By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 provides only part of the tragedy of his life.
The sixteenth president’s medical history, plagued by recurring bouts with malaria and depression, was not as tragic as his immediate family.
When Lincoln was nine and growing up in Kentucky, his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died from milk sickness because a cow probably ate poisonous snakeroot. She was only 34. Though Lincoln’s father remarried the following year to Sarah Bush, the tragic death of Lincoln’s mother haunted him for years.
Lincoln and his wife, Mary, would produce four sons, but only one, Robert, would live a long life. In 1850, Eddie would die at the age of four of tuberculosis or consumption. In 1862, Willie contracted scarlet fever and died, causing Mary to go in a deep depression that bordered on madness for a time. Tad died at the age of 18 in 1871 from tuberculosis and complications from pleurisy, an inflammation of the lung.
Mary Lincoln suffered from depression and other symptoms that might be equated with posttraumatic stress disorder. Diagnosed as being mentally ill, she was placed in an asylum years after Lincoln’s death. She was eventually released. A series of illnesses, including migraines, cataracts and injuries from falls, all weakened her in her final years. In 1882, she died suddenly, leaving Robert as the last of the family.
Medical historian Linda Ruholl reviewed the lifelong medical history of Abe Lincoln and his family during a lecture last week for the Fourth Annual Celebration of Lincoln and His Times in the Effingham County Courthouse Museum. She used information from several books offering facts and some speculation on ailments suffered by the Lincolns.
Ruholl said historians must depend on written memoirs of those associated with Lincoln, doctor’s summaries or photographs from Lincoln’s later years. For example, there is a reliable account of Lincoln being kicked in the head by a horse working on a grist mill when the future president was 11. The kick knocked him unconscious and probably caused a concussion, which some experts claim is evident in the droopy eyelid visible in some photographs of Lincoln.
But did the head injury have long-term effects on Lincoln? Ruholl said there is some speculation it might have contributed to his periodic depression.
In 1830, Lincoln was infected with malaria, a common disease caused by mosquito bites that injects a protozoa parasite into the victim’s bloodstream. Lincoln would suffer bouts of chills and fever at different times in his life. The effects of malaria might have aggravated his periods of depression, as conveyed in the book “Lincoln and the Doctors,” Ruholl said.
“Malaria patients were known to shake so much that they rattled beds and windows,” Ruholl said.
Malaria might have caused severe melancholy (another term for depression in the 1800s) before Lincoln entered politics in Springfield. Ruholl said Ann Rutledge might have died from malaria in 1835. It was 31 years later, John Herndon, Lincoln’s old law partner, said that Rutledge was Lincoln’s only true love. He would later marry Mary Todd, a Southern belle from Kentucky, in Springfield.
But Ruholl said the book “Lincoln’s Melancholy” disputes the correlation between Lincoln’s acute depression and Rutledge’s death. Still, it is hard to bury the romantic legend of Lincoln and Rutledge.
In late 1840, Lincoln wrote of being the “most miserable man living.” Ruholl said it involved woman troubles over Mary Todd. There were political considerations as well.
“He was in the state legislature and the state was very deep in debt,” said Ruholl, which drew some laughter from the audience that night when they realized things haven’t changed much for Illinois government for more than 175 years. “William Henry Harrison, the presidential candidate that Lincoln campaigned for, won the national election, but did not do well in Illinois. And that winter was colder than usual in Illinois, which can contribute to depression for some people.”
Medical science was not very advanced for treating any ailments in the early 1800s. Ruholl said Dr. Anson J. Henry was a good example of the primitive treatments used at the time. So he purged Lincoln’s digestive tract with laxatives and anything else that could clear the pipes. Then he bled Lincoln to remove any toxins from his blood, a method of treatment that dated back to ancient times.
“The outcome of all that was a patient would be pale, weak and depressed,” Ruholl said.
While in the White House, Lincoln was constantly under stress due to the Civil War and criticism by his political rivals and the newspapers. It is not surprising he suffered symptoms of stress. Other illnesses, such as a social disease, Ruholl discounted, but DNA testing of some Lincoln ancestors has shown possible ties to different diseases, including Marfa Syndrome.
Lincoln did try to cheer himself up by attending theater performances, listening to music, engaging in conversations and debates. He was also an avid reader and loved humorous stories and jokes.
“It’s hard to be depressed when you’re laughing,” Ruholl said when she reviewed this strategy.
It was a comical play “Our American Cousin” that drew Lincoln to Ford’s Theater on the night of April 14, 1865.
Lincoln probably joined the audience that night in laughter at the many jokes and putdowns between the actors on stage. Then John Wilkes Booth fired a bullet into the back of the President’s head.
Ruholl reviewed the grisly details of Lincoln’s fatal wound. He was carried across the street to a boarding house where doctors conducted a death watch as there was little they could do with neurosurgery and other treatments for major brain trauma decades into the future. They did perform an early form of CPR by pressing on his chest and mustard plasters were also applied.
The president would live for nine hours before he died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865.
The History Museum program also included a performance by the Quintessential Quartet and a talk by Cecilia Annabel, one of the group’s musicians, on the music of Lincoln’s time. She noted that Lincoln loved many ballads and dance tunes, but one of his favorites was “Dixie” due to its rousing beat.
Karla Hardiek of the Lake Land College Nursing Department reviewed a history of nursing education in this area, which dates back to the 1950s. She talked about how the program has advanced through the decades. Lake Land College is a sponsor of the annual Lincoln and His Times Celebration in the Courthouse Museum.