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 suggestive items.
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 homosexual."
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 again.
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 for errors.
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 Weidman.
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 with Tripp.
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."
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 Stuff!'"
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 the chapter."
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, in 1862.
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 sources.
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 suffice:
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 of happiness.'"
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 frontier.
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 conquest."
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 forty-four-year-old captain:
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 of it.
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 'predominately homosexual.'"
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.