, so that he did not
engage in conversation for fear that Seward would notice his
deficiencies and wonder at Lincoln's statement."
I had previously showed Reep's treatment to Tripp, but he preferred
cooking up a sexual fantasy to sourcing Greene's own explanation.
Apart from its cynicism, the insertion in the new Free Press version
not only makes Tripp look a fool, but a copyist all over again--for
the person who corrected this passage wound up plagiarizing Reep, as
can be seen by comparing the two passages.
WHAT The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln lacks in history, it makes
up in thievery. "I am the principle author of Tripp's first chapter,"
Iwrote in an email to Simon & Schuster's Rivlin. "I conceived, titled,
structured, researched, and wrote most of the words in [Tripp's] 'What
The publisher was slow to admit the problem. Although I had turned
over my original manuscript for comparison along with correspondence
confirming sole and prior authorship, the initial response was
dismissive. Free Press counsel Weidman, who reports to Rivlin,
contended that my chapter and Tripp's chapter were "dissimilar in many
respects" and therefore "it is difficult for us to determine what, if
any, credit or attribution you might find appropriate with respect to
I replied that despite some differences, Tripp's version copied my
"language, ideas, construction, citations, and narrative line." Hoping
to dissociate myself from the book, I rejected credit. "As previously
stated, I seek no attribution because I grant no permission to publish
'What Stuff!', which is substantially my work."
Tripp's borrowings--ranging from sentences to paragraphs to whole
pages--appeared on nineteen of his twenty-five chapter-one galley
pages. The differences involved additions (mostly of Tripp's trying to
go beyond the evidence) and subtractions (mostly of evidence casting
doubt on Tripp's thesis). Otherwise, the galleys kept my blueprint and
mimicked my language from first page to last.
Here, for instance, are our opening paragraphs:
Tripp: Margaret Leech won a Pulitzer Prize for her Reveille in
Washington, 1860-1865, a boisterous chronicle of life in
Washington, D.C., during Abraham Lincoln's presidency. Elegantly
written and exhaustively researched, this 1941 book remains in
print today. On page 303, in one of the least cited passages in
Lincoln literature, Leech claimed that the President
surreptitiously slept with an Army officer whom he invited into his
bedroom at the summer White House, not just once, but repeatedly,
Nobile: Margaret Leech won a Pulitzer Prize for Reveille in
Washington 1860-1865, a boisterous chronicle of life in Washington
D.C. during Abraham Lincoln's presidency. Elegantly written and
exhaustively researched, the 1941 book remains in paperback today.
On page 303, in one of the least cited passages in Lincoln
literature, Leech reported that the president surreptitiously slept
with an army officer in 1862.
And here are paragraphs from the conclusion:
Tripp: Derickson said his final good-bye on April 28, 1865, when
Lincoln's funeral train stopped in Cleveland. "From Meadville,
Pennsylvania, had come two hundred [men] marshalled by Captain
Derickson and some of his boys who had served with Lincoln's White
House bodyguard," wrote Carl Sandburg in the final pages of The War
Years. Although Sandburg borrowed a few passages from Tarbell's
narrative on Company K, he did not delve into Lincoln's friendship
with the captain.
Nobile: Derickson said his final goodbye on April 28, 1865, when
Lincoln's funeral train stopped in Cleveland. "From Meadville,
Pennsylvania, had come two hundred marshalled by Captain Derickson
and some of his boys who ha[d] served with Lincoln's White House
bodyguard," wrote Carl Sandburg in the final pages of The War
Years. (Although Sandburg cribbed parts of Tarbell's narrative of
Company K, he did not delve into Lincoln's friendship with the
Captain. . . . )
Faced with reality, the publisher dropped the dissimilarities dodge.
No longer able to deny Tripp's plagiarism, the defense shifted ground.
"The issue is not whether you contributed to the work, or for that
matter who wrote parts of it," Rivlin declared. The new issue went to
ownership. She insisted Tripp's "Estate has the right to authorize the
publication of the chapter. We see no issue of theft or other
impropriety in our acting upon that authorization. Rather, any
concerns that you have with respect to the authorization should be
raised directly with the Estate."
THE ESTATE ATTORNEY is Rosalind Lichter, a specialist in entertainment
law. Tripp hired her in 2000 on the recommendation of author and
AIDSactivist Larry Kramer to stop me from publishing my version of
"What Stuff!" She sent me threatening letters about stealing her
client's material: "We will not hesitate to seek an injunction and
money damages," she wrote.
The years have not softened her attitude. Lichter was curt when I
telephoned her office in Manhattan. I rehashed our unresolved legal
dispute. "Tripp and I never signed a work-for-hire agreement and so
the Estate doesn't own my material," I said. "I'm not going to have a
discussion with you--have a lawyer call me," Lichter said before
hanging up. A friend who called on my behalf, a law professor, turned
out to be a mutual acquaintance. She stonewalled him, too.
Meantime, somebody was busy revising "What Stuff!", presumably to
obscure my contribution. It was a delicate task. How do you rewrite a
rewrite, copy a copy, without leaving traces of the original design
and detail? Many of my words were cut, some paraphrased, and others
repeated. My narrative was rearranged, but the new choreography did
not erase the underlying DNA of my prose, lines of argument, and
In the finished book, my work remains abused. All told, the rewriter
copied or paraphrased twenty-four passages of mine on sixteen of the
revised chapter's twenty-one pages. Let a pair of simple examples
Tripp: "Tish" was Letitia McKean, a player in Washington's
fashionable society and the daughter of an admiral. It is unknown
how she came by her information, but hearsay is likely.
Nobile: "Tish" was Leticia McKean, a Washington socialite and
friend of Mrs. Fox. How Miss McKean, the daughter of an admiral,
came by her information is unknown, though hearsay may be presumed.
Tripp: Whether the two ever saw each other again is not known.
However, a letter of June 3, 1864, from Provost Marshall Derickson
to his commander-in-chief, preserved in the Library of Congress,
expressed Derickson's abiding warmth.
Nobile: Whether Lincoln and Derickson ever saw each other again
after May 1863 is not recorded. However, a June 3, 1864 letter from
Provost Marshall Derickson to his Commander in Chief, preserved at
the Library of Congress, expressed the former's abiding warmth.
How did Simon & Schuster imagine that it could get away with a second
round of plagiarism? In the first instance, the publisher was a
recipient of purloined goods. But the post-mortem rewrite upgraded the
firm to direct participant.
Maybe Rivlin figured that some sort of acknowledgment of my role in
creating chapter one would be enough to save face, no matter what. So
now there is an asterisk beside "What Stuff!" on the chapter's title
page. Two-hundred-and-ninety-seven pages later, the asterisk reappears
in the chapter's endnotes beside the claim: "From 1996 to 2000, C.A.
Tripp worked with Philip Nobile on the early drafting of this book,
principally of this chapter, the original draft of which was written
by Mr. Nobile. After disagreement on various points of interpretation,
methodology, and wording, the relationship came to an end."
I told Rivlin that her acknowledgment was unacceptable and designed to
cover up the copying. It reminded me of the acknowledgment that Doris
Kearns Goodwin slipped into a backdated preface of The Fitzgeralds and
the Kennedys after British author Lynne McTaggart threatened to sue
her and Simon & Schuster in 1987 over copying from McTaggart's
Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times.
"A more accurate endnote," I tweaked Rivlin, would be: "From 1995 to
2000, C.A. Tripp worked with co-author Philip Nobile who wrote the
original draft of Chapter One that Tripp has substantially copied in
this book without Mr. Nobile's approval. After Mr. Nobile failed to
persuade his coauthor and old friend to stop faking evidence and
stealing from other historians, the relationship came to an end."
Simon & Schuster was in a terrible bind. Should it scrap Tripp's
tainted first chapter and thereby cripple the book, or should it
repeat its embarrassing Goodwin history by knowingly printing stolen
words? In the end, the publisher did both: Tripp's version of "What
Stuff!" was scrapped in favor of a rewrite and the book still
contained borrowed words.
"IF YOU DON'T STOP MAKING A STINK about Tripp's book, I'm going to
expose you as an enormous homophobe," Larry Kramer telephoned me to
say last October. "For the sake of humanity, please, gays need a role
model." I replied that the book was so bad, it would backfire on the
homosexual movement when reviewers and readers caught on to the
fabrications, contradictions, and general nuttiness of The Intimate
World of Abraham Lincoln.
One of the biggest roadblocks to the Gay Lincoln Theory is the fact
that neither friends nor enemies ever connected the man to homosexual
thoughts, words, or deeds. Would not a secret of that magnitude have
leaked out somehow, sometime? Tripp had Lincoln boinking four bosom
buddies during his prairie years, but there was not a whiff of this
supposed hanky-panky anywhere in the record, not even in Herndon's
exhaustive history of Lincoln's frontier contemporaries.
I asked Tripp about Herndon's silence. How could Lincoln's Springfield
law partner, who occupied the same small bedroom as Speed and Lincoln
for two years, have been clueless about the romance a few inches away?
Tripp handed me several pages profiling Herndon as a
super-heterosexual who was psychologically blocked from picking up
Lincoln's lavender vibes. "Little wonder that with a marriage glowing
like a diamond in his own life Herndon was blind as a bat to other
possibilities," he wrote.
What evidence backed up Herndon's handicap? Tripp wrote that Herndon
"never complained" about caring for his wife and six children
(strictly speculation), that he "rushed home [from the traveling court
circuit] on weekends" (like most husbands), and that he said during
his final days "that his whole married life" was "'an endless stream
SUCH MAKE-IT-UP-AS-YOU-GO-ALONG methodology similarly shows in Tripp's
analysis of Lincoln's original encounters with Joshua Speed and
Captain David Derickson. Scenes innocent on their face are always
soft-focused into seductions. Thus, when Lincoln rode up to Speed's
store in Springfield in 1837, Speed could not (in Tripp's telling)
wait to get his hands on the lonesome, lanky stranger when he offered
to have him crash in his bed, a common occurrence on the rude
And the evidence for Speed's lightning erotic response: He did not
mention to Lincoln that he had previously heard him give a speech. Why
not? Well, Tripp writes, "Had he said anything about recognizing
Lincoln, or expressed admiration for the speech, this would have
immediately moved their contact toward a conventional, friendly
familiarity--exactly appropriate for, say, the start of either an
ordinary friendship or conventional courtship, be it heterosexual or
homosexual--but enemy territory for any brand of rapid sexual
Of course, Speed could well have mentioned the speech to Lincoln at
the time and merely forgot to tell Herndon three decades later. Or
perhaps Herndon failed to mention it for any of a dozen other reasons.
And since when is "friendly familiarity" an anaphrodisiac for male
cruising? Is that something Tripp improvised, like Herndon's
ultra-heterosexuality, or did it hold for other seductions?
TRIPP'S SOUPED-UP STUDY of Lincoln's first encounter with Captain
David Derickson in 1862 gives the game away. Here the
fifty-one-year-old Lincoln was the presumed aggressor moving in on the
It's clear that almost as soon as [Captain Derickson] entered
Lincoln's carriage for their first ride to the city, their
connection was immediate. There was a charged atmosphere of mutual
esteem, one well-primed for moving toward some kind of culmination.
As Derickson described it, their conversation proceeded through
many small but rapid steps, with Lincoln's questions about his
background. These are precisely the kinds of redundant questions in
pursuit of small increments of intimacy that quickly become
tiresome in ordinary conversation--but not here, perhaps because
interest was not on facts but rather on the chance they offered the
partners to increase the quality and extent of their closeness
within an almost classical seduction scene.
When Speed laid a trap for Lincoln, small talk was uncool. But when
Lincoln dogged his bodyguard, chitchat was exactly right.
Meanwhile, there's the boy-marries-boy comic poem Lincoln penned when
he was twenty:
The girls he had tried on every side.
But none could he get to agree;
All was in vain, he went home again
And since that, he is married to Natty.
So Billy and Natty agreed very well;
And mamma's well pleased at the match,
The egg it is laid but Natty's afraid,
The shell is so soft that it never will hatch.
In his mid-1990s draft, Tripp regarded the verse as another smoking
gun: "viewed through the prism of sex research, the poem is an open
and shut case, a virtual certification of Lincoln's own engagement in
homosexuality," he wrote at the time.
David Donald criticized Tripp's forced interpretation in his 1996
letter: "The person who tells a joke about 'fags' or 'gays' or 'butch'
women may reveal a lack of taste but that does not necessarily
indicate homosexual leanings." Under pressure from Donald and me, the
simple equation of the poem and homosexuality was dropped.
But this concession did not leave Tripp emptyhanded. Hoping to say
something in the book that Shively had not already said about
Lincoln's provocative lines, he latched on to the soft-eggshell image.
The couplet "suggests Abe was well aware of the term 'jelly-baby,'" he
wrote. "Originally from Negro vernacular, the phrase soon came to be
used by whites as well: slang denoting what uneducated folk imagined
(and sometimes still imagine) as a 'pregnancy' from homosexual
intercourse." But "jelly baby" was a twentieth-century term cited in
Kinsey's 1952 female volume, making it unlikely that Lincoln was aware
TRIPP'S LAX STANDARD of evidence became looser the more distant from
sex. For example, he grew enamored of Ida Tarbell's report in her The
Life of Abraham Lincoln that every living member of Lincoln's former
bodyguard troop could "quote verbatim the note which the President
wrote" to the War Department keeping Captain Derickson and the boys of
Company K at the White House. And so Tripp deduced "that very quickly,
probably on the very day Lincoln wrote the order acknowledging his
high favor for Company K, he also scribbled out at least a few copies
for the soldiers themselves," all the better to memorize from.
The opposite was actually the case. The soldiers of Company K were
angry with Lincoln. They wanted combat, not guard duty. "Many of the
regiment were so weary of the prolonged inaction and the wasting of
its strength at the capital by disease, that they chafed very much at
the countermanding of these orders," wrote Colonel Thomas Chamberlin,
Derickson's commanding officer, in his History of the One Hundred and
Fiftieth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers.
IN TEN YEARS OF ASSIDUOUS RESEARCH Tripp found no final proof of
consummation with any of the five men identified as Lincoln's lovers.
His raw sex file is astonishingly thin, just three fragments in
Herndon about Lincoln's sleeping with Greene, Speed, and A.Y. Ellis, a
merchant and political admirer. Another claimed lover, Henry C.
Whitney, a lawyer friend, had only a sentence from his memoir Life on
the Circuit With Lincoln tipping him into the boyfriend category: "It
was as if he wooed me to close intimacy and familiarity."
A single sentence, too, branded the bodyguard in Chamberlin's military
history: "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 nightshirt!"
Provocative, puzzling, possibly homosexual, but who is to say what
truly happened? Was the short, stocky, middle-aged captain even
Lincoln's type? Elsewhere Tripp devoted a chapter to the glam Elmer
Ellsworth, a young protégé of Lincoln's, who purportedly fit his
"tastes for young men."
And why would any reader put faith in Tripp's opinion when he has
squandered his credibility throughout his book? Would you trust a
revisionist who told you that "Speed was, in fact, the one and only
person in Lincoln's life on whom he repeatedly lavished his most
personal and most endearing 'Yours forever,' in itself a major smoking
gun and a salutation he never bestowed on any woman, including his
wife"--if you knew that his database held Lincoln letters addressed to
six other men with the same closing, a fact not included in the text?
THE INTIMATE WORLD OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN, already an object of derision
among specialists, contains a poison pill in an afterword by Michael
Burlingame entitled "A Respectful Dissent." Recently retired from
Connecticut College, Burlingame has a monumental three-volume Lincoln
biography in progress with Johns Hopkins University Press. He and
Tripp got along well and shared information, if not a thesis.
"I liked Tripp, but he was careless and sloppy," Burlingame told me.
"I'm surprised that Free Press accepted my afterword since it says the
book is full of baloney." In particular, Burlingame devastates Tripp's
intellectual honesty by noting that he had suppressed many stories of
Lincoln's heterosexual interest.
"Since it is virtually impossible to prove a negative, Dr. Tripp's
thesis cannot be rejected outright," wrote Burlingame. "But given the
paucity of hard evidence adduced by him, and given the abundance of
contrary evidence indicating that Lincoln was drawn romantically and
sexually to some women, a reasonable conclusion, it seems to me, would
be that it is possible but highly unlikely that Abraham Lincoln was
The Gay Lincoln Theory, for all its jagged edges, may be a more
satisfying explanation for the president's weird inner life than the
Utterly Straight Lincoln Theory. "I have heard [Lincoln] say over and
over again about sexual contact: 'It is a harp of a thousand
strings,'" Henry Whitney told William Herndon in 1865. Leaving aside
Tripp's bad faith, it is not utterly beyond imagining that Lincoln may
have played a few extra strings on that harp.
But the fraud and the hoax of C.A. Tripp's The Intimate World of
Abraham Lincoln are no way to explore the hallowed ground of history.
Philip Nobile teaches history at the Cobble Hill School of American
Studies in New York. He is the author of Intellectual Skywriting:
Literary Politics & the New York Review of Books and editor of
Judgment at the Smithsonian.
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