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“What Is Hell To One Like Me...?”
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
Lincoln’s melancholy is famous. Less well known is that he not only penned thoughts about suicide but published them in a newspaper. Scholars have long believed that the only copy in the newspaper’s files was mutilated to hide those thoughts from posterity. But the composition has apparently always been in plain sight—and unrecognized.
How did such a thing come to be written? How was it lost? Why should we think it has been found? And what does it reveal about its author?
Both of Lincoln’s parents suffered periods of bleakness often enough to attract comment from their Kentucky neighbors. Said one: “Thomas Lincoln was a real nice, agreeable man, who often got the ‘blues,’ and had some strange sort of spell, and wanted to be alone all he could when he had them. I Ie would walk away out on the barrens alone, and stay out sometimes half a day. . . . Some of us was afear’d he was losin’ his mind.” Similar behavior was observed in his young son. In 1862 an elderly woman told a visitor to his boyhood home: “Abe moped round an’ had spells, an’ we all got mighty feared that he was losin’ hisself, but he did n’t. I Ie was all right agin in a day or two, and peart as ever.”
Abraham Lincoln’s vacillation between gaiety and gloom continued to be noticed throughout his life. Someone who saw him in his forties telling stories while attending court in Bloomington, Illinois, recollected that “his eyes would sparkle with fun,... and nobody’s enjoyment was greater than his. An hour later he might be seen in the same place or in some law office nearby, but alas, how different! His chair, no longer in the center of the room, would be leaning back against the wall; his feet drawn up and resting on the front rounds so that his knees and chin were about on a level; his hat tipped sightly forward, as if to shield or hide his face; his eyes no longer sparkling with fun and merriment, but sad and downcast, and his hands clasped around his knees. There, drawn up within himself, as it were, he would sit, the very picture of dejection and gloom. Thus absorbed, have I seen him sit for hours at a time, defying the interruptions of even his closest friends. . . . By his moody silence and abstraction, he had thrown about him a barrier so dense and impenetrable that no one dared to break through. It was a strange picture, and one I have never forgotten.” Leonard Swett, a colleague of Lincoln in law and politics, asked: “What gave him that peculiar melancholy? What cancer had he inside?”
Lincoln “told me that he was so overcome with mental depression that he never dare carry a knife in his pocket. And as long as I was intimately acquainted with him... he never carried a pocket knife.”
Lincoln’s sadness probably had multiple causes. Given the occasional dejection observed in his parents and in himself as a child, genetic predisposition may have intertwined with blows dealt by life. The deaths of his mother, his sister, and two of his children challenged his resilience, and for years he struggled to pay debts generated by his store. And then there was illness. A nineteenth-century chronicler of Lincoln’s Illinois wrote that the ague, which usually meant malarial fever, “was a disease to be dreaded because of its effect upon the mind as well as upon the physical system. It induced a feeling of despondency, and took away that spirit of enterprise and that strong will, which bore up the settlers under misfortune. For many years the fever and ague was the scourge of the West.” Malaria, chronic eyestrain, low blood pressure, trouble with teeth and feet, and constipation and drug doses taken to combat it all have been suggested as contributing factors. Moreover, in addition to experiencing depression, Lincoln denied himself a common means of masking it—drinking.
Whatever the causes of his despondency, his acquaintances knew it well. “Lincoln often thought of committing suicide,” declared his law partner William H. Herndon. We don’t know whether Herndon was extrapolating from Lincoln’s actions or actually heard him speak on the subject, but another friend reported explicit conversation. Robert L. Wilson, who served with Lincoln in the Illinois legislature, wrote that in the mid-1830s “he told me that although he appeared to enjoy life rapturously, Still he was the victim of terrible melancholly.... He told me that he was so overcome with mental depression that he never dare carry a knife in his pocket. And as long as I was intimately acquainted with him... he never carried a pocket knife.”
Regardless of his personal demons, Lincoln functioned well as a lawyer, legislator, and politician. One black period, however, began on January 1, 1841, which he called the “fatal first,” when he abruptly broke his engagement to Mary Todd. And around the same time, he discovered that his best friend, Joshua Speed, was leaving town forever. “Poor fellow, he is in rather a bad way,” said one Springfield resident at the time. “The Doctors say he came within an inch of being a perfect lunatic for life. He was perfectly crazy for some time, not able to attend to his business at all.” His friend Orville H. Browning declared, “He was so much affected as to talk incoherently, and to be dilirious to the extent of not knowing what he was doing.” During the 188Os Joshua Speed stated: “In the winter of 1841 a gloom came over him till his friends were alarmed for his life. Though a member of the legislature he rarely attended its sessions. In his deepest gloom, and when I told him he would die unless he rallied, he said, ‘I am not afraid, and would be more than willing.'” Lincoln instantly added, however, that he wanted to accomplish more before he died.