The Home Front: 1861 to 1865

Fathers and Sons: Oliver Wendell Holmes

What would the phrenologists have said about Lincoln?

To the best of our knowledge, the president did not ever subject himself to a phrenological exam. Had he done so, chances are the reader would have marveled that someone with such thick bones—and consequent thickheadedness—was able to survive, much less become the chief executive of his nation. We do know that person after person—educated ones most especially—were repulsed when they first gazed on Lincoln, describing him as ugly and ill-shaped. But Lincoln was a child of his times in some respects. He was not immune from the kind of magical thinking that was prevalent at the time, and in April 1863 he consented to a séance, held at the White House.

Knowing Lincoln as we do, knowing the rigorously logical person he was, this seems incredible. Very likely, he allowed the séance because of Mary Todd, who wished to make contact with their beloved son Willie, who died in February 1862. If so, the first lady was disappointed because the medium’s messages were nearly all about the war and the conduct of the Union armies. News of the séance leaked out, leading many people in the capital to hold an even lower opinion of the first lady.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Civil War Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App