Original publish date: January 10, 2011
In the fall of 1860, just one month before becoming president, Abraham Lincoln walked into the Corneau & Diller drug store in Springfield, Illinois and purchased Cocaine. The statement is a fact that cannot be denied but asking a Lincoln buff for clarification is akin to asking, “So, do you still beat your spouse?” The quickest response is undesirable and its natural opposite reply is even worse.
Author Harry E. Pratt discovered this startling Lincoln trivia while researching his book, “The Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln” around 1943. Pratt traveled to the Lincoln library in Springfield and studied the original Corneau & Diller’s handwritten order books. The author was astonished to find that on October 12, 1860 an order was filled for Lincoln in the amount of 50 cents for Cocaine.
Really? Abraham Lincoln bought Cocaine? That seems so…modern. Was Cocaine even around back then? Well the answer is yes, Cocaine was first synthesized in pure form by German chemist Albert Niemann. In 1859, he extracted pure cocaine powder from the leaves of the coca plant. Soon after it was isolated, cocaine was promoted as a cure for almost every illness and malady known to man. It wasn’t long after the isolation of pure cocaine until people became aware of the addictive potential of the drug. As for chemist Niemann, not much is known of him except that he died of undisclosed causes at the age of 27 on January 19, 1861, less than a year after he announced his discovery. Judging by the evidence, Abe Lincoln was one of the first Americans to use the new drug.
Today, Presidential revelations of that nature could wreck a political career and are usually only found in the pages of an Oliver Stone film script. But in the 19th Century, cocaine was legal. In 1885 the U.S. manufacturer Parke-Davis (a subsidiary of today’s Pfizer pharmaceutical company ) sold cocaine in various forms, including cigarettes, powder, and even a cocaine mixture that could be injected directly into the user’s veins with the included needle. The company promised that its cocaine products would “supply the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent and render the sufferer insensitive to pain.” Cocaine was the active ingredient in products like Cocaine Tooth Drops, “Forced March Pills” and Coca-Cola.
Drugstores back then offered a cornucopia of now illegal or controlled substances. In just one three month sampling of the Corneau and Diller’s ledger lists Lincoln’s Springfield neighbors buying morphine, laudanum, chloroform, quinine, opium pills, mercury, and belladonna (from the deadly nightshade plant).
Would be pundits note that the purchase took place in October 1860, less than a month before the presidential election. Lincoln was surely exhausted with the rigors of the campaign, the challenges of his busy law practice and demands of keeping up with his mischievous boys, he probably needed a boost, right? Not to mention, Lincoln was well known for his battles with depression. Lincoln himself said, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.” Historians argue that Lincoln’s chronic funks gave him the tools he needed to be an effective chief executive during a difficult era.
Still other historians theorize that Lincoln contracted mercury poisoning from taking too many “blue mass pills,” which contained the toxic metal. Blue mass pills were often prescribed in those days for melancholy and other maladies, and Lincoln is widely known to have taken them in the 1850s. Since Lincoln took mercury pills to ease his blues, is it not a far stretch to think he used cocaine too? The Lincoln cocaine connection has been addressed by no less authorities than the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the National Park Service, which oversees the Lincoln Home.
Simmer down before your head starts spinning, a closer examination of the pharmacy ledger has sniffed out the real dope. The real truth is hidden in plain sight on the brittle pages of the drugstore’s original ledgers, kept painstakingly wrapped and stored under lock and key at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield. There, in the intricate flowing handwriting that seems lost to today’s generation, the ledger reveals several purchases (on credit) to the family of “Abraham Lincoln” on Oct. 12, 1860, including one for “cocoaine.”
Is this a clerical error, a simple misspelling? After all, the word “cigars” is spelled as “segars” in the same ledger. 20th century logic assumes that researchers viewed the ledger term “cocoaine” as a misnomer for cocaine. 20th century logic would be wrong.
It took an Antique bottle collector, whose name is sadly lost to the pages of history forever, to unravel the mystery. Several years ago this unnamed antiquer and Lincoln collector found a bottle embossed on the sides with the name “Burnett’s Cocoaine”. This collector asked the dealer what was that bottle for? The dealer glibly replied that all he knew about was that it made your hair “very happy”. Antique dealers are known for their eccentricity and our intrepid subject purchased the bottle thinking that it might have contained cocaine.
Upon further research it was learned that, despite the intriguing name, the strangest ingredient of “Burnett’s Cocaine” turned out to be cocoa oil. It was made by Joseph Burnett in Boston from the oil of cocoanuts (an alternative spelling of coconuts), hence its drug-like name. The Jan. 23, 1862, Chicago Daily Tribune advertised Burnett’s could also be used for chapped hands and Burnett’s hair tonic quickly became popular nationwide. “I have used the contents of one bottle, and my bald pate is covered all over with young hair, about three-eighths of an inch long, which appears strong and healthy, and determined to grow,” said a customer testimonial in a Nov. 21, 1863, Harper’s Weekly ad.
The antique hair tonic bottle went up on the bathroom shelf where it lay undisturbed until its owner found a copy of a book about Lincoln that claimed he had purchased Cocaine at his local drugstore. The bottle’s owner contacted the Lincoln museum in Springfield and suggested a closer look at the pharmacy ledgers and author Harry Pratt’s mistake was discovered. So contrary to previously published reports, Lincoln was not seeking a boost for his psyche, he was seeking a boost for his unruly hairline. Simply stated, “Cocoaine” was a remedy for dandruff and baldness in Lincoln’s day. It seems that instead of a closeted drug user, Honest Abe had a vain streak we didn’t know about.
However, did Lincoln’s family drugstore sell the product at the time of Lincoln’s purchase? Well, the October 11, 1860 front-page of the Springfield “Illinois State Register” newspaper carried an ad from the drugstore read, “Cocoaine-Burnett’s, for the hair At Corneau & Diller.” This ad appeared one day before Lincoln’s purchase. The hair tonic must have been a good seller, because another Springfield store also advertised it.
So, rest easy ye Lincolnites, your hero’s halo remains untarnished for all evidence shows that Abraham Lincoln didn’t buy cocaine; he bought hair tonic. After all, friends, family, historians and even Lincoln himself often commented on his unruly hair. Contrary to our 20th century conspiracy minded authors and armchair historians, our rail-splitter president wasn’t a drug addict, he just wanted to look good for the public.
As a footnote, apparently the Cocoaine didn’t work and Lincoln decided to go in a different direction. Four days after his purchase, on Oct. 15, 1860, Lincoln received a letter from an 11-year-old girl from Westfield, New Jersey names Grace Bedell telling Lincoln, in part, “if you let your whiskers grow…you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin.” The photographic evidence shows that indeed, over the next 4 years, Lincoln’s “whiskers” did grow but his his hair remained unruly.
Next week, Part II of the Lincoln family drug myth.