By Charles Kaiser
Originally published on Advocate.com April 28 2009 12:00 AM ET
Was Lincoln gay? That
has been a public question for only a couple of decades, even
though the proof that his closest emotional attachments were
always with men has been available to every historian who has
written about him during the last century and a half. But in
the venerable tradition of malting all great men robustly
heterosexual, almost every biographer of the great emancipator
has ignored, suppressed, or distorted the abundant evidence
that Lincoln was at the very least bisexual.
C.A. Tripp, a
psychologist and sex therapist who had been one of Alfred
Kinsey's assistants, spent the last 10 years of his life
sifting through the vast Lincoln archive to redress the
balance. Tripp died in 2003, just after completing this
manuscript. The result is rambling , sometimes infuriating, but
always fascinating book that, as (heterosexual) historian
Michael B. Chesson writes in an afterword,
proves "at the
very least, that in his orientation Lincoln was not exclusively
The debate begins with
Lincoln's relationship with Joshua Speed, the storekeeper
with whom the future president shared a bed for four years.
Straight historians have always dismissed this as serious
evidence of anything, because so many men shared beds with each
other in the 19th century--and Lincoln couldn't afford the
$17 needed to secure his own single bed when he moved to
Springfield, Ill., on April 15, 1837.
But Tripp provides
ample evidence of an intimate relationship between the two men.
As soon as Lincoln revealed his poverty, Speed invited him to
be his bed·mate.
Tripp calls this
invitation "immediately warm, embracing, and open-ended,
more geared to desire than to accommodation" and points
out that while bed-sharing by two men was not unusual, when it
was protracted or not explained by circumstance," it
"bordered on impropriety," in the words of another
The future president
also suffered a severe depression three weeks after Speed moved
out on him at the beginning of 1841. Other historians have
attributed this despondncy to Lincoln's temporary breakup
with his future wife, but Tripp argues convincingly that
Lincoln's words sound much more like those of a lover
spurned than those of someone who has just chosen to end a
"I am now the most
miserable man living," Lincoln wrote three weeks after
Speed was gone. "Whether I shall ever be better I cannot
tell.... To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be
better, it appears to me." Lincoln's letters to Speed
were also the only ones that almost always ended "Yours
forever" (a phrase Lincoln never used with his wife), and
two of Lincoln's secretaries wrote in a biography that
"Speed was the only--as he was certainly the
last--intimate friend that Lincoln ever had."
naturally concluded that the subsequent marriages of Lincoln
and Speed were enough to prove their heterosexuality. But Tripp
suggests that Lincoln's letters to Speed regarding
Speed's marriage show something else altogether. In
response to Speed's first letter after his wedding night,
Lincoln writes back, "I opened the latter [letter] with
intense anxiety and trepidation; so much, that although it
turned out better than I expected, I have hardly yet, at the
distance of ten hours, become calm." Before the wedding
Lincoln had written Speed, "But you say you reasoned
yourself into [courting your wife]. What do you mean by that?
Was it not that you found yourself unable to reason yourself
out of it? Did you think ... of courting her the first time you
saw or heard of her? What had reason to do with it at that
early stage.... I shall be so anxious about you that I want you
to write me every mail."
The argument that
necessity was the mother of Lincoln's sleeping arrangements
with Speed breaks down altogether as Tripp amasses evidence
that Lincoln also shared his bed with at least three other men.
A contemporary writes that A.Y. Ellis had "come up from
Springfield and taken quite a fancy to Lincoln. The two slept
together and Lincoln frequently assisted him in the
store." Another young friend, Billy Greene, remarked on
Lincoln's "perfect" thighs, and they also shared
And although it
isn't clear whether they ever slept together, Lincoln was
clearly besotted with one Elmer Ellsworth, whose friend John
Cook writes to him, "[Lincoln] has taken in you a greater
interest than I ever knew him to manifest in any one
before," while another witness reported, "Lincoln
watched the two-hour drill with kindling eyes. He too centered
his attention upon the boyish-looking commander. Afterwards he
said of Colonel Ellsworth, 'He is the greatest little man I
ever met.'" Ellsworth became the first casualty of the
Civil War, and when the president learned of his death, he
Tripp has also
unearthed this diary entry by a Washington socialite, from
November 16, 1862: "Tish says, 'there is a soldier
here devoted to the President, drives with him, and when Mrs.
L. is not home, sleeps with him.' What stuff!" And he
provides independent confirmation that the soldier, David V.
Derickson, slept with the president--and that Lincoln even
loaned him his nightshirt.
Opposing historians who
doubt Lincoln's bisexuality only bolster Tripp's claims
with the lameness of their arguments. Consider this, from David
Herbert Donald, the author of We Are Lincoln Men, who tries to
explain away the mountain of evidence by quoting a single
psychoanalyst: "My judgment is strongly influenced by the
opinion of Charles B. Strozier, the psychoanalyst and
historian, who concludes that if the friendship [with Speed]
had been sexual, Lincoln would have become a different man. He
would ... have been 'a bisexual at best, torn between
worlds, full of shame, confused, and hardly likely to end up in
politics.'" But Tripp proves that Lincoln was never a
prisoner of the conventional wisdom on any subject--and there
is nothing in his life to suggest that his own bisexuality
would have made him ashamed.
As Michael Chesson
writes, the unspoken credo of almost all the other Lincoln
biographers was "don't ask, don't tell, don't
pursue." The one exception was Carl Sandburg, who, as
Tripp reminds us, found "streaks of lavender" in both
Lincoln and Speed. After this book, no future historian will be
able to ignore those violet streaks again.
Eight score years ago
Excerpts from letters
and diaries written by Abraham Lincoln and his contemporaries
make the case for his same-sex attractions.
"It now thrills me
with joy to hear you say you are 'far happier than you ever
expected to be....' I am not going beyond the truth when I
tell you that the short space it took me to read your last
letter gave me more pleasure than the total sum of all I have
enjoyed since the fatal first of Jany--'41."
--Joshua Speed, writing
to Lincoln in 1842, after Speed's marriage and shortly
'there is a Bucktail soldier [Colonel Derickson] here
devoted to the President, drives with him, and when Mrs. L. is
not home, sleeps with him.' What stuff!"
--From the diary of
Virginia Woodbury Fox, wife of an assistant Navy secretary,
November 16, 1862
salutation in his letters to Speed
"You ask me if I
have seen your friend Lincoln. I answer yes repeatedly and
never without the conversation turning upon you.... He has
taken a greater interest in you than I ever knew him to
manifest in any one before."
--A letter from Col.
John Cook to Col. Elmer Ellsworth, a favorite of Lincoln's,