Abraham Lincoln

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Sometime after January 2008, an entertainer became obsessed with the President of the United States, determined to prove him invalid and unworthy, to destroy the legacy of someone far grander than himself. Politics was part of the impetus, but the mania seemed to have a far deeper source. A similar scenario played out more than 140 years earlier with far more lethal results when another entertainer, John Wilkes Booth, was overcome by a determination to kidnap or kill Abraham Lincoln, even directing angry dialogue at the President when he happened to attend a play in which his future assassin performed. “He does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?” the President acknowledged. The thespian was a Confederate sympathizer, but his wild rage for Lincoln was driven by something beyond the question of abolition.

In the aftermath of the 1865 balcony tragedy, Booth fled and was slain by the gun of Union soldier Boston Corbett and interred in D.C. after an autopsy and the removal of several vertebrae and the fatal bullet. The body was subsequently relocated to a warehouse at the Washington Arsenal. Four years after he met with justice, the actor’s corpse was emancipated from government oversight and was allowed to be reburied in Baltimore by his family. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter happened to be visiting with President Johnson in the White House when the transfer was made, allowing him to be eyewitness to the grim process and the state of the remains, which he said retained much of the departed’s “manly beauty.” An article in an 1877 edition of the paper recalled the undertaking.

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President Lincoln was an early adopter of technology, but so unconnected were we in 1865, it took a dozen days for the news of his assassination to reach London. Reuters–then spelled “Reuter’s”–got the scoop, but there was no byline. What a byline that would have been to have.

From the Reuters site:

“After 12 days crossing the Atlantic, a Reuters report of the assassination of President Lincoln reaches London first, throwing European financial markets into turmoil. Reuter intercepted the mail boat off Ireland and telegraphed the news to London.”



From the February 12, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“After the death of the President, his body was carted about the nation in the world’s largest funeral march. A man was detailed daily to brush the dust from his face after he had lain in state in various cities.

His body was moved 19 times between the time of his burial and 1900.”


Abraham Lincoln, an early adopter of technology, didn’t have to worry about electronic surveillance intercepting his telegraphs, but President Obama has no such luxury. The U.S. has been pilloried recently for spying on our allies, but every nation is likely doing it. You know why? Because we can. From Michael S. Schmidt and Eric Schmitt in the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — When President Obama travels abroad, his staff packs briefing books, gifts for foreign leaders and something more closely associated with camping than diplomacy: a tent.

Even when Mr. Obama travels to allied nations, aides quickly set up the security tent — which has opaque sides and noise-making devices inside — in a room near his hotel suite. When the president needs to read a classified document or have a sensitive conversation, he ducks into the tent to shield himself from secret video cameras and listening devices.

American security officials demand that their bosses — not just the president, but members of Congress, diplomats, policy makers and military officers — take such precautions when traveling abroad because it is widely acknowledged that their hosts often have no qualms about snooping on their guests.”

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In honor of Presidents’ Day, a Lincoln-centric Ad Council PSA that frightened children into staying in school back when education meant one thing in America. It’s hard to say what being educated means now, even more difficult to know what it will mean in the future.


Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman, two great figures of their age, never shook hands or spoke despite their often close proximity, which was made all the closer as a result of the poet volunteering as a nurse during the Civil War. From Jamie Stiehm at the New York Times’ Disunion blog, a passage about their “relationship”:

“Above all, Whitman studied the stars and waves of Lincoln’s mercurial character the way a great sculptor might gaze at his craggy countenance or larger-than-life hands. The poet came to know the routes of the president’s carriage. When he saw it passing by, he stood with hat in hand. He kept a lookout in the summer months, when Lincoln rode daily along Seventh Street out to a peaceful family retreat at the Soldiers Home, three miles away from crush of his callers. Whitman was once inside the executive mansion to see John Hay, the president’s secretary. He was standing close to Lincoln, who was animatedly engaged in another conversation, but went on his way, loath to interrupt him.

As Whitman later recounted, he exchanged nods, bows and waves with Lincoln several times over a few years and saw the president shake hundreds, if not thousands, of hands at a party. But not Whitman’s. In one of American history’s closest calls, the two never spoke a word to each other. (Though it is believed that Lincoln, 10 years older, read some of the poet’s work aloud back in Springfield, Ill.)

Whitman nevertheless felt he got a good fix on Lincoln. ‘I love the president personally,’ he declared. Well he might, because years earlier he had imagined a bearded president from the prairie, the West who was ‘heroic, shrewd, fully informed.’ Lincoln was nothing if not a shrewd, strong outsider, which helped make him the one man alive capable of settling the old sectional divide sundering the nation.”

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Mary Todd Lincoln suffered many losses in her life, and one of the bitterest was the 1871 death of her youngest child, Thomas,  nicknamed “Tad,” when he was just 18. The cause of death was reported to be “dropsy of the heart,” but it could have been TB or some other cardiac illness. To put it mildly, Tad was a free spirit, and he is responsible for the origin of a White House tradition. Long before President Obama was pardoning turkeys at Thanksgiving, the Lincoln child saved a similar bird. From Gilbert King at the Smithsonian history blog:

“However, the earliest known sparing of a holiday bird can be traced to 1863, when Abraham Lincoln was presented with a Christmas turkey destined for the dinner table and his young, precocious son Tad intervened.

Thomas ‘Tad’ Lincoln was just 8 years old when he arrived in Washington, D.C., to live at the White House after his father was sworn into office in March 1861. The youngest of four sons born to Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Tad was born after Edward ‘Eddie’ Lincoln died in the winter of 1850 at the age of 11, most likely of tuberculosis. Both Tad and his brother William ‘Willie’ Lincoln were believed to have contracted typhoid fever in Washington, and while Tad recovered, Willie succumbed in February of 1862. He was 11.

With the eldest Lincoln son, Robert, away at Harvard College, young Tad became the only child living at in the White House, and by all accounts, the boy was indomitable—charismatic and full of life at a time when his family, and the nation, were experiencing tremendous grief. Born with a cleft palate that gave him a lisp and dental impairments that made it almost impossible for him to eat solid food, Tad was easily distracted, full of energy, highly emotional and, unlike his father and brother, none too focused on academics.

‘He had a very bad opinion of books and no opinion of discipline,’ wrote John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary. Both Lincoln parents, Hay observed, seemed to be content to let Tad ‘have a good time.’ Devastated by the loss of Willie, and both proud and relieved by Robert’s fastidious efforts at Harvard, the first couple gave their rambunctious young son free rein at the executive mansion. The boy was known to have sprayed dignitaries with fire hoses, burst into cabinet meetings, tried to sell some of the first couple’s clothing at a ‘yard sale’ on the White House lawn, and marched White House servants around the grounds like infantry.”

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I would have preferred Paul Thomas Anderson.

Steven Spielberg has made a movie about the life of President Abraham Lincoln. I personally think they should have waited until he was dead before making the movie. Oh, I’m not taking about Lincoln. I mean Spielberg.

Some Lincoln posts:


The new Rolling Stone interview with President Obama is now online and ungated. It was conducted by historian Douglas Brinkley, who is not a bullshitter. An excerpt about Ayn Rand:

Douglas Brinkley:

Have you ever read Ayn Rand?

President Obama:


Douglas Brinkley:

What do you think Paul Ryan’s obsession with her work would mean if he were vice president?

President Obama:

Well, you’d have to ask Paul Ryan what that means to him. Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we’d pick up. Then, as we get older, we realize that a world in which we’re only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we’re considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has opportunity – that that’s a pretty narrow vision. It’s not one that, I think, describes what’s best in America. Unfortunately, it does seem as if sometimes that vision of a ‘you’re on your own’ society has consumed a big chunk of the Republican Party.

Of course, that’s not the Republican tradition. I made this point in the first debate. You look at Abraham Lincoln: He very much believed in self-sufficiency and self-reliance. He embodied it – that you work hard and you make it, that your efforts should take you as far as your dreams can take you. But he also understood that there’s some things we do better together. That we make investments in our infrastructure and railroads and canals and land-grant colleges and the National Academy of Sciences, because that provides us all with an opportunity to fulfill our potential, and we’ll all be better off as a consequence. He also had a sense of deep, profound empathy, a sense of the intrinsic worth of every individual, which led him to his opposition to slavery and ultimately to signing the Emancipation Proclamation. That view of life – as one in which we’re all connected, as opposed to all isolated and looking out only for ourselves – that’s a view that has made America great and allowed us to stitch together a sense of national identity out of all these different immigrant groups who have come here in waves throughout our history.”

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I came across this classic photograph of Harry Houdini and President Lincoln, and assumed it was the former debunking seances, which he loved to do. But it was actually a different kind of demystification–that of spirit photography. That phenomenon, which was first documented in the 1850s, supposedly showed ghosts of the dead making their presence known in photographs. It was a funereal kind of photobombing. In the 1920s, when Houdini created this image to show how phony the whole thing was, even bright people like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were still arguing that spirit photography was genuine. From Kristi Finefield at the Library of Congress:

“In fact, Sir David Brewster, in his 1856 book on the stereoscope, gave step-by-step instructions for creating a spirit photo, beginning with:

‘For the purpose of amusement, the photographer might carry us even into the regions of the supernatural. His art, as I have elsewhere shewn, enables him to give a spiritual appearance to one or more of his figures, and to exhibit them as ‘thin air’ amid the solid realities of the stereoscopic picture.’

He went on to explain how this was easily done. Simply pose your main subjects. Then, when the exposure time is nearly up, have the ‘spirit’ figure enter the scene, holding still for only seconds before moving out of the picture. The ‘spirit’ then appeared as a semi-transparent figure, as seen in The Haunted Lane.

One of the more famous–and infamous–spirit photographers was William H. Mumler of Boston. He turned his ability to make photographs with visible spirits into a lucrative business venture, starting in the 1860s. Doubts grew about his work, but even when a spiritualist named Doctor Gardner recognized some of the so-called spirits as living Bostonians, people continued to pay as much as $10 a sitting. Mumler was charged with fraud in 1869, though not convicted, due to lack of evidence.  However, his career as a photographer of the spirit world was essentially over.

Celebrities took sides in the debate in the 1920s. Famed author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an outspoken Spiritualist who believed that the supernatural could appear in photographs, while illusionist Harry Houdini denounced mediums as fakes and spirit photography as a hoax. Doyle and Houdini publicly feuded in the newspapers.

To demonstrate how easy it was to fake a photograph, Houdini had this image made in the 1920s, showing himself talking with Abraham Lincoln. He even based entire shows around debunking the claims of mediums and the entire idea of Spiritualism.”

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From “The First Wired President,” Tom Wheeler’s smart New York Times Disunion post about Abraham Lincoln’s embrace of technology:

“Up until May 1862 Lincoln had sent, on average, a little over one telegram a month. But things changed when a telegraph office was opened next door to the White House, in the War Department. On May 24 the president had his online breakout, sending nine telegrams. That week he would send more than all his previous messages, combined. From May 24 — 18 years to the day since Morse had first tapped out ‘What hath God wrought’ — forward, Lincoln and the telegraph were inseparable.

The new telegraph office became the first Situation Room. Several times a day the president would walk into the telegraph office, sit down at the desk of its manager and begin going through the copies of all telegrams received, whether addressed to him or not. During great battles the president would even sleep in the telegraph office, just to be close to his oracle.

Using the telegraph to extend his voice was an obvious application of the technology. ‘You are instructed…to put twenty thousand men (20,000) in motion at once for the Shenandoah,’ the president ordered Gen. Irvin McDowell on May 24. Less obvious, however, was how Lincoln made the telegraph his eyes and ears to distant fields and the keyhole into his generals’ headquarters. As he sat in the telegraph office reading messages, he gained insights, felt the pulse of his Army in the field and reacted.”

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The recent Secret Service fiasco in Colombia made me think about John Frederick Parker, one of the original Washington D.C. police officers, who was fired in 1868 for literally sleeping on the job. (He had earlier been acquitted of charges of dereliction of duty and visiting prostitutes.) It was in 1865, however, when Parker had the costliest lapse of his stumblefuck career. From an article about his death in the July 20, 1890 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“The one man in the world who could have prevented the assassination of President Lincoln is dead. John Fredrick Parker, born in Winchester, Va., came to Washington some time before the firing upon Fort Sumter and soon found employment upon the metropolitan police force. When in 1862 it was decided to strengthen the regular force of doorkeepers and watchmen at the White House with a squad of policemen, Parker was one of those selected. It thus happened that when President Lincoln and party entered the old Ford Theater on the night of Good Friday, 1865, they were accompanied by Parker as guard. He took the position at the door to the private box from which President Lincoln watched the performance, where he was expected to remain and prevent the entrance of every one except the members of the party. As the play proceeded Parker from his post could hear just enough of what was said on the stage to arouse his curiosity, and it was not long before he left the door and edged his way toward the auditorium. He finally took a seat in the orchestra, or ‘pit’ as it was then called, where he had scarcely settled himself when the whole audience was surprised by the report of a pistol shot. The assassin, Booth, had stealthily approached the door of the president’s private box, where, finding no one to challenge him, he entered unannounced and fired the fatal shot. There is no question in the minds of those who are familiar with the details that had Parker remained at his post Booth could never had taken President Lincoln unawares.”

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How disgraceful!

I would never mock an American hero, Mavis.

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“She imagines she hears voices in the wall.”

A decade after President Lincoln was assassinated, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, who struggled emotionally from the death of not only her husband but three sons as well, was declared insane at the request of her only surviving son, Robert. A report follows from the May 20, 1875 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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"This kind of grave robbing began in this country in 1876, with an attempt to steal the body of President Lincoln from its resting place in Springfield, Ill."

Robbing graves to supply medical schools with cadavers is as old as the dissecting table itself, but the ransoming of famous corpses began in earnest in America when an attempt was made to disinter President Lincoln’s remains from his final resting place. A report from the March 13, 1888 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“Within the last ten years there has arisen a phase of grave robbing against which the law in its present form seems to provide but poorly. Previously the operations of grave robbers had been confined to procuring subjects for the dissecting table, and it is for this class of crimes that the present laws are framed. They do not contemplate the union of shameful extortion to sacrilege in the form of grave robbing for the purpose of obtaining ransom.

Of late years the plundering of cemeteries and vaults with this purpose has become of such frequency that it is now deemed prudent, if not necessary, to place a guard over the grave of every person of wealth or distinction immediately after burial. This kind of grave robbing began in this country in 1876, with an attempt to steal the body of President Lincoln from its resting place in Springfield, Ill. It was the purpose of the conspirators to hold the body for a ransom of $250,000, together with the pardon of a noted counterfeiter to whom they were friendly. The success of the scheme was happily thwarted by the confusion of one of the confederates.

Two years later a like attempt made on the body of A.T. Stewart, of New York, was more successful. The details of this robbery are still remembered. The body has been recovered by the family, but at what cost is not accurately known. Those concerned in the plot have never been apprehended. These well known cases serve to indicate the good reasons for the precautions taken in the protection of the bodies of ex-President Grant, of William H. Vanderbilt and more recently of Mrs. John Jacob Astor. 

By way of showing to what extent the law is powerless in such cases, it is of interest to cite the theft of the body of Earl Crawford, in Scotland, in 1882. On the arrest of one of the perpertrators of this outrage it was found that there was no statute more applicable to this case than that for the punishment of sacrilege. No penalties for robbery could be imposed, since a dead body could not be regarded at law as property.

The maximum penalty prescribed by the public statutes of our State for criminal grave robbing is imprisonment not exceeding three years, or by fine not exceeding $2,000. The whole chapter of which this section forms a part has for its subject the preservation of chastity, morality, decency and good order. It is true that it is no more an offense to steal the body of a rich man than it is to steal the body of a poor man, yet there is in the former case an additional element which finds an additional punishment in the eyes of the law. It would seem that but just that in cases where extra inducement in the hope of extortion exists, extra penalties should be imposed; for sacrilege may remain mercifully unknown to the relatives of the dead, but grave robbing, with the aim of extorting ransom, cruelly wounds the hearts of the living and is one of the most shameful forms of plunder.”

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Samuel J. Seymour on I’ve Got A Secret. He died two months later. (Thanks Reddit.)


"Upon the first fire Cochrane was shot in the forehead--the ball ripping up a portion of his skull, and scattering a teaspoon full of the brain."

The most famous duel in American history was the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton tragedy that played out in Weehawken, New Jersey, in 1804. But plenty of other gun-and-sword battles occurred in this country in the 19th century. The following are several stories about duels that appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.


“Duel Near Washington” (February 19, 1844) “A duel was fought near Washington on Friday last, between a couple of young men named Julian May, a lawyer and student of medicine, and Joseph Cochrane, brother to John F. Cochrane, Esq., of the War Department. They fought with rifles, at fifty paces, and upon the first fire Cochrane was shot in the forehead–the ball ripping up a portion of his skull, and scattering a teaspoon full of the brain. The wound is considered mortal. The quarrel originated in a billiard room, between friends of the parties, and ultimately led to a discussion touching their bravery. Until dueling shall be branded and punished as murder, we must expect to hear of such brutalities.”


"One received a sword thrust through the breast."

“Fought A Duel With Swords” (December 17, 1886): “Chicago–A duel with swords was fought early yesterday morning in Humboldt Park. A little before 7 o’clock closed carriages entered the park, each carriage contained a principal, with his second and a surgeon. They drove to the western end, where they alighted and concealed themselves behind a clump of trees. The arrangements being completed, the principals each drew a saber and the contest began. Soon both were wounded. One received a sword thrust through the breast and his opponent was cut across the face. 

With the drawing of blood the duelists seemed satisfied, for they were quickly put in their carriages, and rapidly driven to Frerksen’s drug store, at the corner of North and California Avenues. There the wounds were dressed. Then the men were carried to their carriages and rapidly driven away. So quickly was the duel fought that the park policeman who saw the carriages go out of the park was not aware of what had occurred, nor were several people who saw them drive up to the drug store and away again. The only witnesses of the duel besides those immediately interested were some boys who were skating in the park. The boys say one of the men was large and fully bearded, with a military bearing. The other was younger. Mr. Frerksen, the druggist, was very reticent about the matter, though he admitted that a duel had been fought and that the participants were the editor of a pharmaceutical journal and a young medical man. It is said the affair was over the hand and favor of a young lady.”


“Duel Between Father And Son” (December 11, 1890): “Gainesville, Tex.–A fatal duel took place last night in Paine’s Valley between Senator Samuel Paul, of the Chicasaw legislature, and his son, Joe Paul, in which Joe received a bullet wound to the back and one in the breast, and the father received a dangerous wound in the thigh, made by a pistol ball fired by the son. Reports from Paine’s Valley state that the young man died of his wounds this evening, but that the father will recover. It is said that the difficulty grew out of a quarrel over a woman of bad repute. Deputy Marshal Thomas left Gainesville this evening to place the senator under arrest and take him before a United States commissioner for preliminary trial.”

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These classic 1862 Civil War photographs of Thaddeus Lowe’s balloons were taken in Virginia by Mathew Brady. Lowe, the father of American military aerial reconnaissance who had been designated Chief Aeronaut of the United States Balloon Corps by President Lincoln, deployed his crafts to gather information about the number and positioning of Confederate troops. Oh, and Lowe was also the first American to figure out how to make artificial ice, which is the odd choice for the lead of his 1913 New York Times obituary:

“Pasadena, Cal., Jan. 16–Dr. Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, scientist and experimenter, who invented an ice compressing machine in 1865, making the first artificial ice in the United States, died to-day at the home of his daughter in this place. Dr. Lowe was born in Jefferson, N. H., in 1832, of Pilgrim ancestry. He was educated in the common schools, and specialized in the study of chemistry. From 1856 to 1859 he was engaged in constructing balloons for the study of atmospheric conditions.

Dr. Lowe built the largest aerostat of his day, and in 1861 made a 900-mile trip in it from Cincinnati to the South Carolina coast in nine hours. Later he entered the Government services as Chief of the Aeronautics Corp, which he organized, rendering valuable service to the Army of the Potomac, from Bull Run to Gettysburg, by observations and timely warnings. Next he invented a system of signaling to field batteries from high altitudes. Other devices invented by him practically revolutionized the gas industry. He built the Mount Lowe Railway, 1891-1904, and established the Lowe Observatory in the Sierra Madre Mountains.

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"Corbett told him that he was homeless, almost penniless, and headed to Kansas to stake a claim." (Image by Mathew Brady.)

The opening of “The Man Who Shot the Man Who Shot Lincoln,” Ernest B. Furgurson’s American Scholar account of the unusual life of Boston Corbett, the soldier who killed John Wilkes Booth:

“One morning in September 1878, a tired traveler, five feet four inches tall, with a wispy beard, arrived at the office of the daily Pittsburgh Leader. His vest and coat were a faded purple, and his previously black pants were gray with age and wear. As he stepped inside, he lifted a once fashionable silk hat to disclose brown hair parted down the middle like a woman’s. Despite the mileage that showed in his face and clothes, he was well kept, and spoke with clarity. He handed the editor a note from an agent at the Pittsburgh rail depot, which said: ‘This will introduce to you Mr. Boston Corbett, of Camden, N.J., the avenger of Abraham Lincoln. Mr. Corbett is rather bashful, but at my solicitation he concluded to call on the Leader editor as an old soldier.’

The newspaperman realized that this was no joke. He remembered the photographs of this man, spread across the North after he shot the assassin John Wilkes Booth 13 years earlier, in April 1865. He invited him to sit and talk. Corbett told him that he was homeless, almost penniless, and headed to Kansas to stake a claim. The railroad agent had suggested that he come to the newspaper to tell his story, on the chance that someone would help him on his way.” (Thanks Longform.)

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"Lincoln urged a White House audience of 'free blacks' to leave the US and settle in Central America."

Documents uncovered by historians at George Mason suggest that Abraham Lincoln was much more committed to seeing that freed American slaves relocated to Central America and started their own new nation. The more you study history, the thornier it gets. An excerpt from Matthew Barakat’s story on the topic from the Independent:

“It claims, among other things, that in 1862 Lincoln urged a White House audience of ‘free blacks’ to leave the US and settle in Central America. He told them: ‘For the sake of your race, you should sacrifice something of your present comfort for the purpose of being as grand in that respect as the white people.’ He went on to say that those who envisioned a permanent life in the US were being ‘selfish’ and he promoted Central America as an ideal location ‘especially because of the similarity of climate with your native land – thus being suited to your physical condition.'”

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Thanks for ruining the ceiling, jackass. (Image by Mathew Brady.)

I recently posted about Abraham Lincoln’s less-than-graceful youth, using examples from Carl Sandburg’s great biography, The Prairie Years. Here’s another brief tale of Lincoln’s boorish behavior from that tome:

“He put barefoot boys to wading in a mud puddle near the home trough, pulled them up one by one, carried them to the house upside down, and walked their muddy feet across the ceiling. The stepmother came in, laughed at their foot tracks, told Abe he ought to be spanked–and he cleaned the ceiling so that it looked new.”


A daguerreotype of young Abe Lincoln, from 1846 or 1847.

Three passages from The Prairie Years, Part 1, the opening section of Carl Sandburg’s lyrical book about Abraham Lincoln’s life up until the Civil War.


“Offut talked big about Lincoln as a wrestler, and Bill Clary, who ran a saloon thirty steps north of the Offut store, bet Offut that Lincoln couldn’t throw Jack Armstrong, the Clary’s Grove champion. Sports from miles around came to a level square next to Offut’s store to see the match; bets of money, knives, trinkets, tobacco, drinks were put up, Armstrong, short and powerful, aimed from the first to get in close to his man and use his thick muscular strength. Lincoln held him off with long arms, wore down his strength, got him out of breath, surprised and ‘rattled.’ They pawed and clutched in many holds and twists till Lincoln threw Armstrong and had both shoulders to the grass.”


“The Clary’s Grove boys called on [Lincoln] sometimes to judge their horse races and cockfights, umpire their matches and settle disputes. One story ran that Lincoln was on hand one day when an old man had agreed, for a gallon jug of whisky, to be rolled down a hill in a barrel. And Lincoln talked and laughed them out of doing it. He wasn’t there on the day, as D.W Burner told it, when the gang took an old man with a wooden leg, built a fire around the wooden leg, and held the man down until the wooden leg was burned off.”


“When a small gambler tricked Bill Greene, Lincoln’s helper at the store, Lincoln told Bill to bet him the best fur hat in the store that he [Lincoln] could lift a barrel of whisky from the floor and hold it while he took a drink from the bunghole. Bill hunted up the gambler and made the bet. Lincoln sat squatting on the floor, lifted the barrel, rolled it on his knees till the bunghole reached his mouth, took a mouthful, let the barrel down–and stood up and spat out the whisky.”


Carl Sandburg on What’s My Line? in 1960:

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““A unique character is Seth Kinman, the grizzly bear hunter and presidential chair presenter.”

Seth Kinman was a self-made man and a self-promoter. A bushy-faced nineteenth-century California hunter who never met a bear or buck he cared for, Kinman used the skins and carcasses from his quarry to fashion unusual chairs that he presented to several American Presidents.

Kinman began bestowing these odd gifts to Presidents during the Buchanan Administration, which is the subject of the first excerpt, taken from an 1857 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The second excerpt, a reprinted article in an 1885 New York Times that originally ran in the San Francisco Call, further examines Kinman’s life and by then what had become a longstanding chair-giving tradition that had allowed him to become friend to several Presidents.


“A Curious Chair for President Buchanan,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (May 18, 1857): “An old Western hunter, Seth Kinman, sent a chair from Humboldt, California, which arrived in New York by the George Law for President Buchanan. The chair is made entirely of the antlers of the deer, fashioned into a most comfortable arm-chair, with a high sloping back and convenient arms. A pair of antlers, with six points each, form the front legs and arms; and another pair, having five points each, form the hind legs and back. Small antlers, having two points each, join the whole together in a substantial manner. The seat is made from the dressed skins of the bucks whose antlers form the chair. They have, all told, just thirty-one points, corresponding with the number of states now in the Union. The whole chair is simply varnished, showing the original color of the antlers. The old hunter has engraved his address on the left arm point: Seth Kinman, Humboldt County, California.”


The nimrod sits his ass down on President Andrew Johnson’s chair.

Seth Kinman, The Pacific Coast Nimrod Who Gives Chairs to Presidents,New York Times, reprinted from the San Francisco Call (December 9, 1885): “A unique character is Seth Kinman, the grizzly bear hunter and presidential chair presenter, now stopping in this city. He is a tall man, 70 years old, straight as an arrow, dressed in buckskin from head to foot, with long silver hair, beard, and shaggy eyebrows, under which and his immense hat a pair of keen eyes peer sharply.

He is the Nimrod of this coast, the great elk shooter and grizzly bear hunter of California, who has presented elk horns and grizzly bear claws from animals that have fallen before his unerring rifle to four Presidents of the United States–Buchanan, Lincoln , Johnson, and Hayes–and has ‘the finest of all’ to present to President Cleveland next spring. He claims to have shot in all more than 800 grizzlies, as many as 50 elk in one month, and to have supplied the Government troops and sawmill hands in Humboldt with 240 elk in 11 months on contract at 25 cents per pound.

Resting atop the chair is Kinman’s fiddle, the neck of which is made with a skull bone from his favorite mule.

He was born in Union County, Penn., in 1815, went to Illinois in 1830, and crossed the plains to California in 1849. He tried mining on Trinity River, but followed hunting mainly for a living. In the Winter of 1856-57 he made his first elkhorn chair, and conceived the idea of presenting it to President Buchanan. Peter Donahue favored it. He went on in the Golden Age with letters to Col. Rynders in New-York, and in Washington he met Senator Gwin, Gen. Denver, and others. Dr. Wozencroft made the presentation speech, and Buchanan was highly pleased. He wrote Rynders to get Kinman the best gun he could find in New-York, which he did, together with two fine pistols. He also got an appointment to corral the Indians on the Government reservation, and when they strayed away he brought them back.

In November, 1804, he presented President Lincoln with an elkhorn chair, which greatly pleased him; Clinton Lloyd, Clerk of the House, made the presentation speech. The chair to Hayes was presented when he was Governor of Ohio, but nominee for President. The chair presented to President Johnson was made of the bones and hide of a grizzly.”

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“He owned ‘that which is the grand constituent of all truly great acting, intensity.'”

Accounts from Gene Smith’s 1992 history, American Gothic, about a pair of times when President Lincoln watched performances by the noted actor and his future assassin, John Wilkes Booth, on stage in Washington D.C. The first “meeting” took place in 1863.


John was about to turn twenty-five, and of a theatrical stature to set himself up as a more or less permanent resident star in a leading city. He chose Washington. The wartime capital was bursting with people, and entertainments of any type drew capacity crowds. He opened as Richard III at Grover’s Theatre, on April 11, 1863, billed as “The Pride Of The American People–The Youngest Tragedian In The World–A Star Of The First Magnitude–Son Of The Great Junius Brutus Booth–Brother And Artistic Rival Of Edwin Booth.” President Lincoln attended. The National Republican said he scored a “complete triumph” and “took the hearts of the people by storm.” A day later the paper added that his playing created a sensation. “His youth, originality, and superior genius have not only made him popular but have established him in the hearts of the Washington people as a great favorite.” The National Intelligencer said he owned “that which is the grand constituent of all truly great acting, intensity. We have only to say that this young actor plays not from stage rule, but from his soul, and his soul is inspired with genius. Genius is its own schoolmaster: It can be cultivated but not created.•


Accompanying President Lincoln and his wife to the theater one night were the two daughters of Cassius M. Clay, U.S. Minister to Russia. Their mother was an old friend of Mary Todd Lincoln and when they sent in their cards to her she responded with the invitation. As the party drove, a piece of iron suddenly sprung up and pierced the carriage seat between the President and his wife. For a moment an alarmed Mary Lincoln thought it was an attack. Mary Clay asked the President what measures he took to be guarded–no czar of Russian would go through a St. Petersburg street without cavalry escort and with police, detectives, and plainclothesmen along the route, and for good reason–and the President said, “I believe when my time comes there is nothing that can prevent my going.”

The star performer played a villain and twice “in uttering disagreeable threats came very near” and appeared to point to the President. “When he came a third time I was impressed by it, and said, ‘Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you.'”

“‘Well,'” he said of John Booth, “‘he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?'”•

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“What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology.” (Image by Matthew Yohe.)

In a 1993 Wired interview conducted by Gary Wolf, Steve Jobs discussed the intersection of technology and education. I think what he said then about education in America is just about as true now, which is sad because it speaks to how little progress we’ve made. An excerpt:

Wired: Could technology help by improving education?

Steve Jobs: I used to think that technology could help education. I’ve probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I’ve had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.

It’s a political problem. The problems are sociopolitical. The problems are unions. You plot the growth of the NEA [National Education Association] and the dropping of SAT scores, and they’re inversely proportional. The problems are unions in the schools. The problem is bureaucracy. I’m one of these people who believes the best thing we could ever do is go to the full voucher system.

I have a 17-year-old daughter who went to a private school for a few years before high school. This private school is the best school I’ve seen in my life. It was judged one of the 100 best schools in America. It was phenomenal. The tuition was $5,500 a year, which is a lot of money for most parents. But the teachers were paid less than public school teachers – so it’s not about money at the teacher level. I asked the state treasurer that year what California pays on average to send kids to school, and I believe it was $4,400. While there are not many parents who could come up with $5,500 a year, there are many who could come up with $1,000 a year.




“Lincoln did not have a Web site at the log cabin where his parents home-schooled him, and he turned out pretty interesting.” (Image by Henry F. Warren.)

If we gave vouchers to parents for $4,400 a year, schools would be starting right and left. People would get out of college and say, ‘Let’s start a school.’ You could have a track at Stanford within the MBA program on how to be the businessperson of a school. And that MBA would get together with somebody else, and they’d start schools. And you’d have these young, idealistic people starting schools, working for pennies.

They’d do it because they’d be able to set the curriculum. When you have kids you think, What exactly do I want them to learn? Most of the stuff they study in school is completely useless. But some incredibly valuable things you don’t learn until you’re older – yet you could learn them when you’re younger. And you start to think, What would I do if I set a curriculum for a school?

God, how exciting that could be! But you can’t do it today. You’d be crazy to work in a school today. You don’t get to do what you want. You don’t get to pick your books, your curriculum. You get to teach one narrow specialization. Who would ever want to do that?

These are the solutions to our problems in education. Unfortunately, technology isn’t it. You’re not going to solve the problems by putting all knowledge onto CD-ROMs. We can put a Web site in every school – none of this is bad. It’s bad only if it lulls us into thinking we’re doing something to solve the problem with education.

Lincoln did not have a Web site at the log cabin where his parents home-schooled him, and he turned out pretty interesting. Historical precedent shows that we can turn out amazing human beings without technology. Precedent also shows that we can turn out very uninteresting human beings with technology.

It’s not as simple as you think when you’re in your 20s – that technology’s going to change the world. In some ways it will, in some ways it won’t.”

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