Original publish date: February 13, 2020
“In his 10th year he was kicked by a horse, and apparently killed for a time.” The words were Abraham Lincoln’s. He was describing his boyhood in the hills of southern Indiana. Although much has been written about Abraham Lincoln’s life, his time as a Hoosier has been woefully neglected. Lincoln’s family moved to Indiana in 1816, when Lincoln was seven years old. Multiple noteworthy events in Lincoln’s life occurred during his time in Indiana. The most important of these was the death of his mother, Nancy Hanks, who died of “milk sickness” from drinking poisonous cows’ milk on October 5, 1818.
Her death was a tragedy Lincoln never got over, however her death resulted in a “rebirth” of sorts when the young railsplitter’s father Thomas married Sarah Bush Johnston of Kentucky in December 1819. Lincoln’s stepmother moved into the family’s Pigeon Creek cabin, bringing with her three children (two girls and one boy). More importantly Sarah brought with her the attention and educational encouragement that young Abraham Lincoln craved and was lacking from his relationship with his father. Lincoln attended school sporadically in present-day Spencer County during the years 1820-24 where he learned to read and write.
On January 20, 1828, Lincoln’s sister Sarah passed away while delivering a stillborn child and both were buried in the Pigeon Creek Baptist Church Cemetery attached to the church the Lincoln family attended, and in which Abraham worked as a janitor for a short time. Perhaps the most significant theological event in Lincoln’s life occurred while he was a Hoosier. In December of 1828 he and his friend Allen Gentry embarked on a trip to New Orleans down the Mississippi River where Lincoln witnessed a slave auction, after which Lincoln said, “If I ever get a chance to hit that thing (slavery), I’ll hit it hard.” Also during those formative years in Indiana, Lincoln worked as a store clerk and met lawyers like John Pritcher, who he borrowed law books from. On March 1, 1830, the Lincolns packed up and moved to Illinois.
When Lincoln ran for President in 1860, John Locke Scripps, senior editor of the Chicago Press and Tribune, asked the candidate for an autobiography. This third-person account, the longest of his autobiographies, offers fascinating details about his early years told in the folksy, homespun style only Lincoln could relay. In this autobiography Lincoln refers to himself alternatively as ‘A’ or ‘Mr. L.’ It is remarkably brief about certain periods of his life, including his years spent in Indiana “A. now thinks that the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year. He was never in a college or Academy as a student; and never inside of a college or academy building till since he had a law-license. What he has in the way of education, he has picked up.’”
Although historians, beginning with biographer Carl Sandburg, love to weave homespun stories about Lincoln into nearly every written account of the 16th President’s life, Lincoln himself was ashamed of the poverty of those early days spent in the Hoosier state and was uncomfortable talking about his life before Springfield. When Scripps interviewed him in 1860, Lincoln explained “Why Scripps, it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy; ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’ That’s my life, and that’s all you or anyone else can make of it.’”
But what about Lincoln’s statement that he was, “apparently killed for a time”? Well, as you might expect, there is more to the story. Like many a Hoosier farm boy in 1818 frontier Indiana, Lincoln the boy was assigned certain chores perhaps better suited for a man. One of those chores was to deliver corn to Gordon’s gristmill located about two miles from the Lincoln cabin. Abraham rode one of Thomas’ horses to the mill with the sack of corn for grinding stowed safely behind the saddle. Upon his arrival the young railsplitter found a considerable line of others waiting their turn at the wheel. Gordon’s gristmill utilized a horse engine as the power source, but the mill could also be powered by dogs, donkeys, oxen or humans. Watching the horses slowly go round and round, young Lincoln remarked that “my dog could eat the meal as fast as the mill could grind it.”
Eventually it was Abraham’s turn to hitch his old mare to the gristmill’s arm. As he tediously walked his horse round and round, he grew impatient at having wasted most of the morning already. He began to apply a hickory switch to the beast’s behind while shouting, “Git up, you old hussy; git up, you old hussy” to keep his horse moving at an accelerated pace. This tactic worked for a short time until the horse had had enough and, just as his young master clucked out the words “Git up”, the horse kicked backwards and hit the boy in the head with a rear hoof. Lincoln was knocked off his feet and into the air, landing some distance away where he came to rest bruised and bloodied. Noah Gordon rushed to the aid of the unconscious young man. Realizing the seriousness of the situation, Gordon picked the boy up and brought him in to his house, placing him on a nearby bed.
Meanwhile, Dave Turnham, who had come to the mill with Abraham, ran the two miles to get Abraham’s father. Thomas Lincoln rushed to his wagon and lit out to the scene. The elder Lincoln, seeing his son’s grave condition, hauled the injured boy home and put him to bed where the young man remained prone and unconscious all night. Neighbors from the small, close knit community, including mill owner Noah Gordon, gathered at the Lincoln cabin believing Thomas Lincoln’s boy was close to death. The next morning one witness jumped from their seat, pointed and shouted, “Look he’s coming straight back from the dead!” Abraham was shaking and jerking from head to toe when he opened his eyes and finished his cadence from the day before by shouting “You old hussy”.
After the family relocated to Illinois, settling in Macon County, 10 miles west of Decatur, Abraham became increasingly distant from Thomas and those low days in Indiana. In 1831, as Thomas established a new homestead in Coles County, Illinois, Abraham left home for New Salem, where he lived for six years. Leaving his “Angel Mother”, his only sister, his only niece or nephew, and that ornery mule far behind him. But, according to most historians, that angry mule kick stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Edward J. Kempf, an accomplished neurologist and psychiatrist, theorized in his 1965 book, “Abraham Lincoln’s Philosophy of Common Sense”, that the incident caused cerebral damage and contributed to the “melancholy” Lincoln felt throughout his life. The book featured numerous “psychobiographies” of many great figures, including Lincoln. Kempf’s study brought unusual expertise to the subject and is among the best works of its genre. Kempf’s hypothesis was based on what generations of artists, sculptors and photographers already knew; that Abraham Lincoln’s face had a good side and a bad side.
Lincoln’s contemporaries noticed that at times his left eye drifted upward independently of his right eye, a condition doctors diagnosed as “strabismus” but more derisively known as “Lazy Eye”. The resulting affliction results in the eyes failure to properly align with each other when looking straight ahead, particularly when trying to focus on an object. As proof, experts point to the best surviving evidence; two life masks of Lincoln. One a beardless portrait made in April of 1860 and the other, a bearded image made in February of 1865. Laser scans of both masks reveal an unusual degree of facial asymmetry. In short, the left side of Lincoln’s face was much smaller than the right, resulting in the double diagnosis of “hemifacial microsomia” compounded by “strabismus”. The defects join a long list of posthumously diagnosed ailments including smallpox, heart disease, bi-polar disorder and depression that doctors claimed afflicted Lincoln.
Lincoln’s case can be identified by the bony ridge over his deep-set left eye, which was rounder and thinner than the right side. In life, Lincoln’s appearance was mocked by friend and foe alike. In 1862, author Nathaniel Hawthorne, a Lincoln admirer, noted the president’s “homely sagacity” and his “sallow, queer, sagacious visage.” A description considered so disrespectful and inflammatory that it was deleted by Hawthorne’s Atlantic Monthly magazine editor. The strongest evidence for the “case of Lincoln’s lopsided face” can be found in the iconic November 1863 Alexander Gardner photograph taken shortly before the Gettysburg Address.
According to a cadre of modern day medical historians, Gardner’s photo is worth a thousand words. Although modern neurologists admit that a positive diagnosis would require a complete examination of the living Lincoln, photographic evidence strongly supports their theory. The mule kick to the forehead undoubtedly fractured the skull at the point of impact, the size and depth of the depression attesting to the incident’s severity. In addition, the nerves behind the left eye were damaged by the violent snapping of the head and neck backward. That whiplash also caused several small hemorrhages in the brainstem resulting in the permanent ocular and facial effects and was likely responsible for Lincoln’s high pitched, rasping voice.
Other symptoms included Lincoln’s tendency to lapse into a lower conscious state of mental detachment, occasional bouts of sadness and melancholy, accentuated by a near constant gloomy facial expression. These symptoms were described by contemporaries and friends as “ugly and stupid looking”, “dull,” “sad and abstract,” “detached” and “withdrawn.” In those rare moments of joy, humor and happiness, Lincoln’s facial expression turned on a dime from dull indifference to animated interest and boisterous laughter, which doctors point to as a further sign of brain injury.
Yet another after effect of that boyhood mulekick was noticed by Josiah Crawford, a neighbor from Gentryville, Ind. who employed the boy Lincoln, loaned him books for study. Gentry liked to playfully needle the young railsplitter about the way he “stuck out” his lower lip while in deep concentration. When 35-year-old Lincoln returned to to make a speech in southern Indiana in 1844 for Henry Clay, Crawford noticed Abe’s lower lip still protruded abnormally. When Crawford asked what books he consulted before making the speech, Lincoln replied humorously, “I haven’t any. Sticking out my lip is all I need.”
The study of Lincoln’s alleged malady through photos began when many who knew the martyred President were still alive. In 1914, Dr. S. Mitchell found “evidence of left hyperphoria” and suggested that “the corrugations of his brow and crow’s feet at each corner of the eyes showed that he habitually used auxiliary facial muscles to support the external muscles of the eyes in the work for visual coordination.” In 1932, ophthalmologist Dr. W. H. Crisp observed that “Fullface photographs show an upward deviation of the left eye, great enough to produce a lack of fusion of its images with the right eye. The two eyes did not work together, possibly as a result of a vertical strabismus of the left.” And in 1948, Dr. K. C. Wold suggested that the “diplopia was caused by a decoordination of the external muscles of the left eye which was inherently connected in some way with the other facial asymmetries. No physician of record, in so far as I know, has offered an explanation of the nervous origin and nature of the asymmetrical functioning of the left facial and ocular muscles, although some of the nervous effects of eyestrain have been discussed.”
Perhaps due to that mule kick, Lincoln’s adult years were filled with nervous attacks, characterized by eyestrain and headache with nausea and indigestion, so severe that often he became unable to work and had to lie down with a cold compress over his eyes. He had couches in his law office, at home, and in the White House, for this purpose. Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum unknowingly described the disparity of Lincoln’s face for posterity. Before creating the great marble head of Lincoln in the Capitol rotunda at Washington (and also located at the entrance to the tomb in Springfield) Borglum made meticulous comparative measurements of all known photographs, life paintings and masks of Lincoln before attempting his sculpture.
The Danish-American Borglum later gave careful interpretations of the relative meanings of the right and left sides of his face as indicated by its lines and measurements detailing that he saw greater strength of function on the right side rather than the left. The sculptor determined that the lines around the right eye revealed that it was more active, more dominant, and that Lincoln “naturally thought and planned with the visualized imagery of this eye.” The lines around Lincoln’s mouth on the right side indicated that “he smiled very, very often when his nature took no part in it.”
Borglum also noticed that the tip of Lincoln’s nose pointed slightly to the right and the left eye was “wide open” and out of focus, “indecisive,” “noncommittal and dreamy.” The left side of the face seemed “primitive,” “immature” and “unfinished.” Its weak expression was “sad and undetermined” in contrast to the determined strength of the right side. The left brow was “anxious, ever slightly elevated and concerned.” Written on his face was “humor, pathos, half-smile, half-sadness; half-anger, half-forgiveness, half-determination, half-pause; …. a dual Nature struggling with a dual problem delivering a single result.” Borglum’s description of Lincoln’s face is most noteworthy because he made no attempt to find a medical determination to explain why the left side was characterless, weak and undeveloped and the right side expressed the real personality and state of mind of Lincoln.
One final symptom of that childhood mule kick was noted by many biographers and contemporaries (like Ward Lamon and Noah Brooks) over the years. Mr. Lincoln spoke often of several impressive mystifying episodes he experienced as “double visions” that all had superstitious meanings for him. These dreamstate visions were welcomed by the President, who believed them to be good luck omens foretelling good news. That is all but his last vision that foretold of a death in the White House; the death of the President by an assassin’s bullet. A bullet that came to rest behind Abraham Lincoln’s left eye. The very same eye which that errant mule kick at an Indiana gristmill cast toward the heavens nearly fifty years before.